Jeezum crow, Megalomaniac is bleak. Bleeeeeak. From moment one, the film lets you know that, like that omnipresent Trent Reznor meme, you’re gonna have a bad time. You do no watch Megalomaniac to put yourself in a happy mood, unless, of course, oppressively dark material makes you happy. Recently, a term has been coined describing not so much a subgenre as a brand of cinematic feeling: the feel-bad movie. Those rare films that eschew the goal of escape, and instead wish to remind the viewer at all moments that the world is a dirty, mean place with nearly endless potential for evil and suffering. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but it’s one that has inherent value, even if it’s not to everyone’s preference.
Megalomaniac is undoubtedly a feel-bad movie (this is good).
But if I were to pick an actual subgenre suited to its content, I’d say it’s an example of New French Extremity cinema, albeit a few years too late (I should also note that the players speak French, but this is a Belgian film). This means that it has a drab color palette, fucked up subject matter, and thematic concerns that are secondary to the primary goal of twisting your stomach big time.
Written and directed by Karim Ouelhaj, Megalomaniac begins its story where a true crime tale leaves off. The Butcher of Mons was a Belgian serial killer who operated in the 1990s. This unidentified maestro of malevolence is notable for his MO: The Butcher would clinically dismember his victims and then leave the pieces in plastic bags on the sides of heavily trafficked roads. He wasn’t the tidiest of killers. In fact, he left heaps of potential evidence, but somehow still managed to evade capture. Megalomaniac starts with this unsettling truth and then proposes a deeply troubling question: what if, in addition to abducting and murdering women, the Butcher went above and beyond, so to speak, and impregnated one or more of them? What if the Butcher’s son continued his father’s brutal legacy? What if the Butcher’s daughter helped her brother by providing cover for his murders?
From here a sordid, difficult tale emerges. This is definitely one of those movies that, if I were to tell you how it unspools, would only result in your incredulity, so you’re better off letting its pleasures (?) hit you in the moment. What looks at first to be a pretty straightforward serial killer movie morphs into a character study and revenge plot that isn’t precious about the evil wrought upon its characters, only a few of whom aren’t absolute monsters. Needless to say, there’s an audience out there who would expect a trigger warning for this one. Consider this yours.
The thematics wrenched from this profoundly upsetting story speak on the self-perpetuating nature of violence, while simultaneously questioning the dark, albeit human catharsis achieved by revenge. It also calls into question the limits of simple good when it comes to enforcing the law and caring for those on the margins of society. Is evil itself a necessary component to justice?
Direction-wise, Megalomaniac does fall victim to the sheen of modern digital imagery. An overuse of high-motion, low energy establishing shots undercut some of the general flow, while the color palette, although purposefully drab, could stand to pop a little bit more. If the goal here is to maximize audience upset, some color and contrast would really help. Even so, the construction of individual shots are often quite innovative in how much gruesome information is contained within.
Exciting, too, are the performances. Eline Schumacher and Benjamin Ramon, as our leading siblings, do impressive work with difficult material. The former has the trying task of framing both her suffering and the dissolution of her passivity as it morphs into active evil through a lens that comments on her role at the bottom of an aggressive patriarchy. Even as she and Ramon’s characters do increasingly unspeakable things, it’s her performance that gives the audience just enough of a window through which our sympathies can be milked for relatability.
Despite only using a true crime story as a jumping off point, I’m reminded of Justin Kurzel’s non-fiction classic, The Snowtown Murders. Both films choose to motivate their protagonist without forgiving them, while also seeking some understanding of how some seriously fucked up circumstances came to be.
Directed by Karim Ouelhaj
Written by Karim Ouelhaj
Starring Eline Schumacher, Benjamin Ramon, Héléne Moor, Wim Willaert
Not rated, 118 minutes