The Terror of Megalomaniac: A Surreal and Brutal Film Experience
The first moments of Karim Ouelhaj’s belligerently obscene psychosexual saga Megalomaniac introduce us to the film’s infernal household, led by a hulking beast of a man dubbed “The Butcher of Mons” (Olivier Picard). The Butcher presides over the imminent birth of his daughter, Martha (Eline Schumacher), as his wife bellows in pain (and possibly ecstasy; it’s that kind of movie). She’s strapped to a bed and coated in blood – goodness knows why. His son looks on as the Butcher orbits the horror of it all with an expectant look on his face. As far as birthing scenes in movies go, it’s exceptionally ghastly.
In truth, this opening sequence resembles an exorcism more than a home birth; Ouelhaj establishes the havoc to come and the hellish mood that will drive it by pushing his camera down a flight of foreboding stairs to the soundtrack of guttural screams. When there are close-ups of this unnamed mother, she has inexplicable demonic red eyes. Once Martha comes squalling into the world, the moment is framed as the arrival of some terrible new thing.
For most of its duration, that’s the energy of Megalomanic: Surreal, deliberate, brutal, the stuff of nightmares and brooding walks home from the movie theater. If you’ve done any reading about the film’s Jury Prize-winning run at the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival – where it was described as “an astonishing, brutal piece of art” – you’ve likely noted that it’s based on real events. That’s only partly true. The foundations of its story are built on the harrowing exploits of the real-life serial killer who operated in Belgium from 1996 to 1997, dismembering victims and leaving bags of their remains to be discovered on roadsides. The Butcher was never caught, so Ouelhaj doesn’t give him a name in his movie, nor does he whip up surnames for the killer’s offspring.
Megalomaniac is, in a sense, a twisted what-if that suggests that the Butcher died after ‘97 but not before raising his son to carry on his hideous work. Félix (Benjamin Ramon), grows up to be a slender, moody sort; Martha is employed as a custodian at a local factory. Dad and Mom are dead (we never find out how), and every once in a while, their daughter suggests it might be her turn to take a stab, as it were, at the Butcher family tradition. Félix isn’t so sure.
A series of disturbingly violent sequences early on (which involve sexual assault and are designed to be appalling) puts Martha in a mindspace that more closely resembles that of her brother than either sibling initially realizes. Here, Megalomaniac dabbles with themes of identity and duality, which are achieved in startling clarity through Schumacher’s performance. She’s both meek and hostile, capable of tenderness and viciousness. Some scenes show Martha disparaging or otherwise arguing with herself; in others, she watches idly as this other Martha does and says things she normally wouldn’t. As a well-meaning social worker (Raphaële Bruneau) comes to find out, something’s up with Martha.
It could be that the Butcher’s legacy might have imprinted more on his daughter than his dutiful son. Later, we see Félix reward Martha with his latest victim-to-be, Julie (Hélène Moor), who they keep chained up. Schumacher imbues her character with a newfound (if profane) maternal instinct; as we watch Martha accept her new roles as caretaker and torturer, Ouelhaj frames her gaze towards Julie with the same frightful under-brow glare we saw previously from her utterly cracked father. When she proposes they should keep their new house guest around (“Our family is growing!”), we get the impression Martha doesn’t quite grasp that Julie’s life expectancy is now markedly shorter due to her proximity to Félix. As her character continues to crack into pieces, we see her simultaneously collect them to build something new. Something, perhaps, worse than her father.
Megalomaniac is one of those intentionally provocative films where you feel like a finger is being pushed into your chest for 90-odd minutes. Reviews will undoubtedly call it “edgy,” a critical kiss of death. And, sure, this often feels like an echo of the New French Extremity film wave that wrought such memorable shockers as High Tension and Martyrs, yet Ouelhaj’s sturdy vision otherwise clambors over the atrocities of his and other Euro-exploitation films.
For example, an early sequence establishes Félix’s methods – made to resemble those of the IRL Butcher – and an aesthetic mood. (Think Fincher and Von Trier via death metal.) Félix observes his next victim in an alleyway and knows it’s time to descend on her because he spots his father hovering, nude, three stories over her head. Set to a simmering, foreboding post-industrial score from Simon Fransquet and Gary Moonboots, the imagery is effective and hallucinatory. It should be ridiculous, but it isn’t.
In moments like this, Ouelhaj achieves the artistry he’s clearly aiming for. There are more of these striking visuals, like a later sequence that resembles a domesticated and somehow more demonic riff on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, which flings the film well above the sordid low-hanging fruit that its contemporaries often chuck at audiences. It’s no less brutal (again, this is not an easy watch), but there’s an indelible sense of otherworldly curiosity lurking around all this nastiness that makes Megalomaniac hard to forget.