I'll start with it right off the bat: I really enjoyed Haute Tension. Not in the way one would enjoy, say, a warm glass of milk before bed. Nothing so comforting, the twist ending haunted me for weeks, as I tried to align the rest of the movie with its grievous conclusion. This was the biggest complaint that most people had about the movie, and though it has been some time since I first watched it, I've finally collected my thoughts.
The movie opens on a dream sequence, by one of the main characters. Potentially an overused tactic, but it's important later on, so hold on to that thought. Once the audience realizes that the character is, in fact, dreaming, the basic premise unfolds. Friends Marie and Alexia (Alex) are on a road trip, headed towards Alex's parents' farmhouse to spend a quiet weekend away. And because this is a horror movie, and not a rom-com, secluded farmhouse is pretty standard code for "far from any surrounding neighbors, and unable to call for help". There are some shots from the first few scenes at the farmhouse that pay homage to some standard horror movie tropes, something horror director and aficionado Alexandre Aja most definitely included intentionally. Marie leaves the guest room to smoke, swinging slowly on a rope swing tied to a tree branch in the idyllic, if not creepy-in-the-dark, farmhouse yard. As she heads back inside, the camera shows the swing, still idly moving back and forth in the breeze-less night. Classic.
At some point, the camera shifts from the quiet company of the farmhouse, to a boorish and obscene, serial-killer-in-an-obvious-box character, sitting in his equally revolting truck. He * appears * to be engaging in a heavily implied sexual act from the front seat; however, the shot ends as he drives away and leaves behind a woman's decapitated head. Charming character, truly. I'll leave the rest to your rampant imagination. Up until this point, the impending doom and danger has only been implied by the audience's knowledge of the kind of movie they are sitting down to watch, and by the usage of some interesting shadows and rustling cornstalks; now, there is a real threat made apparent.
As Marie and Alex settle down for their quiet weekend, the movie continues to play with potential unrequited romantic tension directed from Marie to Alex, including a scene where Alex showers near an open window, dim light silloutetting her just perfectly, in that way the French have, as Marie unabashedly observes from her seat on the swing, cigarette in hand. Later on, it appears to be lights out for everyone but Marie, who we see masturbating in the guest bedroom. This scene felt a little bit awkward and forced in order to propel the narrative, but again, plays into the twist ending later. Keep holding on.
Everyone in the house is sleeping, aside from Marie, who is, well, otherwise occupied. She has headphones in, another pretty classic trope on display. There is a knock at the door. Though he should be wary of answering the door for strangers post-dusk in the middle of secluded farm territory, Alex's father does answer the door, and is killed brutally with a switchblade, and decapitated with the help of a bookshelf. From this point on, the killer prowls the house, heavy footsteps indicating his every movement. Abundant gore ensues, so much so that the movie in its scaled-down form for the US release is still one of the hardest R rated movies for gore in existence. If you like gore and psycho-drama, this is the movie for you, all other common criticisms aside.
Marie escapes the killer by rearranging the guest bedroom to the effect of making it seem as though no one has been there, and then by hiding under the bed. This too, feels unrealistic, and yet again, plays into the twist ending. Have we gotten tired of me saying this yet? After the repulsive, heavy breathing of the killer disappears back down the upstairs hall, Marie sneaks out from under the bed, finds Alex chained to her bed, and sets about rescuing Alex for much of the rest of the movie. This includes a brutal beating of the killer in the woods, with barbed wire, and an enthralling chase featuring Marie's flashy sports car, and the circa 1940s truck that now contains Alex chained in the back.
The movie concludes with a twist that, frankly, pissed a lot of people off. Marie is revealed to have been the killer the entire time, shown on security camera footage to have killed a gas station clerk as she "pursued" Alex in hopes of "saving" her. Common complaints include the accusation that the twist doesn't make sense, that there are some pretty gaping plot holes left untethered, that it's a lazy cop out, or that it just doesn't make any sense. After a lot of thought, I heavily disagree.
I'm a real "but why...?" person when it comes to movies. At seven, my dad was pausing Attack of the Clones every ten minutes to explain the politics of it to me. Everything needed to make sense right then. This was my first instinct after finishing Haute Tension. This was one of those movies that I spent weeks thinking about. I wasn't kidding, this film truly haunted me. How could Marie have both that awful truck, and her flashy sports car? How could she have been involved in that car chase at all? How did that gas station clerk talk to both the fantasy killer and Marie? Was Marie crazy the entire time, or did something set her off? What set her off? The list goes on and on.
I had to learn to be alright with indefinite answers, to truly enjoy this film to the full extent of its potential. Most discrepancies must be left at the insinuation that Marie is an incredibly unreliable narrator, as shown from the beginning in the dream sequence, and that much of the movie as we see it is her describing what happened from her point of view, unreliably, after being taken into custody of a mental facility. Many of the seemingly innocuous scenes, Marie observing Alex showering, for instance, are manifestations of her internal demons and struggle with tension and feelings towards Alex, as is the character of the truck driver. Once you accept that the movie doesn't need to make complete sense to a) convey the overall meaning and to b) be enjoyable, the experience is much better.
One could still argue that this is a cop out on Aja's part; however, noting the minor details that both improve the quality and underlying implications of the movie as well as the quiet homages to classic horror, one must applaud Aja for his directive talent and believe that this was done purposefully, and in my opinion, very well. Aja is also the director of The Hills Have Eyes remake, and the subtle psychological trips throughout this film explain just why he was chosen for the part.
My biggest complaint is that much of Marie's internal tension stems from unrequited feelings towards Alex, which comes off a little bit strongly as "oh no, I'm in love with a girl, I'm going to let it make me crazy." Again, we don't quite know if Marie was crazy the entire time, or was set off by a specific event, but much of the plot still revolves around a longing that results in some pretty deadly consequences.
Don't believe the hype in dragging this one down. If you like gore or psych horror, this is a must see. Seriously, the gore is pretty incredible, though I don't recommend eating while watching this, as I usually tend to do during movies. We watched this one in the original French, which is the NC-17 rated (for gore), before it was scaled down by LionsGate. I highly recommend this version, as the dub is...not great. Turn your subtitles on and be prepared to watch closely for the short hour and a half that this film runs, and I promise it'll be an experience that will haunt you with questions too.