Marc (Laurent Lucas, THE PORNOGRAPHER; IN MY SKIN) earns his living as a cringe-inducing cabaret singer, doing the rounds in small clubs throughout backwoods France.
After wowing the middle-aged audience of a local village club, Marc is accosted in his dressing room by an old lady who mistakenly thought he was eyeing her up during his set. She implies that she is dying and asks him to sleep with her as a favour. Mark makes no effort to hide his repulsion and offers no comfort as the woman breaks down weeping before him.
The following morning Marc prepares to leave his lodgings for a Christmas party that he hopes will be attended by TV producers he wants to woo. He is seen off by a teary Vicky (the inimitable Brigitte Lahaie, FASCINATION; FACELESS etc), who begs a hug from him. Reluctantly he agrees, then hurriedly makes tracks in his chugging van.
These early scenes establish Marc as cold, vain and arrogant. Just the type of person you want to see bad things happen to ...
Before long, Marc's journey is curtailed as he breaks down in fog, on a beaten track in the middle of nowhere. He is alarmed by the crazed Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard, MAINTENANT), an oddball out in the rain searching for his dog.
Boris tells Marc to leave his van and leads him on foot to the local inn. It's owner, Mr Bartel (Jackie Berroyer, WHEN THE SEA RISES), is disgruntled by his guest's late arrival and marches him grumpily to his room.
The next day Bartel tows Marc's van to the inn and offers to try and fix it. Marc is anxious to get a move on but resigns himself to stay another night when Bartel's attempt to telephone the nearest mechanic fail.
Planning a walk through the surrounding woods to pass his afternoon, Marc is warned by Bartel to stay away from the nearby villagers. They, he warns him, are "not like us".
But before long Marc's stroll leads him to a barn in the middle of the woods, where he spies several villagers having their wicked way with a pig!
Understandably upset by what he's witnessed, Marc races back to the inn in a bid to leave - but is persuade to stay for dinner with Bartel.
But dinner turns into the first of many increasingly uncomfortable tribulations for Marc as we discover just why Bartel is so keen to keep him in his company ...
What starts off as quite a restrained and atmospheric black comedy of quirks turns into a full-on weird-fest in the second half. Without giving too much away, we get a gumbo mix of karaoke, the wonderful Philipe Nahon (I STAND ALONE; SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE), gay rape, mistaken identity, a bizarre penguin-style dance and much more.
Thematically, it's easy to review THE ORDEAL. Everyone else has already drawn comparisons to the likes of THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, DELIVERANCE, STRAW DOGS and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Add to that mix the likes of SOUTHERN COMFORT and MISERY, and the nail has been hit squarely on it's head.
Photographed by Benoit Debie (IRREVERSIBLE), THE ORDEAL looks gorgeous. Saturated colours give the film a dark, grey look - the woodlands are strikingly cold and forbidding as a result. It's a visually stunning, moody piece, very distinctive in it's appearance.
Performances are just shy of wacky, allowing the more surreal moments of humour to retain their dark underbelly and refrain from overt slapstick. Unusually for a European black comedy, the silliness is held under control and the joke is derived from frighteningly plausible (yet absurd) reactions to horrific situations.
Played straight, expertly edited and directed by the young Fabrice Du Welz with two fingers in the air towards modern horror movie conventions, THE ORDEAL scores highly in it's mugging of the genre. An added bonus is the fact that it's aesthetically scrumptious, making sublime use of the attractive Belgian countryside.
But beneath the veneer, the technical wizardry and oddly compelling craziness of each set-piece, THE ORDEAL never seems to add to the sum of it's parts. It's not as engaging as it should be. Perhaps this is because of Du Welz's conscious decision to make Bartel more sympathetic than Marc ... or perhaps the whole exercise feels a little to smug for it's own good.
Whatever the reason may be, I found THE ORDEAL enjoyable and well-made ... but ultimately unfulfilling and probably nowhere near as essential as it thinks it is.
The film is presented in it's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and looks fantastic in this anamorphic transfer. Debie's cinematography, being the highlight of the film and a character in itself, has been done proud by Tartan's sterling job.
Audio-wise, we get the original French 2.0 soundtrack with optional 5.1 and 5.1 DTS mixes. Both are, of course, flawless. Subtitles in English are removable, easily readable and free from errors.
The film can be accessed via 16 chapters.
Although the screener disc's cover makes mention of a Making-Of and a director's commentary track, neither were available to review. What we do get though are:
WONDERFUL LOVE. A 21-minute black comedy by Du Welz, about a lonely woman who hires a stripper for her birthday and ends up killing him ... then falling in love with his corpse. It's an enjoyable romp - funny, dark and occasionally gory. It's also worth noting that this features a brief shot of someone shooting his load over a woman's exposed genitalia ... which, however fleeting, has escaped the BBFC's watchdog eyes. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, with French 2.0 audio and removable English subtitles.
A 26-minute interview with Du Welz portrays him as a likeable chap with enthusiastic views on not only his film, but the movies that influenced it - LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE get special mentions. He speaks of how he wanted his film to be free from horror clichés (hence THE ORDEAL has a despicable "hero" and no music), and his respect for Gaspar Noe, rightly praising Noe's outstanding I STAND ALONE. The interview is conducted in English, which Du Welz speaks very well.
A trailer for THE ORDEAL, in non-anamorphic widescreen with forced English subtitles, completes the run of bonus features.
Derivative of many key films, yet capable of attaining it's own identity, THE ORDEAL definitely merits interest. Not as good as it should be considering it's ingredients (including Nahon and Lahaie in it's cast, but agreeable nevertheless. And further proof that Debie is one of the most gifted cinematographers working today.
Recommended for a rental, if not a buy.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Tartan|
|Region All - PAL|
|see main review|