Gaining momentum at the turn of the 21st century, the New French Extremity movement sought inspiration from an eclectic range of sources while combining the distinct genres of arthouse and horror. Inspired by Jean Luc-Godard as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alfred Hitchcock as well as Salvador Dalí, films from this movement attempt to shock the viewer into acknowledging the depraved reality of the human condition.
James Quandt (who also coined the term) described the New French Extremity movement as, “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.”
Adding, “Does a kind of irredentist spirit of incitement and confrontation, reviving the hallowed Gallic traditions of the film maudit, of epater les bourgeois and amour fou, account for the shock tactics employed in recent French cinema? Or do they bespeak a cultural crisis, forcing French filmmakers to respond to the death of the ineluctable (French identity, language, ideology, aesthetic forms) with desperate measures?”.
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we look at ten essential films from the New French Extremity movement in order to explore a fascinating period in the history of French cinema.
10 essential films from the New French Extremity movement:
Sombre (Philippe Grandrieux – 1998)
A dark and experimental film by Philippe Grandrieux, Sombre tells the story of a serial killer who tracks the iconic Tour de France cycling race and kills women along the way. The film received international attention and earned several accolades, including a nomination for the prestigious Golden Leopard Award.
“You film with a history behind you. It’s hard to film as if Dreyer, Murnau and Lang had never existed. But I never think of antecedents as I film a shot; I couldn’t. I don’t have a cinephile background. My cinematic culture was formed late,” the filmmaker said.
He added, “I was motivated. My cinephilia has constructed itself in a fragmentary way, but it’s not like there is cinema on one side, and literature and philosophy on the other. All of it is part of the same question, the same attentiveness, the same enterprise.”
Pola X (Léos Carax – 1999)
Carax’s 1999 drama is based on the Herman Melville novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. A brilliantly transgressive story about deviating from the normative rituals of human society, the film follows a successful writer who leaves everything behind when a mysterious woman tells him that she is his sister.
Carax elaborated, “The film was thought to be in three parts, three chapters. There’s the one chapter in the countryside, called ‘In the Light.’ I knew this chapter would be light, it would be green and white, green for nature.”
He added, “I dyed all of the actors’ hairs blonde and put them in white shirts. So I was trying to find a way to expose this young girl in a shot that would be really white and surrounded by green. So the film is going from light to darkness and rust.”
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis – 2001)
An erotic horror film that viscerally dissects the ideas we have of the world, Trouble Every Day stars Vincent Gallo as a scientist who spends his honeymoon absorbed in a sinister pursuit. The film has polarised critics, with some dismissing its vision as gratuitous while others have championed it as one of the best works from the New French Extremity movement.
Denis commented, “I don’t at all like the idea of a screenplay being a cage and that inside the cage you have to direct the actors. It seems to me that a screenplay is a kind of take-off and that the best moment is to see the characters taking off. They can turn left, or right, loop the loop, whatever. And at the same time you’re always a bit afraid. As long as they don’t crash. Because if filming means you have to control everything, I’d shoot myself.”
The Pornographer (Bertrand Bonello – 2001)
The Pornographer is an interesting story about an old porno director (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) who comes out of retirement to face a completely changed industry. While reflecting on the problems of the ageing filmmaker, Bonello explores deeper questions of family, the position of pornography in human culture as well as the phenomenon of voyeurism.
The director revealed, “I think the fact that I was born in ’68 and in a way I’m the son of ’68 is important in the way I think, in the way I do films and choose subjects. And that’s the subject of The Pornographer. In The Pornographer, when I was writing the film, of course I am the ‘son.’ I am the son who asks his father, ‘Okay, now you’ve done everything. What is left for us?’ And I was talking politically and I was talking in terms of cinema: What do you do with your fathers?”
In My Skin (Marina de Van – 2002)
One of the more famous films from this movement, In My Skin is Marina de Van’s powerful directorial debut. It traces the downward spiral of a woman who transforms the act of self-mutilation into a philosophical rebellion against the human body.
“I had to eliminate certain parts of the script and certain things I wanted to do. It was hard to find funding because it’s a difficult subject, with an actress who isn’t particularly well-known, at a time when economics are rather unfavourable,” Marina de Van said.
Irréversible (Gaspar Noé – 2002)
Irreversible is one of Gaspar Noé’s most celebrated works and rightly so. By structuring the narrative in reverse, the film subverts the idea of “justice” while telling the story of two men who seek revenge for the brutal rape of one of their girlfriends. Noé presents a vision of humanity that is so warped and grotesque that very few have the constitution to keep watching it.
While talking about his audience and contemporary culture, Noé stated: “Seventies cinema — Taxi Driver, Deliverance — that was the best period of American cinema. For the moment, it switches into popcorn movies — cheap sci-fi movies or movies that are not very far from reality, or when reality is portrayed it’s so sentimental and cheaply humanist that you are disgusted, like a cake with too much sugar. But I think the audience is more mature than what they are eating now.”
Demonlover (Olivier Assayas – 2002)
An iconic neo-noir thriller by Olivier Assayas, Demonlover is a scathing indictment of the very real possibility of a future dystopia where violence, sexual identities and everything else is dictated by the market. The film follows the battle between two corporations who fight for control over 3-D interactive hentai technology.
Assayas commented, “The 20th century has delivered to the mass market an experience which is, in many ways, more powerful than art. An internet connection allows you to move around in the world of image and fantasy, and it’s a world which is way beyond what anyone would’ve predicted a century ago.
“Something that used to be the space we gave to the artistic experience has been replaced by something that’s happening in real life. Twitter and Instagram allow us to be artists creating our own lives. We sculpt with our own persona.”
High Tension (Alexandre Aja – 2003)
This brutal 2003 slasher film revels in the violent construction of its own mythology, presenting the case of two college students who are hunted down by a psychopath. High Tension was included by TIME magazine in its list of “10 most ridiculously violent films.”
“I’m more interested in a specific kind of movie. Something that is a survival story. An engine. I tend to be on the side of the hunted. Maybe I don’t want to be on the side of the serial killer. But maybe High Tension is on the side of the serial killer. Yet, at the same time, it is on the side of the victim. I don’t have a clear answer for that,” the director said.
Inside (Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury – 2007)
Inside is a truly scary film that questions the relevance of new life in this messed up world. It stars Béatrice Dalle as a mysterious home invader who appears determined to extract an unborn baby from a pregnant mother. Inspired by slasher classics like Halloween, Inside is an intense investigation of the relationship between trauma and violence.
Maury admitted, “Villains in movies are always the more interesting characters for us. We love the bad guys. In the end with Inside we tried to say that Béatrice is not just a boogie woman coming to stab everyone, that she is just a woman broken by life. It’s just a sad story and human drama.”
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier – 2008)
A true cult classic, Martyrs presents a world where violence is cynically answered with violence. Two victims of childhood abuse embark on a grand quest for revenge until they find themselves in a difficult position. Martyrs pushes the boundaries of visual narrative while reflecting on the abstract nature of ideals like “justice”.
Laugier explained, “Martyrs is almost a work of prospective fiction that shows a dying world, almost like a pre-apocalypse. It’s a world where evil triumphed a long time ago, where consciences have died out under the reign of money and where people spend their time hurting one another. It’s a metaphor, of course, but the film describes things that are not that far from what we’re experiencing today.”