French Extremist Cinema: Cinema of the Body–Horror

Research in progress: April 30, 2022

French Extremism or, informally, New French Extreme) is a term coined by Artforum critic James Quandt for cycle of transgressive films by French directors at the turn of the 21st century.

Bava as much as Bataille, Salò no less than Sade are the determinants of a cinema determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement- James Quandt, Artforum

Quandt associates: François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001), Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer (2001), Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002), Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999), Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998) and La vie nouvelle (2002), Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things (2002), Jacques Nolot’s Glowing Eyes (2002), Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi (2000), and Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) with the label.

Founders:

Artaeu

Bataille

Bava

Bunuel, Luis

Cronenberg, David

De Sade

Polanski, Roman

 

Italian:

Bertolucci

Pasolini

Denmark:

Lars von Trier

Lukas Moodysson

German

Haneke

Verhoeven

 

Members: French (Millennium)

Aja, Alexndre

Assayas, Olivier, Demonlover

Breillat, Catherine

Brisseau, Jean-Claude

Caraz, Leos

Chereau, Patrice

Corneau, Julie, Titan

Denis, Claire

De Van, Marina

Despentes, Virginie

Dumont, Bruno, Flanders

Grandrieux, Philippe

Haneke, Piano Teacher

Honoré’s, Christophe, Ma Mère

Laugier, Pascal, Martyrs

Monello, Bertnard

Nolot, Jacques

Ozon, Francois

Noe, Gaspar

Trinh Thi, Coralie

 

Quandt intended the term as pejorative, even though some of these directors have produced critically acclaimed work.

David Fear indicates that the lack of humanity beneath the horror represented in these films leads to their stigma, arguing that Bruno Dumont’s Flanders (2006) “contains enough savage violence and sexual ugliness” to remain vulnerable to the New French Extremity tag, but “a soul also lurks underneath the shocks”.

Nick Wrigley indicates that Dumont was merely chastised for “letting everybody down” who expected him to be the heir to Robert Bresson.

Jonathan Romney also associates the label with Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) and Christophe Honoré’s Ma mère (2004).

Tim Palmer has described these films as constituting “cinema of the body/”

Palmer: Such films reflect large scale stylistic trajectory, a kind of avant-garde among like-minded directors, from Catherine Breillat to François Ozon, along with contemporary figures such as Marina de Van, Claire Denis, Dumont, Gaspar Noé, and others. Palmer places this tendency within the complex ecosystem of French cinema, underlining the conceptual diversity and artistic scope in French cinema today.

Writers:

Romney traces a long line of (mainly French) painters and writers influencing these directors, beginning with the Marquis de Sade, and including Gustave Courbet’s 1866 L’origine du monde, Comte de Lautréamont, Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, William S. Burroughs, Michel Houellebecq, and Marie Darrieussecq.

He locates predecessors in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, Roman Polanski, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le weekend, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, and Michael Haneke.[2] Quandt also alludes to Arthur Rimbaud, Buñuel, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Georges Franju, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Guy Debord, Walerian Borowczyk, Godard, Psycho, Zulawski, Deliverance, Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain, and Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amours as models, but criticizes that the contemporary filmmakers so far lack the “power to shock an audience into consciousness”.

John Wray: these filmmakers show less affection for Hollywood films than their New Wave predecessors; they take after Jean Renoir as well as Bresson.

He also notes the long shots and enigmatic story-telling style of Dumont and the Dardenne brothers.

The expanded term “The New Extremism,” referring to European filmmakers: Lars von Trier, Lukas Moodysson, and Fatih Akın, has subsequently appeared.

Themes and Characteristics

While the New French Extremity refers to stylistically diverse group of films and filmmakers, it has been described as “a crossover between sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling psychosis.”

The New French Extremity movement has roots in art house and horror cinema.

Film blogger Matt Smith, this tradition has recently “shoved its way very consciously into France’s genre endeavors”

Smith: This new crop of horror is something altogether entirely different, concerned as much with gender identity as it is with sheer taboo-breaking of the screen images of bodies.

