Directed by Alexandre Aja Cast: Cecile De France, Maiwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea 2005 85 minutes Rated: (for graphic violence and sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 3, 2005.
Special Note: The following review contains what may be considered spoilers. Although the ending is not explicitly described, certain elements in relation to a key revelation will be discussed. Potential viewers wanting a virginal moviegoing experience are advised to return to this review only after they have seen it.
In a time when the motion picture industry skews marketing at any means necessary in order to attract a specific target audience, here comes a film whose very title is the ultimate truth in advertising. "High Tension" (or "Haute Tension," as it was called in its native France) is exactly as its title proclaims, a near-breathless, nonstop study in unquenchable terror that knows just what the horror genre is all about, and puts those elements to use in a masterful cavalcade of suspense and dread. It may be the most frightening, unshakable feature film since 1999's "The Blair Witch Project."
Being released in the U.S. partially dubbed (the main characters mostly speak English, while those around them speak in subtitled French) and very minimally pared down from an NC-17 to an R (allegedly only one or two shots have been excised), "High Tension" nevertheless loses none of its raw impact in the translation. The dubbing is almost laughably unnecessary, anyway, as dialogue (in a taut screenplay by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur) takes a backseat to a non-verbal game of stalking-and-preying; even if this choice by American distributor Lions Gate Films doesn't get in the way, one must wonder just what their reasoning was behind the dubbing. No matter. The studio has seen fit to present this down-and-dirty foreign masterpiece to as wide an audience as possible, and more power to them for that. "High Tension" deserves all of the attention and accolades it can possibly get, and probably more than it will ultimately receive upon initial release during a competitive summer movie season.
Externally, the premise is simple and straightforward. College-aged best friends Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn) travel to the French countryside to visit Alex's parents and little brother for the weekend. On the first night there, Marie narrowly escapes the wrath of a psychotic killer (Philippe Nahon) who breaks into the house and murders the family. In a brave attempt to save Alex, who has been taken hostage, Marie stows away in the killer's truck. Before the hellish night is over, the tables will be turned once more, with Marie becoming the hunted.
Stunningly directed by Alexandre Aja, the sheer brilliance of "High Tension" is how well it works on two completely different levels. Stripped of one or the other, it would still be a splendid example of how to make a horror film right, but, together, the two complement and strengthen each other, turning an exercise in scares into something deeper and more thought-provoking.
The first and more basic level is as a slasher picture, stripped to its purest and most unnerving core. An 85-minute cat-and-mouse chase between one of the most savagely disturbing villains in memory and a strong-willed, likable heroine whose plight is as gripping as they come, director Aja spits on Hollywood's reliance on MTV-style cutting in favor of effectively long, lingering shots and a pace that simultaneously manages to be meditative and never let up. By choosing this route, and never relieving the audience's apprehension with humor, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, the film cooks up a classical tone and look reminiscent of great horror movies of decades' past. It also gives viewers the appropriate time to allow their minds to work, anticipating one thing to happen in any given scene and then almost continually having their expectations be gloriously wrong.
Finally, director Alexandre Aja delights in not shrinking away from viscera; "High Tension" is violent and bloody, and graphically so, but not exploitative. What he has done is portrayed in as detailed a form as possible what it might be likeemotionally, physically, psychologically, and otherwiseif a person found him or herself horrifyingly faced with the sort of unspeakable circumstances Marie is. From the initial witnessing of the family's slaying, to her valiant, if failed, attempts to save she and Alex's lives, to her decision to ultimately take matters into her own hands, to her realization that she may be no match for her evil pursuer, the audience follows Marie every step of the way and is almost made to live exactly what she is. As Marie, Cecile De France (2004's "Around the World in 80 Days") is a stunner, going through a range of both delicate and extreme emotions and physical demands with the ability of a master thespian. In addition, with all of the needless, awful violence in the world (it seems like every other day is met with a headline of kidnapping murders and whole families being killed at the hands of a fellow relative), the plot that "High Tension" recounts is sadly possible and, one assumes, authentic.
The second level that "High Tension" unveils itself to contain arrives in the final minutes, turning all that has come before on its head, and, likewise, making the preceding eighty minutes all the more eloquently profound. It needs to be said that the climactic revelation, which should not be given away, comes not as a cheap gimmick, as many like-minded American pictures have, nor does it fall into the trap of holding its viewers in contempt. When it comes, it makes perfect sense, and while one could pick out what might be considered plot holes, the content in question is so abstract, burrowing deeply into the darkest recesses of the mind and the grimmest corners of human relationships, that even the said holes begin to explain themselves away the more one thinks about it.
"High Tension" is a sinister, pitch-black masterpiece, as thematically deep and suggestively powerful as it is unforgettably scary. Those without strong stomachs and a small threshold for the most extreme of human behavior and capabilities will, no doubt, be turned off within the first fifteen minutes. For everyone else, this is a remarkable cathartic experience, a motion picture thick in atmosphere and rich in actual ideas. Who could have guessed that a so-called slasher movie could be as psychologically haunting as this one manages to be? "High Tension" is easily the most assured and flawless film of the year so far. A new classic of the horror genre has been born.