Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance)
France. 2003. Alexandre Aja.
Here is a horror film stuffed with allegory and guts. Alexandre Aja has created a masterpiece that plays upon our most absolute nightmare and finds a subtler expression in confronting sexuality, identity and reality through the psychotic mind. All the while, Aja’s aesthetic is immersive and creates a stomach-clenching, high-octane tension even if the slayer does plunder slower than Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many critics misunderstand this film and claim the ending to be farce with no logical precursor, on the contrary, the syntax of every edit sequence, the form of the narrative and every mode of Cecile De France’s authentic and daring gaze allure to the outcome.
For me, the best horror films pull colossal fears out of primitive situations and in doing so, comment on the structure of our political society, social relations and our human being – our identity and psychological paradigm. The comments more often than not showcase the repression of our society – it must be why many of us secretly fetishize the horror film. In this case, the farmhouse in the deep countryside provides a peaceful settlement, but with such remoteness rests an imminent fear of seclusion amidst the dark depths of nothingness. At the instance we are presented with this lovely farmhouse, Aja cuts from the family’s young son playing to an old tattered van beyond the bushes within which a compatibly rugged old man appears to be getting a blowjob in the driver’s seat. Moments later, a severed young girls head lands in front of the camera. The paradox of innocence and repulsion is beguiling. This repulsion is followed by the sexual act of masturbation, after which the repulsion of homicide is directly revitalized, it is clear then that Aja is creating a scent of sexual violence (or at least sex and violence appear to go hand in hand), reflected in De France and the outcome of the film.
Another area of negative critique is the fact that De France’s character seems so incompetent to escape and manages to even get herself caught up in the back of the truck. There is a simple reason for the attachment, though it would be a big SPOILER. De France plays the perfect mix of being level-headed and square with a subtler sensual infatuation of the events. It could all well be a dream, another fantastical daydream, or more likely a concoction of reality and the psychotic mind. However fast De France runs, she will be gained upon by her laboured nemesis. The audience can’t escape the ride by means of parody or misconception; everything is taut and crafted with precision. There is no escaping the isolated and quarantined location of this movie set, just like there is no escaping one’s mind.
The film at its very essence is a series of flashbacks blended layer after layer in a manner that one layer could easily sit at either the top or the bottom of the pile, or both collectively. The vivid dream sequence at the start of the film acts is revealed as a premonition that is also suggested as a flashback of a broken mind that could equally be creating a false reality. On top of this simulation, there are the eyes of the security camera that doesn’t lie; an interesting irony of mechanical production (the camera) claiming reality over our existing reality. This camera (within the movie camera) is the reveal, but then what is real if we have been looking through the counterfeit eyes of the movie camera all the time. The film makes you think whilst letting you fall back into the Haute Tension (High Tension) ride that is manifest from the outset. The UK title Switchblade Romance lends an unfortunate curiosity over the original and sounds more like a Kung Fu extravaganza, but there are certainly blades and a twisted kind of romance; the romance – an inexplicable passion and lust – oozes through the blood-spattered surface. Put simply, our heroine character allows her darkest sub-textual desire to surface on more levels than one.