- Director: Karim Ouelhaj
- Writer: Karim Ouelhaj
- Stars: Eline Schumaker, Pierre Nisse, Wim Willaert
Horror has always been a place where feminism isn’t mandatory to fill a P.C. quota, but is the norm. We love a Final Girl and never question whether a woman could be as competent as a man in any kind of situation, but horror is also the place where modern day issues play out and there has been a definite uptick in male filmmakers addressing the current patriarchal issues in society. This is always an interesting conundrum: obviously men are free to have any and all opinions and work through their own personal interpretations and issues with how the patriarchy affects them and the women in their lives, but the lens through which they choose to do this is often more violent than what a female might choose. Enter Megalomaniac.
From writer/director Karim Ouelhaj, Megalomaniac is as visually stunning as it is depressing and brutal. Set mostly in a crumbling, gothic home, Martha and Felix are the adult children of The Butcher of Mons. A serial killer active for a little under two years in the mid 90’s, they left garbage bags of dismembered women along the roadside in the city of Mons, Belgium. Never apprehended or identified, the killer targeted single women who grappled with socio-economic and/or family issues. Ouelhaj imagines the butcher as an overweight, middle aged man who forces one of his victims to give birth and then gives the baby to his son, thus creating a deeply twisted sense of family. All grown up now, Felix and Martha remain in their father’s home as Felix continues his father’s “work” of kidnapping and mutilating women. Meanwhile, his sister Martha is expected to work a regular job in order for them to keep up appearances. Felix and Martha have an uneasy relationship that operates in an uneven balance of power: Felix controls Martha all the way down to how much food she eats and ensuring she takes her various medications. Not allowed to have any kind of friend or companion, Martha is a deeply lonely soul who is teetering on the edge of mental illness.
The visuals of Martha’s demons, hallucinations and mental breaks is where Ouelhaj shines. Creepy and beautiful, he expertly creates a dark (both visually and emotionally), foreboding sense of helplessness. Martha’s mental walls are closing in on her and her work environment is not helping her situation. The only female working the night shift at a factory, Martha is sexually harassed by one of the three males working there while another silently watches and the supervisor puts in a feeble attempt at stopping the behavior. Unfortunately, this will escalate to Martha being subjected to daily sexual assaults. These scenes are exceedingly ugly and violent in an effort to really drive home how much Martha lives under the thumb of men and all of them are abhorrent in some way. Martha has never known a world where she isn’t treated horribly by a man and she seems to accept this fate as an immovable object. Even her weight is constantly criticized, which is maddening for multiple reasons, but mostly because Martha can only be considered overweight by the most extreme, 90’s Heroin Chic body ideals.
Martha eventually asks Felix to bring home a companion for her which he begrudgingly complies with as long as she follows very strict rules. Marta decides to call this woman Kitty and she treats her the only way that she knows: with abuse. Ouelhaj is using Martha and Kitty as a way to explore how victims can become perpetrators, but mostly it just reads as another excuse to showcase a woman being treated like garbage. There is an inherent desire to want to feel bad for Martha, and even Felix to an extent, because they were born into the home of a monster and they really can’t be expected to behave in a normal, human way, but none of the characters in Megalomaniac behave in a way that commands sympathy. However, I would be remiss not to remark on Elise Schumacher’s incredible performance of Martha. I fully believe I am watching a woman choose between a psychotic break or cloaking herself in the systemic mysoginistic abuse that she is surrounded by.
With a third act that simultaneously has you incredulous that you are supposed to go along with what is happening while also cheering the inevitable violence on, Megalomanic poses many questions, but never supplies any answers. While I see that Ouelhaj is attempting a Haneke-esuqe female centered film, it mostly comes off as yet another foray into French extremism that simply falls flat.
Played at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival