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Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

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The films of the New French Extremity have been reviled by critics but adored by fans and filmmakers. Known for graphically brutal depictions of sex and violence, the sub-genre emerged from the French art-house scene in the late 1990s and became a cult phenomenon, eventually merging into the horror genre where it became associated with American torture porn.


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The films of the New French Extremity have been reviled by critics but adored by fans and filmmakers. Known for graphically brutal depictions of sex and violence, the sub-genre emerged from the French art-house scene in the late 1990s and became a cult phenomenon, eventually merging into the horror genre where it became associated with American torture porn.

30 review for Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kurt

    Took a few weeks to read this as I was trying to watch the films before reading their respective chapter. Unfortunately, there are still a couple that impossible to track down. It is nice to read about films from a female perspective as historically these types of films were covered by men.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    Alexandra West is a regular contributor to horror magazines Rue Morgue and Diabolique. And as co-host of the podcast The Faculty of Horror, with Andrea Subissati, she has fully established herself as a keen mind when it comes to horror, in particular its essential kernel, below the chainsaws and screaming Final Girls and ambiguous endings that leave room for sequels. That kernel is how the horror genre subverts our safe assumptions of both the world and its representation in movie form. It confr Alexandra West is a regular contributor to horror magazines Rue Morgue and Diabolique. And as co-host of the podcast The Faculty of Horror, with Andrea Subissati, she has fully established herself as a keen mind when it comes to horror, in particular its essential kernel, below the chainsaws and screaming Final Girls and ambiguous endings that leave room for sequels. That kernel is how the horror genre subverts our safe assumptions of both the world and its representation in movie form. It confronts us with our darker sides, or aspects of our humanity that we prefer not to see, and rarely comforts us with hope that those issues may be resolved or even tucked neatly out of sight ever again. Whether we're watching the undoing of a mother-child bond in movies like Goodnight Mommy or The Babadook or the killers going free and off to find their next victims in The Strangers, West identifies and explains those strategies in a style that is profound and won't have you tapping desperately at your Dictionary app to figure out what she's saying. West brings this same sharp insight and accessibility to her book The New French Extremity, a look into a ten-year period of French film that managed to repulse a good portion of its audience and incite others into fandom--both of which seem appropriate to the drives of some of these movies. Films like Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, or Martyrs, or Baise-Moi have tread the line between cinema and confrontation and made their audiences uncomfortable for good reason. They present an unromanticized France, with extreme violence and sometimes relentlessly unresolved acts to make us question our safe assumptions of the world. Irreversible, for example, depicts (in one of the most unflinching ways you will ever see, I hope) a violent rape and its aftermath as the woman's boyfriend seeks retribution that also ends badly, leaving us no hint that anyone will be brought to justice, SVU-style. Baise-Moi follows the violent spree of two women who pursue the only course they have left after being subjected to abuse and rape. Their story ends sans any Thelma & Louise consolation--only death for one and arrest for the other. West's approach is to reveal the subversive horror behind each film, including its attempts to present a grittier actuality behind the peaceful, highbrow image of France. After the introductory chapters that summarize the more violent aspects of france’s history, from its unyielding Catholicism to the more contemporary struggles with identity and immigration, West often groups movies together by director or theme to pursue the ideas of a single creator or movies that explore body horror (like cannibalism and cutting) or how children exemplify the failings of the community around them. West's best work in this book comes in the chapters where she hones in on a single movie--in these cases, Martyrs and High Tension (aka Haute Tension and the unfortunate first choice for US distribution, Switchblade Romance). These movies deserved their own focus, especially for the reactions they garnered. Martyrs has been summarily condemned by some as torture-porn for the way it offers systematic abuse of women by a religious organization, and High Tension for its twist ending that leaves, according to late film critic Roger Ebert, "a hole that is not only large enough for a truck to drive through, but in fact does have a truck driven right through it." I have been fans of both these movies but never with enough sense to know how to respond to either of these charges. But West delves into these films with expert dexterity to reveal how Martyrs actually brings us to sympathize with its victims, not enjoy the spectacle of their torture, by reversing the timeline of abuse. First we see the long-term effects, then the immediate repercussions, so that when we are presented with real-time abuse in the third portion of the film, we already know the effects and react even more emotionally to the acts we see on screen. And High Tension, West argues, presents a twist that doesn't work with some of the preceding storyline because the film itself is from the perspective of an unreliable mind that has brought us in to show us its perception of the story. The fault of that perception is revealed, but not resolved, and in fact tries to get us to sympathize rather than condemn. West does her research to bring us thoughts from the directors and other critics, as well as her own insights, to make satisfying arguments. This book may ultimately prove best for a reader who already has some familiarity with some of these movies and will, as I did, start Wish Listing other titles as they are discussed. If you are a fan of horror but have mostly kept to the standard US fare of Jigsaws and Krugers and Jasons, Alexandra West's book will open up a whole new trove of what horror can induce...if you are ready for that kind of leap.