Haute Tension (High Tension or Switchblade Romance)
Director: Alexandre Aja
Many slasher films, in their lovable eagerness to make us squirm, forget that human bones are as strong as cement blocks. It takes a lot of force and velocity to smash one to smithereens. Filmmaker Alexandre Aja and his team of sound mixers/re-recorders want us to feel queasy too but their love for gore aficionados is rooted in a fierce commitment to realism. For every skull that is crushed, every neck that is broken and each time a part of the human body snaps, cracks and pops out, it is accompanied by a visceral sound effect that hands out front-row seats to our earlobes. The home invasion sequence that introduces us to the antagonist, in particular, is the absolute best. It’s the top of the pops, especially abusive, alcoholic and couch-potato pops. It has a three-second scene with a curb stomp that sounds like the cruelest act in the world. The credit also goes to Philippe Nahon, a gentleman that graces the screen with the ease of a slap on the wrist yet bearing the complexities of a well-timed kidney punch.
He isn’t an actor playing a psychopathic brute. He is the psychopathic brute. It’s a rare quality that some actors bring to the table. Nahon is fearsome and brilliant as a truck driver moonlighting as a cold-hearted serial killer like how Prathap Pothen was in Moodu Pani as Chandru, the greatest and most believable psycho-sexual in the history of Indian cinema. Or the antisocial theatre director he plays in Varumayin Niram Sivappu. We root for them even though they are villains because they bring us to the core of their torment. They entice us with breadcrumbs of morbid curiosity and sucker us into sinking our teeth in the crust of their unbridled despair. We don’t want townspeople with pitchforks to chase them out of our lives and TV screens. We want closure for their characters in the form of time machines, which they can use to travel back in time and right all the wrongs that eventually turned them into monsters. We want what’s best for them, even the ones with no redemptive qualities whatsoever. Acting is about perseverance as much as it is about talent.
In Haute Tension, the antagonist is on the prowl in an idyllic countryside, preying on men, women, children and pets. During one of his nights of murder and mayhem, he invades a home that houses two women on vacation – Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (Maïwenn Besco). They make good protagonists because we can emotionally invest in them without a fuss. They aren’t loud teenagers who crush Budweiser cans on their foreheads or racist/sexist suburban characters who abandon their colored friends at the first hint of a health-related crisis. They are independent women whose sexual identities have crafted their behavioral patterns; strong-willed and able-bodied ladies unwilling to wallow in victim-hood. They aren’t women who fell out of fairy tales. They want more from life than just to have good skin, wear pretty clothes and meet a handsome and strong man from a wealthy family. Cinderella resorted to black magic to find her prince charming. Snow White needed a visiting prince to wake her up from a curse. Rapunzel waited in despair until she was rescued by prince too. Even in Rumpelstiltskin, the miller’s daughter sheepishly accepted her position as the wife of a king who had enslaved her out of his greed for gold. Marie and Alex take matters into their own hands and try to claw their way out of the situation with scorned fury yet with great concern for each other and not just because “blue is the warmest color”.
A huge chunk of the film comprise the cat-and-mouse games that they play with the truck driver, who keeps reaffirming our faith and undying love for him by constantly foiling their plans with utter contempt. It’s heart-warming because he must have seen his previous victims try this a million times and it just makes sense that he would see through their fear-induced reactions that turn into courageous actions.
The other actors and actresses do little but stand and look very afraid. But Andrei Finti is astounding as Alex’s dad, a hapless victim of the vicious curb stomp. He fills his performance with unassuming theatrical gestures and film-noir moments that make sense and look fantastic. His suspicions of his daughter’s sexual orientation and his majestic sauntering down the stairs despite being scared stiff are moments that showcase the man’s commitment to his role. Oana Pellea, the mother, is not as memorable but her reaction to the sudden amputation of her right arm is a thing of beauty. She responds to it like how Bruce Lee sometimes did while standing over his unconscious opponents in movies such as Big Boss and Enter The Dragon. It is absolute fear that he showcases in those scenes, not vagrant machismo or spiritual contentment. Having already knocked them out, he had no reason to leap in the air like a maniac and stomp a hole in hos opponent’s chest or abdominal area. He did it because sometimes Bruce Lee can cross the line too. The legendary reaction that had him dolefully twitching like Woody Allen with princely hair is one that stemmed from his supreme fear that he may one day become the monster that he has fought all his life if he keeps stomping people in the chest like this.
The twist in the climax is mildly infuriating, but it is well framed, edited and acted out. It’s one of those deathbed moments when someone informs a dying man that he has always only been a figment of a butterfly’s imagination and that everything they have ever loved, owned or shared never really existed at all. He turns his head in slow-motion to his side and sees a butterfly, with translucent emerald wings and a spot of yellow on its antennas, basking in the sunlight by his window. He fondly recollects all the good times he has had and the people he has connected with. He sheds a tear and looks at the butterfly again, thinking “life’s been kinda cool but oh man oh man that’s a pretty butterfly… I mean, look at its purple wings and shiny antennas and and…”