Karim Ouelhaj’s examination of the cycles of violence is an immersive and impressive slice of nihilism.
Synopsis: Martha and Felix are children of the Butcher of Mons, a notorious Belgian serial killer from the 1990s. While Martha lives an unstable life riddled with insecurities, her brother, crushed by the family legacy, takes over their father’s killings. Harassed and violently assaulted at work, Martha falls into madness and goes through the looking glass into the strange and terrifying world inhabited by her brother.
The first thing to say about Megalomaniac is that it has perhaps been mis-sold in some quarters as to the extent of the extremity within the film. I maintain that this is a film that clearly reflects the DNA of movements like New French Extremity without fully becoming it. If you are going into this expecting sustained, gorily detailed violence befitting the ‘torture-porn’ label, you will be left wanting. It does capture the mood, however, of works like Martyrs, particularly in terms of Martha’s internal life. Those intending to watch should be warned of the sexual violence the film features, of course, but it is mood and themes rather than content that has this sit in the more ‘extreme’ category.
Where Megalomaniac’s real discomfort lies is in Martha’s experience of the world as a child born of violence, subjected to it on a daily basis and living in the shadow of it still. Eline Schumacher is utterly captivating and frequently heartbreaking in her role. The film allows unanswered questioned to linger over the siblings and it is Martha, certainly that we are allowed the most access to. Felix (Benjamin Ramon) presents as a rather more blank slate – a cut and paste recreation (although, admittedly delivered with a superbly chilling performance) of the violence enacted by their father.
The look and sound of the film draws attention with the sibling’s near-dilapidated house separating them from society, forcing them to live in the decay of their father’s memory. The house contains them and forces them into that same space with spectres crawling around corners as a constant reminder of their origins and legacy. An impressive soundscape moves from droning to something more serpentine, creating a truly menacing effect. A late nightmarish sequence has these threads collide in dramatic fashion, an opportunity for Oulhaj to indulge in the fantastic imagery for a moment.
Elsewhere, violence is represented with consequence – it shatters, irrevocably alters people, yet it is also presented with a detached, matter-of-fact manner as this is the world we find ourselves in, aligned with the siblings. Martha’s situation is unthinkable but a horror she walks into every day because her entire world is punctuated by violence and the expectation of it. If megalomania revolves around a person’s obsession with their own power, starting that journey with someone who has none feels like a more interesting direction than aligning with Felix, who, while still consumed by a legacy of violence is at least in control of his day-to-day experience.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Megalomaniac screened as part of Grimmfest 2022. For more information on their screenings please head to grimmfest.com