Directed by Fabrice Du Welz, 2004
I’m at a loss for words when it comes to properly describing the Belgian gem of filmmaking that is The Ordeal. Though the term is so generic these days, the best way to put it is simply to call it ‘art house horror’. Welz’s film is a remarkably surreal experience to watch, with hypnotic cinematography, refrained yet surprisingly brisk pacing and truly phantasmagorical moments.
It begins with Marc, an amateur singer leaving to perform at a Christmas show somewhere in the ’south’. Naturally, his van breaks down in the middle of nowhere. While trying to sort out the situation, he comes across Boris, an out-of-his-head local who is wandering the pitch black forest (in the middle of a rain storm, no less) looking for his lost dog. Boris leads Marc to a nearby Inn where he can stay for the night. Bartel, the Inn’s lone owner, takes an immediate liking to Marc since he used to be something of an artist himself.
The first 30 minutes are structurally familiar to the genre as the man Marc is dependent upon goes through the motions of trying to contact a mechanic, but to no avail. Things take an abrupt left turn towards insanity when Marc happens upon a group of locals in a barn. Welz never lets you get a good enough look at what exactly is happening, but suffice to say the locals are intimately breaking the species boundary. And so Marc’s unfortunate descent into the ordeal begins.
Everything is as the viewer suspected. Bartel never called the mechanic. After a psychological break, Bartel is convinced that Marc is really his wife who abandoned him years earlier. He knocks him out, puts him in a dress, partially shaves his head and goes about his life like nothing is out of the ordinary. And that, my friends, is only a sampling of the truly bizarre events that are about to unfold.
I’m not going to call The Ordeal a masterpiece, but it is a tremendous piece of filmmaking. It is visionary. The visuals are rich and inspired, while the sound design is wholly unsettling (the squeals of swine and men become almost indecipherable by its closure). It’s the kind of film where, whether or not you actually are enjoying the style, you just know it is exactly what the director wanted. Regardless of how out of place some scenes may appear – and there is an hilariously awkward scene in which a tavern full of grungy men dance together to a hectic piece of piano music – it still all works. All of the constantly spinning gears of this ethereal machine interlock seamlessly. The end of the film is so surreal that for the last 25 minutes or so I was sitting upright with a degree of perfect posture I didn’t know I was capable of. I was devouring all of its brazen style and oddball tactics with a frenzy. I can get into movies, but it is rare that they command my attention as deftly as Welz did with the end of The Ordeal.
Saying that this film isn’t your typical horror movie or that it isn’t for everyone is a cruel understatement. It isn’t psychological horror in the same sense as something like The Dark Hours. This movie is psychologically damaging, for both its unfortunate victim and the viewer (is there a difference?). It’s a truly unique experience that would be more at home if it were being projected onto the wall of the Hirschhorn than on your local Indie theater’s screen.