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    The New French Extremity film movement has been popular for years because of its tendency to push the boundaries of cinema even beyond the horror genre. These films are typically nihilistic with extreme violence, social commentary, and other taboo that most consider beyond the pale. Alexandra West's book starts out with a history of France with turmoil, resistance, tyranny, and blood soaking it all. It's completely the opposite of what people typically view as France: romance, the city of lights The New French Extremity film movement has been popular for years because of its tendency to push the boundaries of cinema even beyond the horror genre. These films are typically nihilistic with extreme violence, social commentary, and other taboo that most consider beyond the pale. Alexandra West's book starts out with a history of France with turmoil, resistance, tyranny, and blood soaking it all. It's completely the opposite of what people typically view as France: romance, the city of lights, and idyllic beauty. Their history (and present in some cases) of beheadings, fascism, concentration camps, and racism isn't widely known and not represented in their film. Charles de Gaulle famously advocated moving forward without acknowledging or coming to terms with French support of the Nazis during the occupation, causing any film to do so fail. Many of the films in this genre acknowledge this denial and cite it as the cause of reactionary attitudes and politics as well as the resulting public unrest and riots. I found this fascinating as I knew about Vichy France, but never studied the events that followed. Then, West covers a brief history of French cinema, starting from the very first horror movie ever created, The Haunted Castle in 1896. Later, horror in France was characterized by surrealism and the conflict surrounding self and identity, especially after World War II. The New French Extremity movement took real life fears and made them even more horrific. Interior struggles become exterior and irrevocably damage the world around the characters. They also take the buried history of France, especially the atrocities of WWII that went largely unacknowledged, and make it a focus. Many of the films have that seed of racism, fascism, and violence either festering over years and growing or exploding. Many of the films have civil unrest in the background usually as a response to a conservative government. She mentions Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, which uses theater as a means of confronting harsh realities for an uncomfortable catharsis instead of escaping into fantasy in idyllic films such as Amelie and The Artist. The concept describes this movement well. These directors take the formula for horror films and alter them in unsettling ways to make something unique. The first wave of French Extremity was based in art house films by the likes of Gasper Noe, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Marina de Van among others. The most notorious of these was Irreversible, which many don't consider horror at all. It has all of the elements of this movement in the extended rape scene, its brutal violence, and its nihilistic ending. Its homophobia and racism were frequently called out by critics, but proponents argued that they are both an intrinsic part of France and its history portrayed honestly. Breillat's Romance showed that family isn't the happily ever after everyone expects in the face of an unstable and insecure society and critiques society's view and expectations of women. Palo X has a successful man rejecting the society that valued him and has the viewers act as observers rather than judges of his morals. In Baise Moi, lower class women inflict violence that they have become accustomed to onto others in a Thelma and Louise-esque road trip. My personal favorites of this sub-genre are the cannibal films Trouble Every Day and In My Skin. They act as this movements version of body horror. The former centers on love and desire as a disease and the other on isolation in success and the need for connection. Both have shockingly tender moments among their carnage that I respond to.Many of these films subvert expectations in the horror genre and in gender norms while pushing the boundaries of cinema and audiences. The last evolution of the genre takes conventions of American horror films and infuses them with the brutality, nihilism, and social commentary of the art house wave. The first and most iconic is Alexandre Aja's High Tension, which takes a slasher film and twists it. I found the twist to be homophobic in nature, but West reads it differently. Although I don't agree with her, it shows how complex these films are and how even a decade later they are still being hotly debated. Calvaire is a particularly odd film that almost feels like it doesn't belong and the film I liked the least of this genre. West's observations let me see another side of the film. Xavier Gens' Frontier(s) is my favorite of the later wave. I had seen it years ago and dismissed it as a Texas Chainsaw ripoff, but I gave it another chance and it has so much more going on than that. The historical implications make the film so much more tragic and upsetting. Martyrs is the most notorious entry and even West can't convince me that it isn't poorly constructed, misogynistic, exploitative, and ridiculous. I do enjoy her reading and interpretation of it even if I disagree. For instance, although the plot is linear, the way it deals with trauma isn't. It starts with the aftermath, follows with the trauma, and ends capture and torture. Its condemnation of religion and the exposure of its inhuman sides set it apart from other religious themed films that usual uphold religion's patriarchal system. Inside is another amazing film, but the added critique of the media and their portrayal of violence and conservatism makes the film even deeper than I thought. I have seen and reviewed many of these films throughout the years on my blog because I feel sostrongly about them. Whether I find them problematic or I absolutely love them, I keep returning to them because they have a singular element that combines violence, social commentary, and true emotions. I see the echoes of this movement in more recent films like Raw, which isn't as extreme, bleak, or violent, but shares a lot with films like In My Skin and Trouble Every Day in breaking gender and societal norms through cannibalism and body horror. Although I didn't entirely agree with West's reading of a few of the films, she still gave wonderful insights on all of the films as well as a look into the cinematic history, social history, and hidden conflicts within France that give much needed context to these films. I will definitely be watching more of these films as I didn't know some of them even existed before reading. I hope this book with help other viewers expand their view of this genre beyond the most popular films.

