Monday, October 13, 2014

Shocktober Review: High Tension

  So, High Tension has been out for eleven years, and looking back, I never reviewed the film. There's probably something tucked way back there in the old days of the long lost Blogorium (or buried in a Word file) that amounts to a paragraph, and I'm almost positive I can tell you what it says:

 "Great 2/3rds of a movie, really violent, well made, but damn if it doesn't fall apart at the 'twist*'."

 That was, for two or three years, the way I felt about Alexandre Aja's second film**: it was an extremely well made film, one that lived up to its title all the way until the "greenhouse" scene, and then completely collapsed in logic as it lurched towards an ending. And I'm not alone in thinking that. It seems to be the universal response to High Tension for people who've only seen the film once. When I saw High Tension the second time (and subsequent viewings), it's more apparent that Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur had more carefully planned out what seemed arbitrary the initial viewing: there are hints, and details in the background that explain where the antagonist found weapons to kill with, and aside from one important element that was (wisely) deleted from the finished film, most of the seemingly arbitrary decisions are actually on screen.

 Of course, to discuss that further means SPOILING High Tension for anybody who hasn't seen it, and I don't want this review to become a "look here and then look here and then here" tutorial. I'd rather people who saw it, liked it, but felt the ending didn't make any sense to go back and watch it again. You know how the story plays out, and what happens the second or third or fourth time is that you can focus on the details of what Aja is and isn't showing you. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll be watching this again very soon to answer one lingering problem I have with the film which specifically leads to the "greenhouse," but I'll save that until after the SPOILER warning. For everyone else, watch High Tension, enjoy High Tension, and don't immediately give up on the film when the "twist" happens. You'll want to; I know, many of us did, but it's not as out of left field as it seems. Just very well disguised. SPOILERS to follow...

 So the second time I saw High Tension, one of the first things I noticed was the shotgun above the mantle above Alexia (Maïwenn)'s parents' fireplace. At that point, I realized that the killer / Marie (Cécile De France) wasn't magically finding murder implements or pulling them out of her magic truck - she noticed them around the house when she arrived. Yes, most of the movie - particularly after the bedroom scene that instigates her murder fantasy - is from Marie's perspective, but Aja is careful to plant most of the seeds in camera so that even though we think the killer is "Le Tueur" (Philippe Nahon), it's mostly plausible that she could be "seeing this" in a dissociative identity delusion. How did Marie manage to move the armoire and push it fast enough to remove Alexia's father (Andrei Finti)'s head on the bannister? Probably the same way she was able to slice off Alexia's mother (Oana Pellea)'s hand - Marie is a lot stronger than we think she is.

 There are certainly logic lapses, and I'm not trying to give Aja and Levasseur a complete "pass" for them - I don't know what happens to the car that Marie wrecks outside of the greenhouse when she's chasing the truck from the gas station. The last time I saw the film, I was positive you could still see the wreckage before she chases Alexia into the woods. Aja cut a scene where Marie and Alexia drive past the truck that "Le Tueur" uses, in part because he thought it was too obvious to give that information away too early. While I can't argue with that, it does open the plot hole of "where did Marie get that truck?" It also makes the introductory scene of "Le Tueur" seem like it's something the audience is seeing objectively and not - as it is ultimately revealed - to be Marie's invention of a villain she can conquer to win over Alexia's affection.

 The subtext of Marie's rescue fantasy has been the subject of debate about whether High Tension is homophobic or not. Marie is clearly uncomfortable telling Alexia that she's in love with her and depending on how you read "Le Tueur" (the killer), he's either an expression of repressed homosexuality lashing out at a hetero-normative world, a manifestation of her self-loathing about how she feels, or a straw man she invents to fulfill a "damsel in distress" fantasy. Arguably, it could be all three, but there's not much arguing that because he doesn't appear until after she self pleasures that the idea of "sex" and "death" are linked in Marie's mind. How the two are linked is less apparent, given the book-ending chapters and that most (but not all) of her victims are men.

 Her idealization of "Le Tueur" is that of a disgusting, obese, middle-aged man, slovenly kempt and prone to using severed heads to pleasure himself (in fact, it's how we're introduced to him). He "collects" women, seeing them only as sexual objects to toy with and eventual kill. My initial reading of her manifestation of masculinity was along the lines of the "homophobic" reading. After seeing the film the first time, one written and directed by men, it felt like having him be how Marie sees herself (which, technically speaking, is what she's doing by imagining she isn't murdering and kidnapping) was indicative some self-loathing, of projecting her lesbian attraction to Alexia as monstrous, as purely destructive.

 With time, and subsequent viewings, particularly in light of understanding that the "twist" wasn't just thrown in to the film, I'm more inclined to go with the bookends of the film and read Marie's fantasy (i.e. the film) as her attempt to win over Alexia in a jumble of fractured logic. If she really doesn't believe that she is "Le Tueur," and that she's "saving" her, then one could argue this is not self loathing but a rejection of hetero-normative relationships by someone who truly can't distinguish between reality and her imagination. It's certainly how the film begins and ends - that Marie genuinely has no idea what she's done - so I'm more inclined to put the "homophobic" argument aside, at least a little bit. When the reading of High Tension is that "a woman loves her best friend, snaps, kills her family and any stranger who impedes her, and believes she's doing it so they can be together," I can't totally ignore that interpretation.

 That said, whether you choose to read anything into High Tension / Haute Tension / Switchblade Romance, it's hard not to appreciate what Aja accomplishes with the film. It's a genuinely suspenseful ride, with some truly disturbing moments of violence. The use of Muse's song "Newborn" still gives me chills - it's so well matched to the editing and the specific point in the film it's used. I can't think of the song without also thinking of High Tension. However you choose to read the "twist" - positively, negatively, or not at all - as a horror film, High Tension delivers for almost all of its running time. For some, all of its running time, but I'll concede that it can be very confusing the first time. Give it a second chance, and I think you'll be surprised. I was.

* Here's exactly what I wrote in a piece about the "Splat Pack": 

I really like High Tension, and while I've heard the pyschoanalysis, I don't buy the twist. Not at all. Too many elements of the movie are abandoned in favor of the twist, and I hold it akin to Frailty, a movie that lacks the suspense and build of Tension, but still has a rotten third act "twist" that undermines the first two acts. That being said, High Tension works for a long time and builds on itself well enough that I can pretend to agree with the psychoanalysis. 

 ** In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't seen Furia, but I didn't want to write "debut" when that's not accurate.

No comments: