High Tension (Haute tension)

High Tension
(Haute tension)
Directors: Alexandre Aja
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur
Stars: Cécile De France (Marie), Maïwenn Le Besco (Alex), Philippe Nahon (The Killer), Franck Khalfoun (Jimmy), Andrei Finti (Alex’s father), Oana Pellea (Alex’s mother), Marco Claudiu Pascu (Tom), Jean-Claude de Goros (Police detective)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2003 (France) / 2005 (U.S.)
Country: France
High Tension
High TensionSpoiler alert: This review discusses some key plot points and surprises in the film. Those who don’t want to know the ending should not read past the fifth paragraph.

In the current U.S. climate of increasingly yawn-inducing PG-13-rated J-horror knockoffs, Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (Haute tension) is proof that horror movies can still be grisly and nerve-wracking even when sticking to the most fundamental, base components of the genre.

Even after being badly dubbed into English for the U.S. market (at least mostly -- sometimes the characters speak in French) and cut by a minute to secure a market-friendly R rating, High Tension remains a formally brilliant and brutal thriller than efficiently mines clichéd scenarios for every last scrap of scary effectiveness. It harkens back to the more gritty and severe style of American horror films of the 1970s without feeling like a retread or copy. Unfortunately, there’s a third-act revelation that, depending on your perspective, possibly spoils it all by tacking on a needless and potentially offensive explanation.

The story takes place over a single night. College students Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) are on holiday and head out to Alex’s family farm in the countryside to study for upcoming exams. Once there, they are the victims of a home invasion by a hulking monstrosity in coveralls and trucker cap (Philippe Nahon, who played the lead role in Gaspar Noé’s brutalizing I Stand Alone). The killer ties up Alex with chains and dispatches her father and mother (Andrei Finti and Oana Pellea) and younger brother (Marco Claudiu).

Director/cowriter Alexandre Aja stages the bloody slaughter with formal audacity and an appetite for gruesomeness. His visuals are further enhanced by the intricate sound design, which is particularly memorable in the way it mixes together François Eudes’ strung-out music (which sometimes sounds like static) with hyperreal sound effects like the rubbery crunching of the killer’s coveralls and his animalistic breathing. Aja also gives the film a vaguely dreamlike sensation, with tense moments that seem to drag in slightly surreal slow motion.

Because Marie is on the top level of the house, she manages to avoid being detected, even as she make a few futile attempts to rescue Alex. Unfortunately, one of these attempts involves her climbing into the back of the killer’s ramshackle old truck (which looks like the one in Jeepers Creepers and is just as unsettling), which turns her into a prisoner, as well. She manages to slip out again when the killer stops at a gas station, which sets off another round of stalk and evade.

At this point, Marie gets fed up and turns into a would-be vigilante, taking command of the gas station attendant’s under-the-counter gun and following the killer. While slasher films are known to feature so-called “Final Girls” who transgress gender boundaries by appropriating the killer’s violence in self-defense, I can’t remember the last time a female character was this proactive in going after the villain, at least not since Nancy set up all those booby traps for Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Unfortunately, High Tension has a psychological-narrative trick up its sleeve, which director/cowriter Alexandre Aja springs in the final 15 minutes.

(Spoiler alert: Those not wanting the end of the movie spoiled should abandon this review now.)

As it turns out, the killer doesn’t really exist; he is, in fact, simply a projection of Marie’s split psychosis. She is the one doing the killing all along, acting out the role of both aggressor and savior to poor, traumatized Alex.

As you might expect, this last-minute revelation recasts everything that happened before in a completely different light. From a formal perspective, it actually makes the film more complex and gratifying, as we begin to realize that many of Aja’s compositions and camera angles, which at first appeared to be purely for the purposes of generating fear and suspense, are actually psychologically connected to Marie’s splintered state of mind. For example, the killer is almost always viewed in fragments, usually cut off just below the eyes so that we can focus on his leering mouth and jowls. While on one level it turns Philippe Nahon into an appropriately frightful grotesque, on a deeper level it suggests Marie’s inability to identify with part of her own psyche. The two main stalk-and-evade sequences, the first in the guest bedroom and bathroom of Alex’s house and the second in the men’s room at the gas station, were creepily effective according to standard horror movie conventions; but in hindsight, knowing that Marie was, in effect, stalking herself psychologically, they take on a whole new dimension.

However, this revelation also adds a puritanical and arguably homophobic thematic dimension to the film that would not exist without it. Early in the film, there are several suggestions that Marie is gay (or at least has homosexual inclinations) and is secretly in love with Alex. Marie’s short-cropped haircut, slightly masculine demeanor, and lack of a boyfriend (whereas Alex is decidedly boy-crazy and even makes fun of Marie for not trying to land a guy) all mark her as a lesbian, although it is never stated outright.

When the killer first arrives at Alex’s home, Marie is engaged in a masturbatory fantasy, which appears at first to just be a case of bad timing; however, once we know that Marie and the killer are one in the same, it is not hard to deduce that Marie’s sexual fantasy (which surely involves Alex) is the trigger for her split identity, thus unleashing the primal fury. In the end, all the violence in High Tension is a product of repressed lesbian desire.

Of course, in one sense, this is simply a slight variation on the traditional explanation of the slasher’s fury, which from Psycho (1960), to Halloween (1978), to Scream 3 (2000), has been about sex. Yet, the film’s treatment of Marie and her desire for Alex suggests that homosexuality is equated with murderous rage. If the film had included some social markers to explain why Marie feels the need to repress her desires to such extreme ends, the proverbial finger might be pointed in another direction. However, as it stands, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that High Tension makes a seemingly puritanical and rather high-pitched equation of lesbian desire with chainsaw-wielding monstrosity.

Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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All images copyright ©2005 Lions Gate Films

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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