The New French Extremity, Explained: More Than Simply Horror - VRGyani News and Media

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Thursday, August 5, 2021

The New French Extremity, Explained: More Than Simply Horror

Seventeen years ago, critic James Quandt penned a piece for Artform, drawing attention to the rise of taboo in French Cinema. In his writing, he negatively coined a term for such horrors, “the New French Extremity”—a loose body of works bound together by their unapologetically transgressive nature. The films share a bond through their controversial display of the crude. Distinguished by its portrayals of sex and violence--particularly rape and murder--the movement takes pride in pushing the bounds of what is deemed socially acceptable in cinema.

Coining an entirely new subgenre was never the intent of Quandt; the writer simply looked to draw criticism to a notable trend. Still, giving a name to the collective gave it form and provided an opportunity for greater discussion of the like-minded French features. What was once just recognizable similarities has now turned into a fully-fledged category of cinema, with its own critics and fans. Typically, films of the New French Extremity movement fall under the larger horror umbrella. The majority of conflicts in these movies stem from humanity itself rather than an opposing inhuman power. Rarely will one ever see tales of possession or supernatural entities; instead the collection sees stories where the only perpetrators are the viewers' own fellow humans. These discussions of humankind are only exacerbated by their frequent focus on the physical body.

Much of the terror in these movies are seen through physical acts-- whether those be brutal fights or displays of sexuality (All of which are shown in extraordinary detail). With its attention to physicality, French Extremity’s gore often overlaps with body horror, a niche subgenre marked by grotesque violence against the human form. This can especially be seen in films like The Skin I’m In, Titane, or Inside, all of which focus on the physical body.

Films of the French Extremity will never shy away from their portrayals. They pay no mind to squeamishness, and every inhumane act will be shown in all of its gory detail. With such explicit content, it is no wonder that the genre has found itself at the head of numerous controversies.

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Generally, the entirety of New French Extremity has been subjected to condemnation due to its intense displays of nudity and gore. In Quandt’s original article, he adversely referred to the genre as, “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.”, cementing just how gnarly the genre can be. Furthering this idea In a review of the French film Flanders, critic David Fear states that the movie cannot be considered French Extremity as, “a soul lurks underneath the shocks' '. Fear’s words suggest that the transgressive content of these films can be so fanatical that they become soulless.

Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is a keen example of this contempt, with many finding the film’s brutal discussion of trauma unbearable. For this reason, the film was originally given an 18+ rating (comparable to the MPA’s NC-17 rating) due to its graphic scenes of torture. At the time, Martyrs was merely the second ever film to receive such a rating, sparking another debate in the already heated genre. Was the 18+ label given for protection, or as an act of censorship against the genre? Arguing against both the rating and the jarring reactions to his film, Laugier defended his work in an interview for ComingSoon.net: “Torture is not the point of Martyrs. The film deals with human pain, the meaning of it, which is something completely different.”.

Laugier’s beliefs are shared by many fans of New French Extremity. Supporters of the genre suggest that the vividness of the films are necessary to show the true impact of what is happening on screen. The events are shown in purposeful detail, crafted to make you feel a snippet of what the characters are feeling. You are meant to feel rage, disgust, and pain because the French Extremity are not stories of happiness, but instead ones of torment.

While the exploitative nature of New French Extremity can be found in movies across the globe, there is a certain societal connotation that separates the films from other visceral horror flicks. Movies are a reflection of the culture that they are created in and French Extremity is no different. The politics, norms, and history of France all have a part to play in the creation of its extreme genre.

An obvious example of politics inspiring extremity can be found in Xavier Gens’s Frontier(s), which follows a family of neo-Nazis in the wake of a controversial political election. During press for the movie, Gen said that the idea for Frontier(s) came from fears spawned during the 2002 French election, in which a far-right party was in the running for presidency. Frontier(s) was created as a direct response to the event, and could not have been created without that societal context.

In another display of the cultural connotations behind New French Extremity, genre frequenter Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, Romance X) explained, “French cinema is terribly bourgeois, […] You're either an artist or a conformist - if you're conformist, you show society conforming to the way it likes to see itself. If you're an artist, you show a society that's much more transgressive.” Her words suggest that some intensities of the genre stem from a need to stand out from the societal standards of France.

The most important thing to note before exploring New French Extremity though is that it is not meant to be a break from the real world. The films throw watchers into the darkest corners of humanity full force. Viewers are forced to think, feel, and evaluate the world they are living in. By enjoying the films, the watcher is confronted with the nature of their reality. There is no turning away from the evils of the world when they are presented on the screen in front of you.

The truth is, French Extremity is not for the faint of heart. It is a genre full of hidden gems and wonderful masterpieces, but it is almost never a joyful experience. It is a collective drawn together by the extremes of French Society, pushing both characters and viewers to their absolute emotional limits. While the movement is probably not the best to delve into on a bad day, it is an extremely important part of modern French Cinema. If you are a fan of horror, or even just looking to broaden your film encounters, the New French Extremity is something that must be experienced first-hand.

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