By David Mumpower
April 1, 2004
If pesky movie details like plot and logic are important to you, Haute Tension is a definite pass. If, on the hand, you celebrate the splatter-fest in all its liquid red glory, this shamelessly violent production is going to be your crimson cup of tea.
There isn't much in the way of plot for Haute Tension. A French co-ed named Alex (Maïween Le Besco) takes her bi-curious friend, Marie (Cécile De France), home to meet the folks. The duo hopes to get some studying done before finals. While the two young women are just friends instead of lovers, that doesn't stop Alex from a severe case of unrequited longing.
When the two women get home, Marie is treated as a member of the family by Alex's parents. She is taken to the upstairs guest bedroom and tucked in for the night. While Alex proceeds to catch up on missed family events downstairs, the unexpected and horrific occurs. A serial killer known as Le Tueur drives his trashy Scooby Gang van up to the door of the house and rings the doorbell. When a member of the family answers, a slashing of the face is their reward.
Philippe Nahon, the Parisian actor who plays the killer, does a splendid job in bringing this ghoulish assassin to life. Dressed in a workman's jumpsuit, he fastidiously performs his duties as if Le Tueur were punching the clock on a 9 to 5 job. The subtle effect of this emotionless behavior impacts Haute Tension in dramatic fashion. Rather than explain his rationale at the start of the movie, the reveal is saved until the precise moment when it provides the most shock. His performance is without question the highlight of Haute Tension with his senseless bloodlust pumping additional fear into the seemingly hopeless series of events Marie and Alex attempt to survive.
As Le Tueur tries to have his way with the rest of the family, including the currently bound and gagged Alex, Marie faces the existential question of flight or fight. The tension referenced in the title is indicative of the meticulous nature of the attack. Events unfold at an intentionally frustrating pace. It's a directorial attempt to draw the audience into the proceedings as they experience the same atrocities that Marie witnesses as she tries to save herself and as many of the family members as possible. All the while, she seeks to avoid tipping off the killer to her presence, attempting to remain invisible to his watchful eye.
While the literal translation of the original title might indicate the highest possible level of tension, the methodical nature of the storytelling begins to limit the suspense over a gradual period. Cecile De France, the actress portraying Marie, has a unique look that allows her to pull off the terrified appearance to a degree that hasn't been seen since Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project. Despite this, the film still struggles to engage due to its constant teasing of upcoming excitement that never comes to fruition. There is a lot of foreplay but no satisfying climax to be had.
What then is Haute Tension selling? Blood and lots of it. The horror flick has been given an NC-17 rating due to its gore. While I don't want to degree into a debate about sex vs. violence, I do argue the merit of such a rating as I have seen films this violent get only an R rating in the past. Even so, while I don't want to overstate the situation any, during the denouement, you will swear that the producers of Haute Tension strolled down to Home Depot, hit the paint aisle and proceeded to completely empty the shelves of all variations of the color red. Rather than provide anything resembling terror, the last few minutes of the film exit the realm of fear and join the land of over-the-top histrionics. Alabama Crimson Tide homecoming games don't have this much red on display.
The other selling point to Haute Tension is its willingness to shock and surprise. A series of events occurs in the last 15 minutes of the movie that attempt to mystify viewers with their unforeseen cleverness. While I must admit that I had not anticipated any of the series of revelations, I must also acknowledge dissatisfaction with the entire attempt. Even the most cursory introduction of logic into the analysis of said plot twists causes a corroboration that the twists are made simply to be shocking rather than due to any need to enhance the storyline.
In short, the last act of the film kills (no pun intended) any goodwill created by Haute Tension up until that moment. While certainly surprising, the last segment of the movie undoes anything satisfactory in the hour before it. Haute Tension is going to get a ton of media attention due to the combination of subject matter and rating, but in the end, the movie is nothing but a lot of hype and too much blood.
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