starring Eline Schumacher, Wim Willaert, Benjamin Ramon, Pierre Nisse
written and directed by Karim Ouelhaj
by Walter Chaw Belgian filmmaker Karim Ouelhaj's Megalomaniac joins Danish filmmaker Christian Taldrup's Speak No Evil as fresh additions to what feels like a new iteration of the "French New Extremity" subgenre coined by ARTFORUM's James Quandt, which flowered briefly at the turn of the 21st century. Films of the loosely-defined movement dealt with the ugliest parts of France's social history, treating atrocities long thought better hidden with a frankness as unusual as the explicitness of the images. I love many of these films--Pascal Laugier's Martyrs and Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, in fact, rank high among my all-time favourites, even though I almost never recommend them in polite company. Their violence is extreme and intimate. In place of catharsis, find only despair and self-loathing. I have felt this existential howl watching certain films of Bergman's--Tobe Hooper's, too. But I would say the French New Extremity caught the attention of the mainstream for the craft of its presentation and the care and intelligence with which the characters made to suffer were drawn. They're difficult to dismiss as exploitation or "foreign" in a pejorative sense. They're gruelling but artistically rigorous, making them difficult to diminish. I think of many of the genre pictures of South Korea like this, too: devastation exploitation flicks made by Steven Spielberg. And though credit is due the birthplace of the Marquis de Sade and Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol for finding another meat-spigot to turn at the dawn of our last fin de siècle, works by Lars von Trier (The House That Jack Built certainly and even Antichrist) and Fatih Akin's The Golden Glove suggest whatever was in the water is spreading.
In Megalomaniac, the children of the real-life Butcher of Mons (a never-caught serial killer operating in Belgium for 18 months between January of 1996 and July of 1997) live together in suffocating codependency in a crumbling, gothic manor in the middle of nowhere. Felix (Benjamin Ramon), made up like Marilyn Manson, carries on the family tradition by brutally murdering women, dismembering them, and leaving their parts in garbage bags in plain sight for the authorities to discover. Martha (Eline Schumacher), on the other hand, is a janitor at an assembly plant who attracts the attention of the slack-jawed Morlocks who work there and becomes the victim of nightly gang-rapes, resulting, ultimately, in her impregnation. Her relationship with her brother is fraught as well, plagued by Martha's fantasies of incestual congress and Felix's overbearing-unto-abusive control of everything from her eating to her grooming to her work habits. It's attention she both bristles against and welcomes. It's complicated, Megalomaniac suggests--but perhaps no more so than any family relationship that grows strange through too much familiarity. One day, Martha tells Felix she's lonesome, and Felix, being the complex brother/confessor/secret-sharer he is, brings her home something to play with.
This positioning of Martha as both victim and monster is fascinating and puts her on the same ideological tightrope as Cate Blanchett's Lydia Tăr from Todd Field's indisputably different-feeling horror film, Tăr. There is no question Martha is at the mercy of her rapists at work, the boss who turns a blind eye, and her brother, who sees his carrying on of the patrilineal tradition as more important than Martha's desire to maybe stay home and away from her torment. It's interesting how the thought of quitting never crosses her mind, nor of telling her brother about what's been happening to her despite evidence of it becoming impossible to hide over time. What I love is that of all the fascinating places Megalomaniac goes, it's about a culture of silence that allows abuse to continue. Offering up a fantasy of the murderous offspring of a never-identified killer amplifies the relative lack of accountability for the men responsible for violence against women. Essentially a film about propagation, Megalomaniac also feels like a metaphor for a virus left uncontained and allowed to mutate and proliferate unchecked. Explanation in part, perhaps, for why Ouelhaj shoots the film's two birth scenes like torture porn: the introduction of new contagion into the world as the bad kind of miracle.
The film itself finds parentage in Francis Bacon and Søren Kierkegaard: it's a piece that invites sociopolitical and spiritual introspection, despair and nihilism. Much of it proceeds as a nightmare, hallucinogenic and surreal. As Martha's sanity continues to fray, a scene midway through the picture finds her lurking on a landing, peeping at her brother talking with someone before Ouelhaj reveals it's Martha he's been talking to all along. Other sequences show the siblings' lost/lamented father the Butcher, floating like a holy visitation above a filthy alley where Felix stalks his prey. Much of Megalomaniac is gorgeous, lush; François Schmitt's cinematography seems inspired by Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes, particularly his studies of cemetery gates. In part, it's what makes the unflinching brutality of the violence so harrowing. The rending of flesh, the expressions of agony--it's all a little too real. Ouelhaj and Schmitt have a way of fixating on the moment of revulsion. I had a tough time. It's fair to ask if the journey is worth the wisdom, and that's not for me to say--but I will offer that it's a tremendously good film in a technical sense; that Eline Schumacher has a desperate, Elisabeth Moss quality about her and is never less than mesmerizing to watch; and that I'm not sure it's ethical anymore to deal with issues like rape and murder without being repugnant and dispiriting. Megalomaniac takes suffering seriously. I'm close to talking myself into watching it again.