Megalomaniac, which recently screened at Fantasia, is the kind of origin story we don’t see often in cinema, and for good reason.
The Belgian film is the story of Martha (Eline Schumacher) who is one of the fictional children of the notorious “Butcher of Mons”, a real Belgian serial killer from the 1990s who would dismember women leaving their precisely dismembered body parts in bags on the side of the road. She lives with her brother Felix (Benjamin Ramon) who is gone for long stretches, continuing her departed(?) father’s “work”, while she spends her days alone and her nights working as a janitor in a gloomy factory. When we first meet Martha, she’s obviously mentally troubled, she has a social worker and struggles with her body image. But something happens in that first act that changes the trajectory of her character. Two of Martha’s abusive coworkers who would relentlessly bully her, begin to sexually assault her nightly at work. The meek woman begins to internalize this trauma, since she has no support structure and her boss who is aware of the situation refuses to acknowledge it.
It’s when Felix decides to get Martha “someone to keep her company”, that we realize what the filmmakers dark intent is. It’s at this moment, when Martha is presented with a “pet”, a woman chained to a wall and nearly naked — where she is forced to make a choice. Martha still understands on a human level that she should help the woman, but we see the conflict in her eyes as the darker influence of her father takes control, due to months of abuse that have stripped her of almost any humanity. Schumacher terrifyingly takes the audience through that internal struggle in her performance as we watch Martha, choose to continue the cycle of violence perpetrated against women by the patriarchy, her father and brother and beat and berate this woman, rather than to save her. The atrocity of this act is amplified by the fact that her father, and brother are known for their M.O. of exploiting women who were going through a difficult time and using that vulnerability to trap their victims.
Eline Schumacher is simply chilling on screen. Sure when we first meet her she is most definitely troubled, but it’s how subtle she is in taking us on this journey that is unnervingly as it feels authentic in her descent. Its how she expresses that loss of humanity and how that changes her entire character demeanor that is something I can’t recall seeing on screen in this caliber. The unsettling performances are aided by the lush visuals heavily inspired by David Lynch. From Felix who is sans eyebrows, to the film’s cinematography which is filled with expressionist shadows, cobalt hues and surreal overlays that director Karim Ouelhaj uses to infuse the film with Felix and Martha’s father’s presence. Overall these flourishes add a different dynamic leaning more arthouse than grindhouse, although the film would play fine in either setting.
Megalomaniac is not an easy film to watch, because it’s a journey most would not want to take. It’s not just a descent into madness, but a graphic metamorphosis human into a monster as we see Martha’s crimes quickly escalate from simply assault to murder. While there’s a reasoning and I dare say and justification behind some of Martha’s crimes, the film is careful to present these as choices after she has taken on her father’s mantle. She has crossed that moral line before wielding that power against those who wronged her and therefore is already lost. Megalomaniac is a grim dissection of the serial killer that leaves behind the true crime veneer for something darker, that will make you question your own motivations and actions.