Monday, 5 September 2011

New French Extremity

New French Extremity is the term coined for the series of transgressive films produced in France and Belgium in the last decade including works by auteurs Gaspar Noe, Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Francois Ozon, as well as individual titles such as Baise Moi, The Pornographer, Intimacy and In My Skin. These films, which have received considerable international attention, are characterised by a desire to shock, although critics are divided as to whether the deliberate breaking of taboos in these films is linked to a genuine desire on the behalf of the film-makers to shock audiences into political consciousness.  A number of distinguished horror films have been linked to the movement: Haute Tension, Frontiere(s), Inside, Martyrs, Seitan, Them and Calvaire.

Despite the emergence of the French  and Belgian horror film in recent years, Martyrs’ director, Pascal Laugier is quick to disabuse us of any notion that the horror genre has become part of French mainstream cinema:  ‘My country produces almost 200 films a year but there are only 2 or 3 horror films. It’s still a hell to find the money, a hell to convince people that we are legitimate to make this kind of film in France.’

This is, of course, reassuring as it suggests that the New French Extremity Movement (and the horror films within it) provides an alternative to French National Cinema, a challenge to national identities. But to what extent can these films in themselves be considered ‘progressive’? Certainly their tradition seems to be that of Bunuel, Franju, Clouzot – the tradition of French ‘shock’ art and literature originated by De Sade, Artaud, Bataille  – a tradition problematic  in itself, anchored as it is in the philosophy of nihilism, an extreme scepticism that denies all human values, all human forms of communication,  and therefore the possibility of progressive change. There is, to boot, a disturbing undercurrent of fascism in many of these films (Noe’s work strikes me as particularly problematic – especially in his treatment of homosexuality). This is, of course, not peculiar to French cinema – the whole ‘torture porn’ subgenre is redolent of it. However, the New French Extremity movement, can, I believe, be seen most significantly as a response to the rise of right-wing extremism in France during the last ten years (as personified by the figure of La Penn), a response that film-makers are in the process of working through.

Of all the horror films attached to the movement, Frontier(s)(2007) is perhaps the most progressive-minded. The plot concerns a family of degenerate murderers, led by a former (and still practicing Nazi) who imprison and torture a group of young people on the run who stumble into the family’s inn on the Belgian border. Set against a backdrop of Paris riots following the fictional election of an extremist right-wing candidate into the French presidency, Frontier(s) clearly functions as a political allegory about a degenerate-regressive ‘old guard’ set on annihilating the young.  The fact that the young people are a mix of races and sympathetically portrayed emphasises the Nazi undercurrents of the torture that they undergo at the hands of the elders. Director Xavier Gens explains that the story for Frontier(s) “came from events in 2002 when we had presidential elections in France. There was an extreme right party in the second round. That was the most horrible day of my life.”

The capture-torture motif of Frontier(s) is also central to Martyrs(2008), but in this film the political intentions are less overt, more ambivalent and ultimately nihilistic. The film begins with a young girl, Lucie, as she escapes from a disused abattoir where she has been imprisoned and physically abused by mysterious captors.  From there the film develops into a tale of friendship:  Lucie - tormented by ‘survivor guilt’ - is taken into care in an orphanage where she meets Anna, who attempts to help her.   Up to this point, Martyrs appears to be about the phenomenon of parents imprisoning their children in order to abuse them - a’ la Fred West and Josef Fritzl - and its psychological effects on the victims. But then Martyrs makes a sudden volte face as the mysterious captors are revealed to be a society of aged super-rich inflicting torture on young women in a bid to discover the secrets of the afterlife.  This shift in story direction comes across as muddled and confused (and somewhat unconvincing), and while there is no doubt that Martyrs is a visceral piece of work, this confusion about what it is trying to say, together with its unremitting bleakness, ultimately detracts from it being a better film. The overall impression is one of nihilism –  ‘putting the audience through it’  seems to be the film’s raison d’etre.  Martyrs is currently being remade by Daniel Stamm, director of The Last Exorcism (another film that falls down its final moments due to an ‘ideologically’ confused ending), who claims to be reworking the film to give ‘a glimmer of hope’.

Whereas Martyrs falls somewhere between a progressive and nihilistic vision (it does, after all, explore the notion of a degenerate older generation abusing its young), Inside (2007), falls into the category of reactionary horror film because of its dread of the woman’s body.  It concerns the attack and home-invasion of a young pregnant woman, by a mysterious stranger (played by Beatrice Dalle) who seeks to take her unborn baby. The film presents pregnancy and motherhood in a wholly negative light. Firstly, in Beatrice Dalle’s character is the personification of the ‘psychologically disturbed mother’ who would seek to harm another in her obsessive need for a child to replace the one she lost. Then there is the depiction of childbirth itself as something to be loathed (shown in the film as an impromptu Caesarian performed with a pair of scissors). Inside is a perfect case study in what Barbara Creed called the ‘Monstrous-Feminine, and a reminder that transgressive horror does not necessarily mean progressive or even subversive horror.

The horror films of the New French Extremity, then, can be seen as an off-shoot of the torture porn subgenre, and like 1930s horror films such as The Raven (1935) and The Black Cat (1934) pre-occupied with sadism and torture imagery, reflecting the rise of fascism in an era of economic collapse.  As the European Debt Crisis deepens it will be interesting to see what direction the movement takes; whether it will continue apace or lose its impetus in the face of industry recession and increased censorship.


Wes M said...

Fascinating stuff Jon. I must say I didn’t consciously look at the new wave of French Horror films as a movement, I just figured that after Alexandre Aja’s breakout international hit Haute Tension, French film makers were finding it easier to bankroll Horror pics... You've given much to think about there.

I too found Martyrs somewhat disappointing, I thought the plot shift was a little too forced myself, I felt like the film makers were looking for someway to legitimize the exploitation element of the film to stand it apart from say the likes of The Human Centipede

Jon T said...

Thanks, Wes. I agree with what you say about Martyrs, it did seem that it was trying to justify its own excesses. I must say I was disappointed by Haute Tension as well - I found the ending completely mystifying. Have you seen the Horde? A decent little zombie movie that comes on like Dawn of the Dead meets La Haine - one of the more entertaining of the bunch.