High Tension (Haute tension)
For those looking to satisfy their bloodlust with senseless gore--severed heads, splatter marks and giant buzz saws--look no further than High Tension. But only the most ardent devotees of the genre will accept the illogical final twist that leaves behind more unanswered questions than a presidential press conference.
Two college pals Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) drive to a cottage in the French countryside for a visit with Alex's family and a week of intense studying. Lurking near the idyllic surroundings, however, is a degenerate loner in a rusted truck. We know this guy's trouble when he tosses the severed head of a woman out the window after using it to, well, let's just say the guy is twisted, for sure. Back on the ranch, all is well--except, of course, for the ominous music in the background. And sure enough, bliss quickly turns to fear when the rusted truck suddenly winds its way through the corn fields--which, of course, any horror movie must have--to the farm. Dressed in greasy coveralls and low-riding baseball cap, the drifter methodically cuts the family down with a barber's blade, while a terrified Marie eludes him in a game of cat and mouse. Alex also survives, but she gets hogtied with a thick chain and carted off in the truck. Stowed away with Alex, Marie tries for help when the killer stops for gas, but is left behind after an unfortunate encounter with the station attendant. Determined to save her friend, Marie gives chase in a conveniently found Mustang and eventually confronts the killer in the woods, but instead finds herself struggling with her own inner demons.
De France, who some American audiences may recognize from last summer's flop Around the World in 80 Days, is convincing as the classic woman in peril. Her mix of quivering fear and determination to save Alex adds to the conflict and suspense. Philippe Nahon--a regular in Gaspar Noé's disturbing oeuvre--plays the psycho killer with unflinching nonchalance. Butchering Alex's family is just a matter of routine. He says nothing until the end of the second act, so we never quite know where he's coming from despite random clues scattered throughout. As Alex, Le Besco has little to do outside screaming and whimpering with fear. The rest of the family--mom, dad, little brother--don't survive long enough for us to get to know them. After seeing dad offed with the clever use of a piano, mother sliced and diced in grisly fashion and little brother shot in the cornfields, one vaguely remembers they were part of the action at all. But De France is the focus of our attention and I found myself rooting for her to get the bad guy--until her transformation, which is supposedly due to a severe sexual identity crisis. The sudden shift prompts a question or two, like, ''Where the hell did that come from?'' and ''Can I have my money back?'' A bad dream at the beginning offers some clue, but in hindsight it simply adds to the confusion.
Writer-director Alexandre Aja (sharing screenwriting credit with Gregory Levasseur) creates a tense atmosphere with relentless camera moves and a dissonant score, but as gut-wrenching as the mood may be, nothing makes up for the leap in logic. He expects his audience to ignore the gaping holes created by the ridiculous final twist and seems more concerned with grossing the audience out than making any narrative sense. The motives for the man who arrives at the house and unleashes a carnage of Texas Chainsaw Massacre proportions are thin but clear (aren't they always?)--photos of other victims line the rearview mirror in his truck; so we know he has killed before. But with the absurd plot twist, all that goes out the window and we're left wondering what really happened: Are the other victims real or imagined? Has the killer done this before? Is the truck even real? Where did it come from? We never know and the director seems content on not explaining it to us. In the name of subverting genre clichés with a smug trick, Aja has created a mess that does nothing more than kill expectations of narrative soundness.
High Tension's haunting score, fluid camera movements and relentless hemoglobin splattered across the screen makes for a tense experience, but it's all for naught once we know the Big Twist. Even Cecile De France's compelling performance cannot divert attention away from a badly flawed script.