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A Period of Extremity in French Cinema

Words:

Edd Norval
April 2, 2021

At the turn of the Millenium, change was abound. The dawn of the internet meant that our world was about to shift drastically, reconceptualising everything that had come before it. This impacted art too, with much of the creations of the time reflecting this paradigm shift to varying degrees. At odds with all of this change was something intensely primal and human - New French Extremity in cinema. 

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Bursting onto the consciousness of cinema nerds around the world, before the widescale proliferation of information that the internet would bring about only a few years later, there were several films released in France over the period of a few short years that completely shocked, repelled and enraged critics and moviegoers. 


A long, 9-minute single-shot of Monica Bellucci being raped in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible is one of the most painful to watch, yet enduring scene of this moment. Many, in fact, couldn’t or didn’t actually watch it. The film sparked outrage at the time, labelled as gratuitous or torture porn, something Noé concedes ”had to be disgusting to be useful.” The most iconic of all films under this genre, its 2002 release seemed to kickstart a competition of directors out-shocking each other and pushing all previously established boundaries.


Noé’s film had a masterstroke though. By showing the film in reverse chronological order, we are not ushered towards the violence, rather than having had time to root for the avenger as we usually do in these films. Instead, we witness the violent act first and then are given time for it to linger in our minds, assessing all that led to it through the lens of its violent crescendo. As Roger Ebert argued, “that by presenting vengeance before the acts that inspire it, we are forced to process the vengeance first, and therefore think more deeply about its implications.”

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What made this spate of films, only loosely connected by way of being French, stand out at the time was the key elements of violence and sex. This mightn’t seem like it’d stand out on its own, as most movies have these two elements to some degree, but it was their scale that set them apart. The violence was visceral, the sex was hardcore. These films were unflinching portraits that jolted the world of cinema from its slumber, spitting in the face of the previous year’s mainstream hits like Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful - both recipients of Oscars in 1999.


Stylistically, the films have many elements present in horror, crime, art-house and kitchen-sink realism. Just like those films, there can easily be an exploitative element to them, where sex is often used as violence, but also both can be relied on so heavily as to depreciate their value - wielded more like weapons of shock than narrative drivers. It’s this quasi B-movie appeal that has perhaps cemented this loose group of films - from Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) to Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs - in cinema’s pantheon. 


Just like the Italian Spaghetti Westerns, there’s a sense of unreality in amongst the hyper-detailed that, whether you’re a fan or not, the director’s manage to goad a reaction, as well as create something memorable. The experience of watching them is intense. It’s not often you walk out unmoved. The bodies of these film are the vessels through which we understand our own. Their pain as a pain experienced, rather than a vengeance inflicted, is what makes us recoil out of fear that it could happen to us or our loved ones.

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Although the New French Extremity shares many similarities to torture porn, it’s a more artistic and nuanced vision, really challenging the domesticated values of bourgeois society with bursts of the savage - at its most extreme - to remind us that underneath our veneers of civility, there is an innately savage side to being human. We are more animal than we’d like to believe and seeing that can scare us.

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