Movie Review: Haute Tension (High Tension) (2003)

high tension

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

When two best friends, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), visit Alexia’s family farm while preparing for their university exams, they’re expecting a quiet stay in the countryside. The only signs of possible discontent seem to stem from Marie’s secret crush on her friend, and jealousy of Alexia’s many affairs with men. The very night they arrive, a mysterious stranger breaks into the house and silently slaughters Alexia’s father, mother, and little brother. Marie hides any signs that she’s even staying there and surveys the carnage while in hiding. The killer kidnaps Alexia and Marie manages to sneak onto his truck, and the rest of the night unravels into a deadly game of hide-and-seek as she tries to rescue her friend while avoiding the monster’s gaze.

I didn’t know much about High Tension going in, but multiple people had recommended it to me given my recent forays into horror. Though its basic set-up is the stuff of standard slashers, I enjoyed writer/director Alexandre Aja’s tactic of keeping the protagonist hidden from the villain, but tied to him through the kidnapping of her friend. The added complexity of their relationship found in Marie’s hidden (but hinted) affections is also an interesting component. The first two-thirds of the film are so well-choreographed, tense and bloody and fast, that I became more and more engrossed as it went on. It is a decidedly gory affair, but manages to blend sentimentality and exploitation weirdly well. I found a compelling, sympathetic protagonist in Marie, and cheered her ingenuity and fortitude while holding my breath in fear every time I thought she’d be caught.

But then. The Twist. If you don’t want to know it, stop reading now, because I’m forging ahead and revealing it. SHOCK. Marie is the killer! SHOCK. The twist just takes this movie from a taut, engaging slasher into a kind of ridiculous metaphor. Marie’s unspoken love for Alexia pushed her to the point of breaking, resulting in a split personality and a homicidal jealousy for anyone else in her life. It’s not that the conceit is wholly impossible- there are some indications early on that something’s not right, sure. Marie is cold around Alexia’s family. While chained up and gagged Alexia seems confused and scared whenever Marie talks to her about rescuing her. Also the movie opens with a close shot of a woman in a hospital or institution, later realized as Marie after the main events of the film. Plus she dreams about it. I mean, I do still have questions, like who was driving the second car during the chase, or was that completely in her mind?

What really bothers me, however, is the implication of this twist. If all of these brutal killings and violence stem from Marie’s secret love for her friend, it kind of suggests an association between lesbianism and mental illness. I know Aja is obviously not saying all lesbians are homicidal maniacs, but there’s a certain parallel between this split personality thing and ideas of “closeted” homosexuals hiding their sexuality. And when queer characters are already so under- and mis-represented in film, it’s frustrating that a queer woman who starts off as a really great protagonist then turns out to be the vicious antagonist, and that her violent tendencies are a product of her love for a woman.

Twist aside, I really enjoyed High Tension for the most part, and it’s put together so well that I have to admire Aja’s style and approach. I guess the climax was just a little disappointing, since it was strong enough on its own with the big reveal, and then the twist itself wasn’t very satisfying. But I would see it again for all the badassery on display from Cécile De France, and to see if everything actually fits together.


Pair This Movie With: The twist reminded me a little bit of that Audrey Tatou movie He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which I haven’t seen in many years so I don’t really remember if it’s good. Or if you want another good thriller with a rad lady, there’s A Lonely Place to Die.

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