Last Wednesday, The Black Museum presented the first lecture of its fourth semester, Quelle Horreur: The Films of New French Extremity hosted by Alexandra West.
It was a inhospitably stormy night, and I was still recovering from the flu, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Here’s what went down.
Ms. West began by mentioning Toronto film critic and programmer James Quandt who originally coined the term New French Extremity circa 2004. What’s funny is that he actually despised the movement and in an article with Artforum was quoted as saying;
“This recent tendency to the willfully transgressive… determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile and gnarled, and subject it all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”
West went onto mention that though France is perceived as all about love, romance and art, there is actually a lot of civil unrest and instability that gets glazed over on a global scale. She first ran down some events that contributed to the climate that brought about the New French Extremity, chief among them being World War II. The shame of France laying down to Nazi rule led to a fractured identity, which was compounded by post-war propaganda that proclaimed they were their own saviours. The ugly affair with the Algerians in the 1950’s did nothing to help this either, as distancing themselves from the ugliness of their past only led to a repressed national consciousness.
“A big part of art and film and the whole discourse surrounding it is really about looking at our past. Looking at different countries’ pasts and seeing how these movements form really illuminates parts of the society that they emerge from.”
|Alexandra West talks New French Extremity.|
West then went on to mention some of the artistic movements in the twentieth century that included The Grand Guignol and The Theatre of Cruelty. The former was perhaps an extension of France’s historical propensity for violence as theatre (public executions were still being held well into the 1930’s) and entertainment.
One of the most interesting revelations of the evening was that the New French Extremity began more as an art-house movement, and then evolved into its more recognized state as a horror subgenre.
The first film West brought up was Claire Denis’ 2001 film Trouble Every Day. Denis plays with expectations of narrative and intentionally keeps things stilted and awkward. The terrible things that the two protagonists are compelled to do in the film make it difficult for the audience to sympathize with them, thus creating a sizable disconnect.
Moving on, West’s next film was Gaspar Noe’s cinematic gut-punch from 2002, Irreversible. Perhaps the most infamous film of the last twenty years, it still inspires ire among cinephiles to this day. What I find impressive about this film is how Noe took a simple story and told it in a very unconventional way. It takes no prisoners and its rape revenge conceit (minus the revenge) offers no payoff to the viewer. If that wasn’t off-putting enough, the story’s events play out in reverse and mess with time and premonition, the only take away being “time destroys all things.”
In 2003, director Alex Aja brought us High Tension. This is where the New French Extremity crossed over into pure horror conventions. Due to Aja’s love of American slashers films like Maniac (Aja would go on to produce a remake of that film a decade later), his fusion of style, sound design and gore would facilitate High Tension’s success in the North American market. West pointed out that France never enjoyed a slasher renaissance like the US did, so Aja’s creation of a Euro-slasher hybrid was something very fresh and exciting at the time. Putting aside the logistical problems of the film’s climax, there are some really interesting things going on High Tension. The themes of sexual repression and the dangers thereof, playing with the tried and true Final Girl trope and unreliable perceptions of reality were all present here.
I was happy to see West cover Moreau & Palud’s 2006 film Them as it is one of my favourite’s from this period. It is another very simple story driven almost solely by its atmosphere. I also dig its themes of xenophobia, the backlash of imposing one’s will on another country and the uncertainty of the future that each generation brings with it.
West inexplicably skipped over the two significant titles Inside and Frontiers, but I imagine it was likely due to time constraints. These two films do admittedly share a more straight forward narrative, so I guess I can forgive them being glazed over.
The lecture ended off with Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs. This was another cinematic powerhouse and West was quick to argue – and I’m inclined to agree - against this film being labelled as “torture porn”. Torture porn generally revels in acts of violence, whereas the violence in Martyrs served a thematic purpose, illustrating the cyclical effect it had on its characters.
After Martyrs, the New French Extremity seemed to fizzle out. Why was that? Well, I’d wager that this tight-knit group of filmmakers had been continually trying to one-up each other and Martyrs represented a “ceiling” of sorts. Also, as West mentioned, all the brightest – or darkest depending on how you look at – French minds of the movement migrated to Hollywood and became hired guns on studio projects with varying degrees of success.
So, after looking at this group of films, we can see some common themes emerge. They often employ reversed or fractured time elements, involve couples (or perceived couples) and past traumas. In relation to these themes and France as a country, West concluded her lecture with this;
“These traumas that play out over and over again have their roots in social unrest. France is a first world country and these are really deeply seeded social problems that are coming to light in other ways. The characters in these films are trying to preserve their world, and over the course of these films, their worlds are fractured and broken and cannot be put back together again. I think that speaks to why these films are some of the most horrific, crazy and exciting of the last fifteen years.”