Many years ago, during a period when Gerard Depardieu was at his peak weight and looking especially grotesque, Dennis Miller said in a standup comedy routine: "This Depardieu guy is the most popular actor in France. I guess that explains that Jerry Lewis thing."
But what explains High Tension, French director Alexandre Aja's slasher film that's a throwback to '70s movies like Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with a pilfered modern surprise at the end? The craft here is better than its antecedents, but the point is oddly the same: Little girls who do dirty things -- like shower naked in the window, or masturbate to reggae music on an iPod -- may find themselves stalked by a psychopathic killer who'll punish them for touching their naughty parts.
High Tension takes place in rural southern France, where college gal pals Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) and Marie (Cécile de France) travel to spend some quiet time studying for exams at the farmland home of Alex's parents. They arrive late at night, tired from the trip, but they never get a chance to sleep. Soon after lights-out, a big man with a big knife rings the doorbell and stabs Alex's father when he answers. Mama dies next, then little brother (and the dog). But rather than killing Alex, the intruder (played by Philippe Nahon) gags and chains her and tosses her into his truck. Marie, in the attic bedroom, goes undetected. So she slips into the truck and promises Alex to get them out of danger when the opportunity arises.
Aja doesn't have much of a story here on which to hang a hat, especially with his killer's predilection for beheading his victims. Still, for more than an hour, he moves things along with tight, pointless, sadistic suspense. There's not much dialogue after the action starts -- Aja's co-scenarist is also his art director, which may explain the emphasis on style over substance -- but in the early part of the film, Aja seems to have dubbed or post-dubbed the French actresses' dialogue into English. As obvious as the effect sounds, it also makes it seem like you're listening to an old movie with a faded soundtrack in need of some modern Dolby stereo enhancement.
High Tension is the sort of movie that gives heady college kids something to pretend to feel superior to. ("That was so stupid!") It's also the sort that makes hoary old movie critics turn to themselves after about 30 minutes and say, "There must be more to it than this." There is, in fact, a twist that gives old meaning to the phrase double entendre. Other than that, let's just say that I can't talk about Fight Club. If there's such a thing as lesbian camp, then Aja's exercise in unrequited love might some day enter its pantheon, although I'll take High Art over High Tension any day. Partly in French, with subtitles.