It was a little over a year ago that, in my DVD review of The Nest, I issued dubious praise to the French for being able to concoct a film in an intrinsically debased, intrinsically American genre (in that case the mindless action shoot-‘em-up) that was the esthetic equal of American entries in the genre, so it’s a strange feeling to be damning now with such faint praise yet another French film. High Tension is proof that not every French director is some high-falutin’ artiste like a Renoir or a Godard. It is as tacky and hacky and dispiritingly cheap in the means of its manipulation as any American slasher film I’ve seen.
Though it may keep me from ever earning any true cineaste credentials, I have to admit it’s a genre for which I have some affection. My mother, no great maven of filmic good taste or parental restraint, raised me on a steady diet of Jason, Freddy, and Jamie Lee Curtis vehicles; one of my earliest filmgoing memories is of seeing Pranks (aka The Dorm That Dripped Blood) in a theater in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was about five. My mother covered my eyes when there were titties on screen, but for the gore I was on my own. Thus I have a tremendous tolerance for violent dismemberment and evisceration — I’m the guy whose friends grab him for support when the onscreen gore gets to be too much — yet there are scenes in High Tension that are so graphic and awful that I was forced to close my eyes or at least squint the images into smudges. I have as much contempt for the ratings of the MPAA as anyone who loves film, but walking out of the theater after High Tension, I though to myself that if any movie ever needed an NC-17, this is it.
The story, if that’s what it is, is your basic isolated-in-the-middle-of-nowhere hack-‘em-up. Two cute girls — Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn) — are going to visit the home of Alex’s parents in southern France. Shortly after they settle in, a fat, grizzled, middle-aged man in a service truck (a plumber’s van, I think — my French is rusty and it’s hard to get a good look at the writing on the side) shows up and begins cutting them into stew meat. He dispatches Alex’s parents and little brother fairly quickly (yes, there’s an adorable five-year-old in a cowboy get-up to kill, a sure sign of artistic integrity) and kidnaps Alex to do naughty things with. He didn’t know that Marie would be there, though, and some very careful covering of her tracks allows her to elude him. Marie, too, it’s implied, would like to do some naughty things with Alex, and she does what she can to try and rescue her friend/crush. There are about 73 near-misses when the homicidal maniac almost catches her, but like any good dyke with a yen for a straight girl, she soldiers on.
Now I’m going to get all spoiler on your ass, so skip the next part if you’re sick enough to want to see this trash.
After we’ve just about messed our pants 10 or 20 times, it finally becomes clear that the nasty old man doesn’t exist — he’s a projection of Marie’s troubled, lesbo psyche. Really, she’s the one who wants in Alex’s knickers, and she’s subconsciously concocted all this nonsense to — to what? To sublimate her desire for vagina? To persuade herself that she’s not so gaga over her buddy that she’d slaughter a family to get to the poon? Jesus, I’m fucked if I know. There’s no attempt to make any sense of this bullshit. We see the nasty guy skullfucking a decapitated head before he ever gets anywhere near the family’s house, which certainly suggests some kind of independent existence outside Marie’s head, and he shifts around a massive piece of furniture in order to decapitate Alex’s father while we see Marie struggling helplessly with a similarly huge wardrobe that she can barely budge. Then there’s the scene where she’s hiding while he talks to a gas station attendant named Jimmy. He sends Jimmy to get some whiskey and then sneaks up from behind and plants an axe in his sternum. But when the local gendarmes watch the security video, it’s Marie coming from her hiding place with the axe — so who the hell sent him to the liquor case? Can Marie be in two places at once, or maybe astrally project an image of this guy? If not, what was Jimmy actually doing all the time that he was supposed to be talking to the bad man? None of it makes a whit of sense, but it is some seriously lesbian- and woman-hating bullshit that anyone with an ounce of decency ought to walk out of and demand their money back.
The really dispiriting thing about it all is that Cecile De France is a seriously cute and charming young woman, with a little Peter Pan haircut and a slightly butch worked-out body — the gamine as superhero. She comes off initially as the Sigourney Weaver of the piece, a sexy but still moderately feminist action heroine, so when she’s reduced to the level of crazed stalker it’s a real letdown.
How sick am I of the villain who turns out to exist only in the protagonist’s head? How many more Secret Windows and Hide and Seeks do I have to sit through before I can escape this terrible sub-genre that always disintegrates into unmitigated crap when the “twist” is revealed? Is there anyone in any conceivable audience who gets all impressed and says, “Ooh, they really pulled the wool over my eyes that time!” when they see this exhausted trope dragged out again? I could cry.
Those with sharp eyes may notice that the American distributors of High Tension have been doing some advertising on Pajiba — God bless ‘em — which could indicate a conflict of interest on my part. To anyone with suspicions, I say simply: If you think I’m pulling punches because of that, imagine what I might have said otherwise.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()