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Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance) Alexandre Aja 2003

Men, Women, and Parlor Tricks

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. And sometimes it just doesn't make sense.

A bloody and occasionally thrilling horror pic (the promo materials called it "nouveau, slasher-style", whatever the hell that means), Haute Tension is a French take (again, whatever the hell that means) on the heavily-coded slasher genre, in which men and women battle with sharp implements for gender supremacy. It's an extremely well-established template: a man stalks a group of people, killing all but one survivor female (some call her the Final Girl), and she is forced to mess her hair up and break some nails putting the phallic baddie down. Gender roles are reversed, the girl stands victorious, and ample room is left for a sequel.

Haute Tension seems to take pride in its head-on charge into the messy gender conflict of the slasher film, but I am sad to say that it fails completely. Collapsing under the weight of its own cleverness, the filmmakers have opted for manipulative sleights-of-hand over actual truths and, after having painted themselves into a bloodstained and well-lit corner, end up having to walk over their handiwork with dirty shoes, effectively ruining all the work they've done. The result is enormously disappointing, and unfortunate -- stringing an audience along for 90 minutes and not having anything to show for it at the end isn't exactly the best way to make friends, and a good way to turn people off from your film. And considering that I was very prepared to like this film, that they were able to piss me off is pretty admirable.

It's nearly impossible to discuss the film without giving away its "twist" ending. So if you don't want to know what happens at the end, don't read past this paragraph. I'd argue that going into the film knowing the twist from the start is a good thing in this situation, because you'll avoid feeling like you've lost to a 3-card monte dealer when the twist is revealed. But I'll say this: if you're going to work within a genre based in logic, your story must support itself, even only if according to an internal logic established by the film. To operate within a cause-effect structure and then abandon all logic to favor a cheap trick ending is irresponsible filmmaking. Consistency is the very least we should be able to expect.

Now stop reading.

So here's the deal: Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) and Marie (the incredibly hot Cecile de France) are going to Alex's parents house in the country for a break. The evening that they arrive, as Marie (who is obviously a lesbian infatuated with Alex) diddles her Skittle in the upstairs bedroom, a man in a Jeepers Creepers pickup truck shows up and fucks up the entire family, including knocking dad's head off with a dresser, slashing mom to ribbons with a straightrazor, and shooting baby brother with a shotgun in the cornfield. Think Funny Games, only without any sense of moral responsibility.

Alex is perhaps raped by the man (we are thankfully not shown) as Marie paces around, trying to decide what the hell to do. When the man takes Alex and throws her in the back of his truck, Marie stows away and promises to help get her out. After a bloody encounter at a gas station that leaves a man with an axe in his chest, there is a car chase and an eventual showdown at the man's property, in which Marie beats him to death with a 2x4 wrapped in barbed wire. She frees Alex, and -- surprise! Alex reveals to us that Marie is the one who kidnapped her, that there is no man (proven by a surveillance tape from the gas station showing Marie axing the counterboy), and that Marie has a split personality that is triggered by her anger and obsessive love for Alex. The man reawakens, Alex kills him (her), and the sun rises on the pastoral French countryside, where all manner of families are no doubt rising to toast baguettes and drink very good coffee.

This film is pretty brutal, I'll give it that -- the opening slaughter is hard to watch and very, very bloody. There's also a bit with a circular saw at the end that is one of the goriest and loudest murders I've ever seen. In fact, the staging and filming overall is fairly cleanly directed and at times very suspenseful -- I had no problem with any of that. My problem came with the "reveal", which led me to come up with the following list of complaints for the filmmakers:

1. You cannot have a person driving a truck and sitting in the backseat at the same time, unless Patty Duke is playing both characters.

2. You cannot have a person drive two cars simultaneously and crash them into one another.

3. You cannot introduce a nonexistent character who is a figment of another character's imagination independent of that character, considering that the nonexistent character only lives in that person's mind. Unless you are Pete's Dragon. The "killer man" character is introduced to us in a disturbing scene that occurs elsewhere as the two ladies drive down the road. This is deliberately misleading.

4. You can have imaginary characters, but you cannot have imaginary cars that transport other characters around, unless you are Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Slasher films operate on a very simple cause-effect principle: someone has something sharp, other people get that sharp thing stuck into them and die. It's really not that complicated. If you want to fuck around with psychology, go ahead -- last year's Identity cleverly made a slasher movie into a battle of multiple personalities, and it worked because the internal logic of the film was well-established and it played by its own rules. Here, this is sadly not the case: a character has two personalities that are somehow able to be at two places at once and have physical effects on others in the real, temporal plane. This simpy doesn't work, and to place the action of the film in a logical, cause-effect reality and pull an impossible twist like this is sloppy filmmaking.

If you want to pull this kind of stunt, you simply have to make it work, as it has been done effectively many times in the past: Blair Witch 2, The Sixth Sense, Identity, and others have pulled it off without comprimising the structure and internal logic of their stories. Haute Tension is, ultimately, a bloody parlor trick disguised as a meditation on gender and violence, where a predatory lesbian lashes out with her aggressive male side in order to eliminate obstacles blocking her way to a loved one. Had this been the actual story, I would have loved it. But cheap tricks like the ones utilized here to add pizzaz to what would have otherwise been a perfectly compelling story rob the film of its impact and call into question the integrity of the filmmakers. And no one likes that. Without the twist, I would have added two Skullies to the rating. With it, I'd rather watch Pete's Dragon.

Rating (out of 5):