High Tension (2003)

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Director: Alexandre Aja
Writers: Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur
Cast: Cécile de France, Maïwenn Le Besco, and Philippe Nahon


© Copyright Lionsgate Films

© Copyright Lionsgate Films

Warning: Like the movie it reviews, this article uses tasteless images for no reason at all.

Bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. If I were to go up on a stage, drop my trousers, jam my thumb deep into my ass, and then fart, I’m sure that some would view it as stupid, some would view it as offensive, and most would view it as both stupid and offensive. I’m also confident that at least one idiot out there would quickly try to emulate my crass performance, but that’s really not the point. The point is that it would be stupid and offensive. No more. No less.

Now, imagine I tried to convince you that I was being clever and sophisticated. What you’d get is not unlike Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, a French thriller that manages to be pretentious about bloody axe murders and unspeakable uses for severed limbs. It’s not just stupid. It’s not just offensive. It’s offensively stupid.

As the film begins, Marie (Cécile de France) is accompanying Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) to her parents’ estate deep in rural France. We learn Alex and her family aren’t originally from France when the former helpfully tells Marie, “Their French is even worse than mine,” in a poorly dubbed voice that makes it impossible to discern where, in fact, she’s from. Come to think of it, I can’t recall any distinguishable accent in her original French voice either.

Attentive readers are probably wondering how I could recall a character’s original French voice in an English-dubbed movie. There’s a simple explanation: High Tension is so hip and cutting-edge that only half its dialogue is dubbed. The rest (or most of it) is subtitled. This, of course, makes the whole experience needlessly confusing, but I suppose it’s a worthwhile distraction from the two women constantly throwing vulgarities at each other in what, I presume, is meant to pass for realistic dialogue. If this is your idea of a real conversation, you need more interesting friends.

Anyway, after showing Marie touch herself in the guestroom (the second pointless masturbation scene in under twenty minutes), the film proceeds with its main plot: a madman kidnaps Alex and slaughters just about every other character in explicitly gruesome if implausible ways. Marie, who survived by idiotically wandering around when she should’ve been hiding, tries to rescue her friend and gets a few more people killed in the process.

With its tense atmosphere and stylish cinematography, High Tension might’ve made a decent B-movie had it settled for being goofy and exploitive. There’s a remarkably large audience for that sort of thing. The problem is that the film seems to think itself terribly clever, which it isn’t. Consider the final act with a surprise revelation that is supposed to redefine key events but, because it’s so stupid, only succeeds in discrediting them.

© Copyright Lionsgate Films

© Copyright Lionsgate Films

A gimmick ending is a poor substitute for drama. The device worked in The Sixth Sense (1999) because its deception was an integral part of the character’s journey. It made dramatic sense. High Tension doesn’t make dramatic sense. In fact, it doesn’t make any kind of sense unless you’re willing to believe a person can drive two vehicles at once and make an armoured truck and a chainsaw appear out of thin air through the sheer power of psionic psychosis.

If you think I’m being harsh, imagine yourself in the audience as I firmly shove my thumb up my ass and fart. For a finale, I reach inside my pocket (with my free hand, of course) and pull out a cheap plastic wristwatch, the kind you’d find in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. “My shocking performance was but subtle subterfuge,” I smugly declare, “for I have stolen your watch!” Now imagine you wear a Rolex and it’s still on your wrist.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with lodging your thumb into your anal cavity. If Jackass can find an audience, anything can. However, if you choose to cater to the lowest common denominator, don’t act like you’re being profound and artistic. Otherwise, it’s not your thumb that’s up your ass. It’s your head.

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