Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension is drawing understandable comparisons to Dario Argento’s best work. There’s a voyeuristic feel to Aja’s slick, ever-gliding camera, and there’s a set piece in the film that calls ghoulish attention to a cornered character’s psychological and physical sightlessness, recalling a similarly fabulous death sequence from The Cat O’ Nine Tails. Aja, though, is a product of his time and Haute Tension is horror for the Irréversible generation. Which is to say, the film’s disturbingly lurid, sometimes riveting (dare I say fun?), but often offensive spectacle of violence says less about the world than the filmmaker’s own personal hang-ups and aesthetic obsessions: This a film by someone with quite the festish for lesbians and gimmicky Hollywood productions.
Marie (Cécile de France) and her friend Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) go to the latter’s country house for an unspecified holiday period, and it’s there that a killer murders Alex’s entire family. Hog-tied in the back of a rusty van straight out of Jeepers Creepers, Alex can do nothing but wait until Marie rescues her from the clutches of the film’s lascivious killer, who’s introduced via a distasteful sequence during which he’s receiving a blow job. Despite the troublesome fact that Marie’s implied lesbianism more or less permits the spectacle of gore, Aja directs a good show for some 60-odd minutes, repeatedly inventing ways to corner Marie in one enclosed space after another, only to then pull an Identity-esque sleight of hand.
When the killer enters Alex’s house, he kills her parents (Andrei Finti and Oana Pellea) and little brother (Marco Claudiu Pascu) but still senses there may be someone else in the house despite everyone in a family portrait having been accounted for. That Marie so easily taps into this hyper-awareness makes for some of Haute Tension’s more riveting moments (knowing the killer would check the sink and lift one side of a mattress in her bedroom hideaway; using the sound of a self-serve gas dispenser to hide the sound of her running feet). We don’t know it yet, but the filmmaker is playing us, and he subverts the occasional horror trope (when Marie lifts her face to look into a gas station mirror, the killer’s reflection isn’t there to greet her) to both throw us off the track and once again set up the logic for the stunt he’s about to pull.
Haute Tension opens with a dream sequence, of a bloody Marie running through the countryside. It’s an image that anticipates the film’s final showdown, as well as reworks itself along the way. Marie wakes up and tells Alex that she dreamt she was chasing herself, the first of many references to the identity crisis that motivates many of the Haute Tension’s images. Once it’s revealed that Marie is really the film’s killer, Aja opens a major can of worms, as this revelation retroactively adds a certain psychological weight to some sequences; indeed, if you’re bothered by Aja’s refusal to humanize the film’s killer (he never lingers on the old man’s eyes), one can now make the case that the entirety of Haute Tension is shot from Marie’s distorted perspective and that she was too afraid to look at the beast within.
When Marie hides in a closet and watches the killer slice into Alex’s mother, she’s essentially watching herself commit the crime. The woman falls forward and her body closes the closet shutters as it slides down to the floor. It’s a great moment: Marie is cornered once again and this completely random act (both the murder and the positioning of the falling body) limits the killer’s sightline, thus saving her. But when you discover that Marie is the killer, what does the closet door represent but a split between selves? When the shutters close, they represent Marie’s refusal to look at that part of her she wishes she could ignore or destroy. Aja successfully works Haute Tension’s punchline concerning a split identity into his self-conscious aesthetic, but the gimmick doesn’t excuse the storytelling’s moral shadiness.
It’s easy to explain away something like the van in the film as never having existed, but what’s to be made of the collection of female headshots the killer collects and pastes on the rearview mirror? Has Marie killed before or are these relics indicative of all the girls she wishes she could kill? Don’t bother trying to figure any of this out. Aja is so concerned with setting up a shot that he can scarcely be bothered to offer moral or emotional clarity. Like Identity, Haute Tension is a film with a ready-made alibi: It lazily asks the spectator to accept anything with a plot hole as a mere figment of the killer’s imagination. Haute Tension, then, is really two films in one, and it works better as a diabolical, no-holds-barred evocation of a girl who just happens to have lesbian tendencies trying to save her best friend from a supremely random act of terror. Post-twist, it becomes something entirely more shameless.
Aja dangerously likens girl-on-girl desire to something sinister. There’s something ugly about the scene where the killer receives a blow job from a severed female head. Assuming Marie and Alex had yet to arrive at the country house, perhaps the scene is another embellishment. But what does it say about Marie that she represents the evil inside her as a skeezy old man played by Gaspar Noé regular Philippe Nahon? Blow job. Cunnilingus. Man. Woman. They’re all the same for Aja as long as it keeps us, for our entertainment, in the dark.