High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance) (review)
A Little Death
How do you solve a problem like Marie? We haven’t seen a horror-movie heroine like her since perhaps Alien‘s Ripley, ardently independent and fiercely determined not to be a victim… but with a twist to her psyche that will, I suspect, be a greater source of fascinated, can’t-look-away terror to male audiences than the nonstop gore. For there is an aggressively sexual element to Marie’s intensity that ends up being the most vivid thing about High Tension — sublimated female rage and passion are given full, furious expression here, and… wow, does it make for a shocking, provocative, unforgettable movie about how women are too often overlooked, ignored, underestimated, and misunderstood.
It’s also about how a vast array of power saws, axes, knives, guns, and garden tools can be put to inventive uses to turn human bodies into so much ground chuck.
We see immediately that Marie (Cécile De France: Around the World in 80 Days) is a woman who can take care of herself, if in a less violent sense of the phrase than you might expect, when director Alexandre Aja (who cowrote the film with Grégory Levasseur) starts us off with an orgasmic bang, breaking a near-taboo for mainstream film: the one that all but forbids depicting female masturbation. Marie is settling into the guest room at the home of her friend Alex (Maïwenn: The Fifth Element) — they’ve retreated to Alex’s family’s remote farm to study for university exams — when she sets about relaxing for the evening by, well… The fact that there’s no fun, healthy slang for a woman pleasuring herself is a good indication for how little this subject comes up in even everyday naughty conversation, but let’s say that Marie jills off. And just at the very best moment of that merry nocturnal rite, a nasty old truck pulls up outside the house — now, mind, the farmhouse is four miles from a paved road down dirt tracks through cornfields — and the driver (Philippe Nahon: Irreversible) embarks upon a horrifying home-invasion attack, brutally murdering Alex’s family.
It’s almost as if this were a violent fantasy of Marie’s… or if her violation of the proper norms of behavior for a lady brought about a punishment. For Marie has managed to hide her presence from the attacker and endures witnessing his savage crimes, peeking through closet doors and the like, unable to stop any of it. But the killer is apparently fixated on Alex, and instead of murdering her, he throws her in the back of the truck… and Marie is able to sneak in, too. As terrified as she is, Marie, as we’ve seen, takes care of what needs taking care of, and she’s not going to let Alex be butchered, or worse. And she will do whatever it takes to protect her friend.
Rarely has a horror film been so aptly named — High Tension is almost too tense, almost too viscerally ruthless to be endured. It’s in how Aja ramps up the psychological suspense in a way that works directly on your lizard brain, bypassing the areas that handle logic and reason and such — it’s not that his relentless pacing doesn’t give you time to think about some of the moments of apparent preposterousness, it’s that your brain simply won’t be functioning on that level at all. Which is, of course, exactly what you want from a horror movie — but with recent attempts at the genre being at best laughable and at worst boring, it comes as a real shock to find one so genuinely, primordially scary. But with its power to rivet you to your seat in terror to the point that you’re unable to look away even in self-preservation, no one will be calling High Tension either laughable or boring.
There’s an NC-17 European version of the film — didn’t I mention? it’s French — that’s a minute longer than the slightly rejiggered, part-dubbed and part-subtitled one American audiences will see. But it’s difficult to imagine that the film could be even more terrifying than it is… and it’s difficult to foresee any film connecting the primal experiences of sex and death, pleasure and pain like Aja does, in a way hardly ever accomplished by a splatter flick.