Inspired by the true story of the “Butcher of Mons” who murdered five women between 1996 and 1997 (and was never caught), the new Belgian thriller “Megalomaniac” is an artful and unrelenting look at madness and murder through the eyes of a psychopath. What sets this film apart from the tonnage of serial killer films in existence, is the fact that writer/director Karim Ouelhaj examines the “sins of the father” rather than going for another procedural.
This is not the story of the Butcher, but of his two children and how their adult lives are affected by their exposure to their father’s vicious crimes at a young age.
The killer’s son Félix and daughter Martha are now adults living together in a mansion. Their two souls darkened a long time ago, the home has become a prison. Their inability to connect on human levels and Félix’s continuation of his father’s bloody legacy assured them a life of loneliness and seclusion.
Martha is plagued by horrifying nightmares of her father’s murders while she is well aware that Félix is out there killing women in the same manner.
The house becomes haunted and exists as a dark and decaying symbol of her ugly legacy, herself a daily target of humiliation and sexual violence at the hands of coworkers.
Eline Schumacher is a revelation in the role. The actress is completely tuned into Martha’s childlike apathy. The character had a violent birth (that her brother was witness to) and lived a life where her father’s killings were not kept from his offspring. Martha only knows a world of violent men and women who only exist as objects. Schumacher captures the sadness and despair of this soul and mind that has been damaged beyond repair. As Félix, Benjamin Ramon is stone cold chilling. His dark, almost lifeless eyes have the look of something dangerous while his pale white skin gives him the appearance of a walking corpse. The two actors effortlessly navigate the unsteady power balance between their characters. As Félix forces Martha to work (to make money and keep up appearances), he asserts control, even controlling her food intake.
After Martha is raped and impregnated, her decline into a full-on mental breakdown begins and she questions the rule her brother has over her. In the film’s best irony, in her break from reality, Martha’s understanding of her and her brother’s place in their father’s legacy becomes clearer. Once shying away, she almost embraces the darkness (both real and imagined) in her life. The visual design is a large part of what sets “Megalomaniac” apart from films of this type.
Cinematographer François Schmitt never lets the light in. The skies are overcast and the interiors are black and always in decay. The tone is beyond grim and devoid of the slightest crumb of warmth, capturing the disturbing essence of the director’s intentions. In stylistic comparison, Ouelhaj’s film is more complex and artistically successful than Lars Von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built”. While that film was somewhat successful in its telling of a serial killer’s straight path to Hell, Von Trier was trying too hard to shock. While Ouelhaj certainly does not shy away from the extreme, his focus on undying generational evil goes further and the violence and cruelty are more disturbing. “Megalomaniac” is an uncomfortable viewing experience. That is the point. Within the character study of a woman breaking from reality and unable to escape her family’s past sins, is a look at the grotesque nature of evil.
There will be no redemption and lives will not be saved. The film opens with a blood-covered woman giving birth, the Butcher is at her side and immediately hands the baby to a child (Félix). The newborn is Martha. The generation of sin and evil is passed on. From the beginning, the film warns its audience there will be no reprieve. We are in Martha’s world and hers is a life born in blood and murder. The disturbing and quite excellent film that follows doesn’t wallow in the pain and carnage, yet refuses to shy away. There is a method to it all. Director Karim Ouelhaj finds a gruesome art among the madness. You will not forget this film.