Marie (Cécile De France), a closet lesbian with short hair and a sculpted physique, reluctantly goes to stay with the family of her college pal Alex (Maïwenn) in their remote country home, a backwoods abode with few ties to civilization and no neighbors in sight. Alex adores her parents' new place, but the friends' first night in rural seclusion is rudely interrupted by the appearance of a hulking brute (Philippe Nahon, from Gasper Noe's I Stand Alone) who hogties and kidnaps Alex after slaughtering her kin (including her young brother, who's unceremoniously gunned down off-screen). Marie, a witness to the throat-cutting of Alex's mother from a bedroom closet, manages to conceal her presence from the intruder, and - after managing to surreptitiously hitch a ride in his blood-stained van - resolves to rescue her abducted pal and exact eye-for-an-eye revenge against the mysterious murderer.
Except, disappointingly, that Aja's film (co-written with Grégory Levasseur) isn't what it appears to be. While I'll refrain from spoiling the climactic surprise, the director immediately hints at his reality-shifting twist via both Marie's introductory dream sequence (in which she remembers that she was chasing herself) and the killer's nighttime arrival at the house, which is intercut with Marie furiously masturbating to the thought of her friend. When coupled with a puzzling early glimpse of the nameless slayer getting oral satisfaction (hours before his attack) from a decapitated head, this early self-gratification scene intends to link woman-on-woman sexual impulses - as well as the repression of said desire - with bloodthirsty sadism. Yet by making such a dubious connection, the film not only exhibits a surprisingly disparaging outlook on same-sex relations as precursors to dangerous psychosis, but also winds up contradicting its superficial (and initially empowering) exaltation of strong, retribution-driven femininity.
If High Tension's equating of homosexuality with homicidal rage is a disappointing lapse into old-fashioned narrow-mindedness, an inability to sustain considerable suspense is the film's fatal flaw. Aja sculpts his set-up with an eye toward economical chills and plentiful, stylish gore, and the first third - as well as a deliciously taut moment in a gas station bathroom in which the typical "killer checking out each stall" progression is upended - has an unpredictability that lends to the atmosphere of helpless dread. For the most part, though, there's a maddening and unavoidable sense that the action is heading toward an inevitable showdown between Marie and the enigmatic psycho, meaning that one hardly has to worry much about the protagonist's fate until the frustrating finale, which asks us to reevaluate - and encourages us to re-watch - what's come before from an entirely new (but nonetheless still rather dull) perspective. Given how little tension is generated by Aja's gruesome film, however, it's difficult to imagine feeling compelled to suffer a second-go round.
Aka Haute Tension.
High tension, minimal clothing.
Run time: 91 mins
In Theaters: Friday 10th June 2005
Box Office USA: $3.6M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Production compaines: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 41%
Fresh: 52 Rotten: 76
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenwriter: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
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