The New French Extremity is wide-ranging films, encompassing art-house darlings like Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat (more interested in sex than violence, or rather sex as violence) as well as those labeled schlockmeisters by detractors, like Xavier Gens and Alexandre Aja.

Films belonging to the New French Extremity take severe approach to depicting violence and sex.

Smith identifies 5 films that primarily comprise new wave of horror in France: High Tension, Them, Frontier(s), Inside and Martyrs.

These films provide “comprehensive snapshot of human anxieties about our bodies.” both corporeally and socially.

Smith identifies two predominant themes: home invasion and fear of the Other.

Pain Vs. Torture

Pascal Laugier, director of Martyrs, said that his work is connected to American torture porn efforts like the Saw series and director Eli Roth‘s Hostel, though Martyrs is an “anti-Hostel.” What makes his film different from American counterpart is that Martyrs is about pain rather than torture.

Per Laugier: My film is clear about what it says about human pain and human suffering. […] The film is about the nature and the meaning of human suffering. the pain we all feel on an everyday basis – in a symbolic way. The film doesn’t talk about torture – it talks about the pain”.

Film scholar Steve Jones has also charted the relationship between New Extremism and torture porn based on their shared themes and characteristics.

Cinematic Roots

Films of the New French Extremity exhibit traits representative of a wide range of horror subgenres–slashers, revenge films and home invasion films—the body horror subgenre has been particularly influential.

Smith: body horror as one of the New French Extremity’s most significant thematic antecedents, citing the early work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg as a key influence on the movement. He calls attention to the collective focus of the New French Extremity on human corporeality, its destruction and violation:

It is not our corporeal existence that should be held sacred – [their] insistence on showing anything and everything is evidence of this. The body is meant to be examined, explicitly and externally, to deepen our understanding of our own humanity…and what we hope lies in wait for us at the end of it all.

Xavier Gens has loosely contextualized his work within the body horror tradition.

He cites David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly as influence on his film Frontier(s): “To me, Frontiere(s) is a love letter to the genre movie. There’s a lot of reference to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Fly, and to many others…”

Film scholar Linda Williams has written about the “body genres”—also known as “gross” genres or “genres of excess”—a label that includes pornography, horror and melodrama.

Body genre films “promise to be sensational, to give our bodies an actual physical jolt. […] [T]heir displays of sensations…are on the edge of respectable”, which is what attracts audiences to them.[19] Such films are necessarily spectacle-driven, depicting human bodies overcome by intense physical or emotional sensations (e.g., pleasure, terror, sadness). Body genre films are also marked by the fact that they induce within viewers an involuntary mimicry of the emotions or sensations portrayed onscreen—for example: pleasure in porn, terror in horror or sadness in melodrama.

Williams has featured the work of New French Extremity filmmaker Catherine Breillat in her discussion of body genres, particularly Breillat’s 1999 film, Romance.

Exploitation Cinema

The New French Extremity bears thematic comparisons to the American exploitation cinema of the 1970s.

USC film scholar Tania Modleski notes that much of what distinguished the American exploitation movement from the Hollywood-dominated horror films that preceded it was “[exploitation films’] unprecedented assault on all that bourgeois culture is supposed to cherish–like the ideological apparatuses of the family and the school”.

Films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Brood were at the time noteworthy for their “adversarial relation to contemporary culture and society”.[22] In much the same way, many films belonging to the New French Extremity have been explicit in their criticism and rejection of bourgeois ideals. Films like Martyrs, Inside and Frontiere(s), for example, have been noted for their subversive attitudes toward dominant political, social and cultural orders.

Transgressive Cinema

Exploitation cinema and New French Extremity are characterized by transgressive attitudes towards depicting violence and sex.

Political Controversy

While films associated with the New French Extremity are unified by their transgressive content, critics and scholars have also highlighted their tendency to incorporate social and political themes.

Scholar Tim Palmer: “the New French Extremity] offers incisive social critiques, portraying contemporary society as isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening”.

Writer and film scholar Jon Towlson says that “the New French Extremity movement, [sic] can… be seen most significantly as a response to the rise of right-wing extremism in France during the last ten years…, a response that filmmakers are in the process of working through”.

