Dir: Fabrice du Welz. Fr-Bel-Lux. 2004. 90mins.

Callinga film The Ordeal is surely asking for trouble, and this unforgivingexercise in Belgian Gothic is undeniably a rough ride for the faint of heart.However, anyone receptive to macabre psycho-horror with a distinct streak ofblack humour will find much to relish.

Pitchedbetween Euro art-thriller and the grittier end of the US horror spectrum, TheOrdeal offers a slow, calculating build to a genuinely nerve-rackingexperience. The film should find eager international buyers, a healthy DVD lifeand widespread cult repute, while festivals - especially with a genre bent -will take it eagerly to heart. Commercial career prospects undoubtedly beckonfor director Fabrice de Welz, whose film played in Critics' Week at Cannes.

LaurentLucas stars as Marc Stevens, a singer of middle-of-the-road pop songs, whotravels around Belgium in his van playing concerts for senior citizens. Marc'ssmooth, naive professional sincerity makes everyone - whether elderly fans ornurses at old people's homes - fall hopelessly in love with him.

Gettinglost in a wintry landscape in the middle of nowhere, he meets Boris (Couchard),a disturbed young man in search of his lost dog, and eventually takes shelterin a dilapidated inn run by Bartel (Berroyer). Bartel seems a jovial enoughsoul, if a bit pathetic: a failed comedian whose wife left him, taking hissense of humour with her. It soon becomes clear that Bartel is not as amiableas he seems, and that Marc will not be checking out in a hurry.

Afteran assured, gently ominous build-up, the narrative swerves to left-field inPsycho fashion, and events take a violent turn as Marc is subjected to Bartel'sdemented whims. The final act cranks things up even further as we meet Bartel'sneighbours from the nearby village, who prove to be even barmier than him.

Thestory reaches a genuinely apocalyptic climax, and then ends with what someaudiences may feel is not much of a conclusion at all. A stridently zany notein the closing stretch - including an incongruously surreal sight gag -slightly throws the film off-track.

Asfar as brutality goes, The Ordeal more than lives up to du Welz's avowedinfluences: Straw Dogs, Deliverance and The Texas Chain SawMassacre. Perhaps the most striking echo, however, is of Gaspar Noe, whoseregular actor Philippe Nahon is cast (somewhat predictably) and whose visualsignature is recalled in Benoit Debie's moodily oppressive Scopecinematography, with its deep shades of piss and dried blood, and violent cameraand editing flourishes at the climax.

Thisvery atmospheric film entirely creates its own world, making striking use of anarea of Belgium that, says du Welz, has its own Siberian microclimate.

Impressiveacting gives considerable psychological shading, making the drama emotionallygruelling in a way reminiscent of prime Polanski. Berroyer's avuncular charmmakes his menace all the more credible, while Lucas gives his all to a roleboth physically and emotionally demanding, and gives Jim Caviezel's recentChrist a run for his money.

Thefilm screened at Cannes in a provisional mono sound mix, but was none the worsefor it.

Prodcos: TheFilm, La Parti, Tarantula
Int'l sales:
Funny Balloons
Fr dist:
MichaelGentile, Vincent Tavier, Eddy Geradon-Luyckx
Fabricedu Welz, Roman Protat
Main cast:
LaurentLucas, Jacky Berroyer, Philippe Nahon, Jean-Luc Couchard, Brigitte Lahaie