Friday, November 12, 2010

Haute Tension (2003)

For me, the New Wave of French horror began with a still from Haute Tension taken from the program of the 2004 Fantasia film festival. A square photo featuring gorgeous Cécile de France in a particularly fetching, tight white shirt that prominently features her apparently perfect breasts. Large streaks of blood stain her entire left side, including her slender arm. Her face is gashed and bleeding. But most importantly, she is wielding a very large circular saw. The weapon is huge against her small frame and it appears all the more deadly. In my copy of the program, I have circled it with a pen, and particularly the blade, which has a thick blue ring around it. Paler strands of blue are etched up to Cécile's belly. There is even a big blue arrow pointing at the blade. I have also underlined part of a quote from the TIFF's program. It simply reads: "one of the most brutal horror films of the new century" (C. Geddes). As you can see, my original enthusiasm for the film came only from a cropped photo and a bit of text... both of which explicitely held the promise of brutality. What I truly wanted to see was Cécile chopping people up with a large circular saw. I didn't care whether she played a good or bad character. I just wanted what the French are now so consistently offering us: girls and gore. Drop-dead gorgeous girls and nasty, brutal gore, which is what all contemporary pop horror should be about. Think about it for a second: why do people watch horror films? Don't kid yourself. They watch horror films for girls and gore. So why not give it to them? Personally, I was amazed with Neil Marshall's The Descent (2005) and I loved the fact that it featured an all-female cast. Call me what you will, a misogynist who enjoys seeing women suffer or whatnot, and you will be wrong. I'm just a guy. I like to see athletic actresses in wet spelunking outfits. Is that so hard to understand? Eros and Thanatos must walk hand in hand in order to create a truly affective horror film. And that's precisely why the French are now world leaders when it comes to horror cinema. Period.

Just my kind of girl

Embraced by gorehounds and film critics alike, Haute Tension constituted a breakthrough for director Alexandre Aja, who was soon approached, then absorbed by Hollywood where he shot two remakes (The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha) as well as a lame Kiefer Sutherland vehicle (Mirrors). Despite the appreciable input by returning collaborators Grégory Levasseur and Baxter who made the trip across the pond with him, Aja failed to recapture the brilliance of Haute Tension, although he came closest with his latest film, Piranha, which featured the single greatest 3D sequence in all of film history. I'm talking of course about the naked underwater ballet featuring Kelly Brook and Riley Steele. Even then, with those two flawless bodies hovering erotically in weightlessness, he didn't come close to the unbridled sensuality of Haute Tension. Not to mention the near flawlessness and relevance of its screenplay. Truly, Aja's is a case where a director will forever chase his initial masterpiece, one that will forever elude his grasp, especially if since he is now contrived by the huge Hollywoodian system and its network of censoring agents and prude lobbyists. As things stand, we will simply wish that he keeps turning out grandiose, over-the-top gore films such as Piranha while keeping a copy of Haute Tension (known elsewhere in the world under the vastly superior title Switchblade Romance) on all of our shelves for further reference. Sorry Alex, but it seems like the weight of the world has gotten to you too.

Haute Tension focuses mainly on the relationship and sexual tension between two French college girls, Marie and Alex. They are the best of friends, but unbeknownst to Alex, Marie is also in love with her. When the pair hits the country for a weekend of quiet study at Alex's family cottage, they are soon disturbed by a particularly brutal killer (played to perfection by legendary Philippe Nahon) who slaughters the family and kidnaps Alex. As the knight-in-shining-armor that she wishes to be, Marie chases the killer in order to save her princess. That's the basic storyline. Lean and mean stuff, my friends, lean and mean stuff containing nothing in the way of convoluted explanations or counter-productive plot twists. Of course, from where you stand, that is if you haven't already seen the film, it probably sounds corny and done to death. But that's precisely how it gets you: by laying out a very conventional framework and making you question its relevance, not only in regards to genre, but most importantly, in regards to gender. That said, setting up both a female heroine and a female victim is not an innocent move. Not innocent at all. Especially since there is a romance involved, and a very complex one at that. Not only is this a treat for the audience (not having to suffer dumb, brawny guys), but it also constitutes a welcome break from some of the most enduring horror movie conventions, namely those that tend to promote rigid gender roles and archetypical characters such as the damsel in distress or sacrificial woman. It further transforms the archetype of the virginal heroine into something tremendously more ambiguous and interesting. And there is much more gender confusion along the way that I will not spoil but which will undoubtedly complicate any psychoanalytical reading of the film. While challenging horror movie conventions, this gender confusion seems to act also as a radar scrambler for pissed-off feminists, some of whom seem to enjoy female victimization as it helps validate their rigid theories. All this makes the film a true gem for horror film analysts, which is probably why I get such a kick out of it. And which is probably why I grant it such a high rating. Both the film critic and the horror fan in me have a huge boner for this film. And I do not use the term lightly.
Psychoanalytical perdition: Cécile de France reaching
for an outstretched phallus