Films of the New French Extremity do not reflect unified social or political platform. Some have been noted to include politically progressive commentary while others have been called homophobic and fascistic.

Critics disagree as to whether the sensational nature of many New French Extremity films disqualifies them as legitimate expressions of social, political and philosophical commentary.[27] Some critics and scholars have judged the movement’s treatment of such themes positively; others have dismissed it as tacked on, miscalculated or even offensive.

Trouble Every Day and Irréversible, which debuted at the 2001 and 2002 Cannes film festivals, were noteworthy for prompting widespread walkouts among audience members.

Martyrs was received similarly upon its debut at Cannes 2008, with audience members reportedly walking out, fainting, vomiting and bursting into tears.

Frontiere(s)

In a positive review of Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s), critic Manohla Dargis notes the film’s exploitative tendencies while crediting its “amusingly glib and timely political twist”.

In the film, a group of French-Arab youths flees riotous Paris after the election of a far-right government, only to be pursued by murderous family of militant white fascists.

“There’s enough blood in the unrated French horror film Frontiere(s) to satiate even the most ravenous gore hounds”, Dargis says.

“The real surprise is that this creepy, contemporary gross-out also has some ideas, visual and otherwise, wedged among its sanguineous drips…”.

While Dargis regards the film’s political convictions in a positive light, she notes that certain scenes veer “dangerously close to the unpardonable, with images that evoke the Holocaust too strongly”.

Like Dargis, Village Voice critic Jim Ridley acknowledged Frontiere(s)’s political themes. Ridley, however, is less favorable of the movie, describing it as “vigorously art-directed torture porn”. Comparing it to other films in the New French Extremity (specifically High Tension, Sheitan and Inside), he says Frontiere(s) takes “the most bluntly political tack yet.” It is “both hysterical and muddled”, even when interpreted as satire.

Director Xavier Gens was himself vocal about the film’s intended socio-political message. Asked in one interview about his inspiration for Frontiere(s), Gens said: “It came from the events in 2002, when we had the presidential elections [in France]. There was an extreme right party in the second round. That was the most horrible day of my life. The idea of Frontiere(s) came to me then…”.

Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, debut at the 2008 Cannes, where viewers held divergent reactions to the film’s violence and socio-philosophical themes.

Anton Bitel of Britain’s Film4 praised the film, saying it “eludes the ‘torture porn’ label precisely by questioning what those terms might mean, what appeal they might possibly have, and what questions – fundamental, even metaphysical questions – they might answer”.

Jamie Graham of Total Film called Martyrs “one of the most extreme pictures ever made, and one of the best horror movies of the last decade”. He also likened it to “a torture-porn movie for Guardian readers”, one that owed as much to Francis Bacon and Raphael as to its genre contemporaries.

By contrast, scholar Jon Towlson says Martyrs’ “political intentions are less overt, more ambivalent and ultimately nihilistic” compared to its contemporaries.”Putting the audience ‘through it is the film’s raison d’etre”

New Wave of French horror

Some films considered as part of the New French Extremity movement rework elements of the horror genre.

Contemporary French horror films with similar sensibility include: Trouble Every Day, Sheitan, Them, High Tension, Frontier(s) and Inside.

The Belgian film Calvaire has also been associated with this trend.

Pascal Laugier, director of the controversial horror film Martyrs, disagrees with the idea of a horror revival in France:

The fact is that we are much more successful in foreign countries and in our homeland it’s always the same stuff where you’re never a prophet..Eeven the horror fans, the French ones, they are very condescending about French 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 movie in France. So I know from an American point of view and probably an English one too, there is a kind of new wave of modern horror film, but it’s not true. It’s still hell. My country produces almost 200 films a year and there are like 2 or 3 horror films. It’s not even an industry, French horror cinema is very low budget, it’s kinda prototype. I think that genre really exists when it’s industrially produced like the Italians did 600 Spaghetti Westerns. So we can’t really say that there is a wave of horror in French Cinema.

Laugier: the existence of a broader wave of new European horror. He notes Spain, France and England as contributors.

The New French Extremity movement has influenced filmmakers in other countries, particularly in Europe, suggesting a greater movement of European Extremity.