This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Back in 2011, The Playlist ran a Halloween-inspired feature on must-see foreign language horror films. This writer fought hard for the inclusion of “Calvaire (The Ordeal)” from burgeoning Belgian genre filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz. The film achieved a very specific kind of notoriety in being lumped in with the New French Extremity, a term coined by Artforum critic James Quandt. He used the name as a pejorative to describe what appeared to be a new wave of highly transgressive works by French directors — Gaspar Noé, Alexandre Aja, and Catherine Breillat, to name only a few — starting in the late ’90s and bleeding profusely into the aughts. Despite not being French, Du Welz made the team, so to speak, and “Calvaire” officially put the then 31-year-old stalwart genre aficionado on the map for fans of a certain kind of upsetting and, well, extreme cinematic experience.
Yet time passed, as it does, and after his eventual 2008 follow-up, “Vinyan,” a riff on the 1976 Spanish cult film “Who Can Kill a Child” (also featured in that foreign language horror article), came and went with an understandable yet still unfair whimper of a U.S. release after a solid festival run, Du Welz remains an under appreciated talent. Even though he’s associated with New French Extremism, which many dismiss as ugly horror entries that up the gore factor to an astoundingly nightmarish degree (reaching its zenith with the simple and effective “Inside” and the complex, fascinating “Martyrs”), the writer/director seems more at home in the broader confines of modern exploitation, or what Manny Farber described as “termite art.” He could, based off the strength of the aforementioned films, and his latest effort, “Alleluia,” grow into a truly singular voice in pulp world cinema.
“Alleluia” sees Du Welz reunite with his “Calvaire” leading man Laurent Lucas for a much different role, and the change up is welcome, proving the French actor is a versatile thespian, just as confident playing the victim as he is the perpetrator. Together the films make up 2/3 of a planned Ardennes trilogy. Du Welz hopes to soon make the third film, again starring Lucas, sharing the same South Belgium location and the theme of “mad love,” as he puts it. He cites these works as very personal, but by all accounts that’s buried in the subtextual elements of each. We’ll put it this way: he’s not a director that’s best appreciated by surface level readings of his work.
“Alleluia” springs from the real-life account of infamous serial killer couple Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, often referred to as the Lonely Hearts Killers, who reportedly slayed as many as 20 women in the late 1940s. Their murderous misadventures were the inspiration for 1969’s “The Honeymoon Killers” (a favorite of Todd Solondz), “Deep Crimson” from 1996, and “Lonely Hearts” in 2006. Not having seen these previous adaptations, this writer feels safe in betting that “Alleluia,” like all of Du Welz’s films to date, carves out its own batshit path.
As in his first two films, “Alleluia” zeros in on lonely, sad, and desperate characters, some of whom are responsible for their own misfortune and others who pay the price for tagging along. Lucas is a suave con man who meets women online, satisfies their latent sexual desires, and then screws them (figuratively) out of cash once they’re hooked on his mojo, which the movie suggests stems from a bizarre ritual in which he burns their picture before the first date to put a spell on them. When he sets his plan on Gloria (played with crazy aplomb by Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas), a single parent who cleans bodies at the morgue, he’s unable to get away with his typical thievery and, taken aback by her already burning passion for him, misguidedly teams up with her, but soon finds himself playing second fiddle to a rampage beset by Gloria’s homicidal jealousy.
It’s something of a coincidental cousin to the wonderful, hilarious British dark comedy “Sightseers.” More accurately, “Alleluia” is a counterpart to this haunting sequence from that 2013 Ben Wheatley film, but stretched to 93-minutes, and with the shrill hysteria turned to 11. At times, this bold choice, in which most of the dialogue is pitched to the moon, and the camera work by Manuel Dacosse (“Amer,” “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears”) more often than not prefers aggressive close ups of the actors with a shaky cam aesthetic, would be easier to digest were it not shot in scope. The camera is restless, calming down on occasion to show an artfully composed, brutal murder. Some will find these tactics off-putting, but in fairness to Du Welz and his DP (Dacosse ably steps in for all-star Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie, who shot his first two films), it does effectively put the viewer into a very strange headspace, like a mushroom trip that starts out warm and giggly but quickly turns terrifying, the hallucinations seeming all too real, potent, and never ending.
It’s a film that’s endured more than enjoyed, even with Du Welz’s oily black sense of humor and his skill for skipping between genres. He somehow fuses a brief musical moment, which comes not just out of left field, but from a different sport altogether, during the gruesome beginning of a victim’s disposal. It’s shocking, hilarious, and nothing like it is done again in the film, but somehow it works. That is, if you get on the film’s very particular wavelength. But if you ask us, this is just the shot in the arm the insipid midnight movie crowd — these days still clinging to “The Room” and other so-bad-they’re-fun embarrassments — needs, but almost certainly doesn’t want.
“Alleluia” works best late at night, where the spindly tendrils of its bizarro narrative can seep into a less lucid, exhausted brain, one that’s far more susceptible to its (anti) charms. The jury at this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin should be commended for giving multiple awards to such a challenging piece of work, one that does deserve to be given a shot by adventurous genre film fans. Fabrice Du Welz’s films are ones you cautiously recommend to open-minded folks who prefer to see something different at the movies. This latest, which like his previous two (note: hopefully we get a chance to see his other 2014 film, “Colt 45,” a noirish cop thriller released in France this past August and recently screened at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival), is unafraid to examine disturbed characters who do terrible things to innocents. They’re not so much stuck in a rut, but unable to move past a deeply unhealthy, often one-sided obsession, one that only tightens its grip as the story develops, and rarely alleviates that tension for the audience. Mad love will do that you. [B+]