The play on gender conventions is the film's greatest asset. This includes all nullifying effects that its central gender confusion has on the attempts to make psychoanalytical readings of the film (as well as on the shameful tagging of phallic/non-phallic weapons). But there is also a major point to be made for the near perfection of the screenplay and devilishly competent direction that allows the filmmakers to craft a work of rare concision. Clocking in at a lean 91 minutes, Haute Tension is extremely dense and wholly relevant. Just like Cécile's luscious body, it contains not one ounce of fat. The are some mild narrative inconsistencies here and there, but these are necessary to keep the spectators guessing. Other than that, the screenplay is flawless. Just consider the post-credit sequence as a case-example. Within a couple of minutes, it manages to set up an extremely complex and brilliantly exposed relationship of attraction/repulsion between the two main characters. In that regards, the car is a perfect stage for this opening sequence as it provides not only a valid narrative starting point (since the girls are on their way from the city to the country), but also a plethora of potential camera positions allowing many degrees of separation between the two women. The small bit of exposition we experience during their short ride, although it might appear as a mere exchange of platitudes, is actually very telling as it ties the opening 'dream' sequence to the narrative and, through a savvy use of framing (and over-framing), describes with utmost sensibility the high-strung emotional nature of those two characters' relationship. In the end, you need not look much further for character development as it is all here, and all done cinematographically, not theatrically. The fact is that there is actually very little screen time in the film dedicated to character development, but that screen time is used with such intelligence that it easily propels the film to where it needs to be in the budding moments of the main drama, while avoiding the need for traditional expository devices (there is usually at least half a dozen minutes in every horror film that's wasted early on for clumsy expository dialogue). Add to that a pivotal scene of nudity, and one of masturbation (both featuring bits of superb female bodies) and you've got all the exposition you need. And we immediately move on to the massacre!

Alex is sleeping and Marie is wiggling her slender fingers underneath her jeans when mysterious headlights appear on the horizon. A dirty brown truck pulls up to the cottage and a creepy blue collar guy disembarks. And when I say 'blue collar', I mean the most disgusting, most extreme incarnation of them. You don't need to look twice to figure out that he's the killer, and you don't have to wait long for confirmation either. Now, I won't fully disclose what happens in the cottage, but I will tell you this: the first two executions are amongst the most surprisingly original and satisfying in recent years. They were a huge hit at Fantasia, where I saw the film the first two times. People were screaming and clapping like crazy. Personally, I had my mind blown. And there wasn't anyone with whom I saw the film later on who didn't make some sort of gasping noise upon seeing those delicious atrocities. And thus we are introduced to the killer, a disgusting, dirty man who destroys Alex's whole family in the most brutal way possible, then kidnaps the pretty young woman. This man is truly a virile mammoth who dwarfs heroine Marie by making her appear frail and fragile in comparison. He's an overwhelming yang to her puny yin. And Nahon makes a damn good job of bringing him to life, grinning nastily to reveal dirty teeth and talking in a husky and self-assured voice that greatly contrasts with Marie's. His fat, red cheeks, his hairy hands, dirty nails and greasy clothes, everything about him reeks of unbridled masculinity whereas Marie is purely feminine. The only area in which she has the upper hand is in the size of their respective weapons: whereas the killer carries only a tiny switch-blade, Marie wields a butcher's knife. Again, this situation would indicate that everything is in its right, but it is actually not since the rigid gender gap between heroine and villain will come to be totally redefined during the course of the film. Suffice it to say that Marie uses this confrontation to gain some confidence in herself and reassert her own identity. This leads to a very, very brutal and visceral confrontation between herself and Alex's captor, both of whom share one thing: sexual desire for the poor, victimized girl. But both of whom are exact opposites: disgusting and brutal man-beast vs clean and virginal girl. In the end however, you will find that they both bleed the same red blood... and they bleed it in pints!

Talk about a beastly motherfucker (Philippe Nahon as le tueur)

Now I'd like to add a few words about the soundtrack. Although it might appear bare at first, it actually plays a crucial part in setting up the story and exposing the characters' motivations. The use of Didier Barbelivien's atrocious ballad, À toutes les filles (que j'ai aimées avant) [literal translation: To All the Girls (That I Have Loved Before)] as the killer's theme song is nothing short of brilliant as it sets him up to be no more than a retarded teenager in the body of a hulk. It makes him that much more unpredictable and cruel, while suggesting a very long career of female abduction. More brilliant even is the choice of Runaway Girl by U-Roy as the song Marie listens to while masturbating. At once, it summarizes the protagonist's angst and foreshadows her transformation into the knight-in-shining armor. Again, if we consider the soundtrack as another cornerstone of narrative construction, we can see how concise the film really is, using every bit of space available to insert material relevant to the plot. And remember, most of this narrative construction is done in a purely cinematographic fashion (using framing, editing, sound...), and not in the traditional theatrical fashion (using only dialogue). Truly, here is a rare achievement in recent horror film history.

Although I would love to write a lengthier (and meatier) article about this awesome film, I couldn't do so without spoiling it for the viewer. Moreover, I could start boring my readers at with this overwhelming passion of mine. I will thus simply recommend you see Haute Tension right away. And although some of the finer French expressions might be lost in the translation, you should nonetheless be able to appreciate the technical flawlessness of this film as well as its outstanding brutality. For any gorehound out there, it comes highly recommend without any after-thought. For those of you whom I have not yet convinced, I suggest you watch the film two times. It's short and there's bound to be many things you can appreciate in there, if only the naked body of Maïwenn LeBesco. In my book, Haute Tension easily earns a top 5 spot in the Best Horror Films of the 00s, coming just short of Tomas Alfredson's sublime adaptation of John Lindqvist's novel, Let the Right One In (2008).

4/5 A perfectly crafted horror film that's simple and effective, with plenty of gore and gender confusion. A treat to both the film analyst and the casual horror fan.