- Karim Ouelhaj delivers an indisputably gory yet aesthetically captivating fantasy film plumbing the darkest depths of the human soul
This week saw Karim Ouelhaj presenting his fourth feature film Megalomaniac in a world premiere within the Fantasia Festival’s Official Competition in Montreal. The Belgian filmmaker first turned heads in 2005 with his debut feature Parabola [+see also:
film profile], which was selected for Venice’s Giornati degli Autori and which was the first instalment in a societal trilogy (also composed of Le Repas du Singe and Une réalité par seconde) unfolding in a context of violence against women. In 2016, his short film L’Œil Silencieux scooped the prestigious Golden Méliès at the Leeds International Film Festival.
In Megalomaniac, Ouelhaj offers up a nightmare-esque fantasy film summoning the ghost of one of Belgium’s most terrifying criminals: the Mons Dismemberer, an anonymous monster who rampaged in the 90s and was never identified. His modus operandi? He had a predilection for lonely and vulnerable women whom he would cut into pieces and dispose of in bin bags left along the roadside. A butcher, in short.
And it’s with an act of butchery that the film begins, or rather a singularly birth. We’re left trembling in the face of the mother’s bloodshot eyes, the father’s frightening look and the young boy to whom the baby is entrusted. Karim Ouelhaj has imagined the impossible destiny of the Mons Dismemberer’s offspring.
What do we inherit from monsters? What do they pass on to us? Are we destined to become torturers? Victims? Martha lives with her absent brother in an inevitably haunted house. We soon realise it’s not only the house that’s haunted. Martha’s eyes are, too. An uncomfortable young woman, as if hindered by her own body, she’s the target of humiliation and violence, and arguably worse: the indifference of her work colleagues. Her brother Felix, who’s white to the point he doesn’t seem alive, roams around as if the reluctant legatee of a crushing legacy.
Megalomaniac is a visceral film in many respects: in the way it embraces horror and exposes bodies; in the way it probes our deepest and most irrational fears… Aesthetically speaking, the filmmaker and his director of photography François Schmitt create a succession of gory tableaux which are as sublime as they are repugnant, memorable and fascinating. In terms of its narrative - as it explores the thwarted destinies of the dismemberer’s victims, but also that of Martha, a victim who undergoes a compelling metamorphosis before finally becoming a torturer herself - the film examines the way in which women’s bodies are objectified, carved up and sacrificed via the constant predation they suffer. And by way of the vague attempts at resistance made by Felix, who ends up yielding to the impulses passed down to him, the film illustrates the way in which men can similarly be crushed by a lethal system.
In this sense, the film is an allegory to the haemoglobin of the patriarchal vortex which sucks everything up in its path and which winds its way through the hallways and shuttered rooms of this house of horrors. It’s a movie carried by the fully invested performance delivered by Eline Schumacher, Belgium’s answer to Elisabeth Moss, who oscillates between schizophrenic delusions and terrifying confessions, exuding smatterings of spine-chilling black humour along the way. Alongside her is Benjamin Ramon playing Felix, a formidably convincing, living-dead brother.
(Translated from French)
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.