There comes a time when horror films start to feel a little bit watered down. #31DaysofHorror has been an eye opener for me over the last couple of years. You watch a metric bucketload of horror films and same tired old beats are recycled over and over again with only rarely something new being discovered. With this yearning for something new and exciting, some new threshold to be crossed so that the viewing experience feels new and exciting again, let me introduce you to the New French Extreme (NFE) genre.
New French Extremity or New French Extreme is term dropped by critic James Quandt, describing a collection of films by French directors released around the year 2000:
Bava as much as Bataille, Salò no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly 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, Artforumn 2004, Flesh & Blood: Sex and violence in recent French cinema
Whilst this was meant as a slur, a damning knife to the back (or throat, complete with arterial spray, in typical NFE style), it has almost become a badge of honour. Perceived as having a lack of soul, or motivation, beneath the violence and depravity on-screen is what has given these films some of their stigma. New French Extreme gets described as a crossover between sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling psychosis. The roots of this movement come from the combination of arthouse and horror cinema, referencing the severe rather than tamely approaching a taboo subject, particularly with respect to violence and sex. Because it crosses these borders it draws in from both pools of directorial talent, arthouse mainstays like Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day) and Olivier Assayas (Demonlover) alongside those more interested in the visceral themes like Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension) and Xavier Gens (Frontier(s)) leading to subversive and intriguing ideas being portrayed in unadulterated, and more often than not gory, glory.
And this unfiltered view likens this genre more to the excellent work of Takashi Miike and the films that were collected and distributed by Tartan Video under their Tartan Asia Extreme branding that got me so interested in world cinema. Films such as Audition, Battle Royale, Oldboy and Ichi the Killer, viewing that is not being dumbed down or mollycoddled but is giving it everything that it deserves. And this happens none more so than in the body horror elements, showing the destruction and violation of the human body, that some of the best examples in this genre entail.
The New French Extreme has been connected to torture porn, such as the Saw films and Hostel but the difference here is that films like Martyrs is not centred around the torture of the acts and the gratification and glorification of inflicting damage on the victim but is more about the pain and suffering. What that gives is a totally different perspective on the admittedly hard to watch acts that are being perpetrated on the screen.
Two of the driving themes across this genre are the invasion of the home and the fear of the other. This is perfectly shown by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s 2007 film À l’intérieur (Inside). Marrying these two themes, along with a heavy dose of body horror elements, worked perfectly in creating a film that has incredible tension and is totally brutal and shocking at times with how far it goes, but that isn’t to discount the plot as there is some real semblance of story going on here amongst the carnage. And, as seems to be a recurrent choice for films in this genre, having central female characters in both positions of power and vulnerability, works extremely well to make these films stand out even more. Inside stood out last year in my #31daysofhorror viewing for many of these reasons.
Alexandre Aja’s 2003 Haute Tension (High Tension/Switchblade Romance) is another wonderful example of the home invasion theme being given the NFE treatment. This film is brutal at times and has a truly great twist, incorporating the themes of possessiveness, control, desire and mental instability really well and it takes them all to incredibly dark places.
As an update to the New French Extreme there have been a few films released recently that would qualify for being included in this genre. One of my favourites in the last couple of years is Raw (Grave). A body horror, coming of age told through the eyes of a cannibalistic yearning for flesh. Julia Ducournau has presented a story in which the main protagonists are really the outliers, the others to be feared but that doesn’t become apparent until much later on. Classy film-making without compromising on content or tone, this is what appeals so much to my horror sensibilities.
Even more recently Revenge hit the big screens, and was released on Shudder. As the title subtly points out, this is a revenge tale with an almost surreal amount of gore, again with a female character central to what is strong about this film. The build up in this is fantastic and the violence is depraved and glorious. Again this is a stylish update of the NFE genre, nothing held back but done in a way that makes it all the more accessible to mainstream audiences. Following watching Revenge I checked out Coralie Fargeat’s short film Reality+ which again incorporates slight body horror elements added to a slightly futuristic world with a very contemporary social commentary.
My viewing this year includes Frontière(s) and Ils which I am very much looking forward to seeing and experiencing. If you are interested in exploring the New French Extreme genre some more, Raw and Revenge are some fantastic films to get a taste of it before heading into darker and deeper territory with, of the ones that I have seen, Switchblade Romance and Inside. I think it is probably best to leave Martyrs until last!
Originally published on Set The Tape