  4. 4 out of 5

    John Raptor

    Excellent book chronicling the history, themes, and politics of the New Extremity movement in French cinema. Overseas, we think of France as a place of high art, language, culture, and dining--romantic--but forget about the country's dark past: the French Revolution, the occupation of the Nazis, even the riots that took place as recently as the early 2000s. The author (Alexandra West) makes an intriguing argument that the disturbing images and themes of the New French Extremity movement - a term Excellent book chronicling the history, themes, and politics of the New Extremity movement in French cinema. Overseas, we think of France as a place of high art, language, culture, and dining--romantic--but forget about the country's dark past: the French Revolution, the occupation of the Nazis, even the riots that took place as recently as the early 2000s. The author (Alexandra West) makes an intriguing argument that the disturbing images and themes of the New French Extremity movement - a term originally coined by film critic James Quandt as a pejorative - are a reflection of the dark underbelly beneath France's picturesque postcard surface. Highly recommend!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Alaniz

    A Look Into French Depravity Any fan of the New French Extremity Movement should pick up this book and devour it. It’s a blow-by-blow look at iconic NFE movies and how they reflect the France rarely seen by the outside world.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    In the early to mid-2000s French cinema reached the cutting edge of horror. The often brutal and shockingly violent films captivated audiences worldwide. Horror had been in a slump and this was a breath of fresh air. The pinnacle of these titles was High Tension and Martyrs. Alexandra West takes a look at the movement with Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity. Torture porn was the horror standard in the U.S. at the time, with the yearly Saw movies dominating t In the early to mid-2000s French cinema reached the cutting edge of horror. The often brutal and shockingly violent films captivated audiences worldwide. Horror had been in a slump and this was a breath of fresh air. The pinnacle of these titles was High Tension and Martyrs. Alexandra West takes a look at the movement with Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity. Torture porn was the horror standard in the U.S. at the time, with the yearly Saw movies dominating the horror box office. A number of French movies took things to the next level in both originality and violence. The movies covered in the most detail include the ones previously mentioned as well as Irreversible, Inside, and Them. The author examines 22 films altogether. Our author introduces us to French cultural and cinema history to set the scene for this movement. There is a fair amount of actual history included since French history offers plenty of real life bloody stories. The themes of horror films are a reflection of the society and the times in which they were created. The social anxieties of the day are brought to the screen in metaphors. For example, Dawn of the Dead displays the late 70s love of consumerism; The Fly’s body horror can be seen as a response to 80s anxiety about AIDS. This is also the case for the movies of the New French Extremity. The bleakness portrayed reflects French societal worries such as fears of immigrants, changes in social class, and the fading of traditional French culture. Sexuality and gender are also key themes of these French films. The sex is unglamorous and uncomfortable, and is frequently portrayed and often coupled with violence. Female gender issues include pregnancy, motherhood, and the female body. Many of the films feature a resilient and powerful female protagonist. West talks about the directors behind the movement, notably Gaspar Noé , Alexandre Aja, and Pascal Laugier. My personal favorite of this wave of films was Frontier(s). It began in the chaos of riots in Paris and featured a psychotic Nazi family, mirroring the lunatic Sawyers from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I most enjoyed the two chapters on Martyrs and Inside. Martyrs is one of the most unpleasant films to watch and truly shocking in its violence and suffering. It’s the kind of traumatizing film that can make you question why you put yourself through it. Inside is incredibly frightening – what could be more perilous than a pregnant woman fighting for the life of her child and her self? These movies were not expected to find such worldwide acclaim. First, the film world generally regards horror as a sub-class of art. Second, the fact that they are French language films added yet another barrier to their success. However, succeed they did. It’s worth noting that this is a fairly academic examination of the movement. It features plenty of historical and cultural discussion, but that is not to say that it’s boring in any way. It may not be for the casual reader, but if you’re interested in the topic, I haven’t found a more in-depth examination. After reading this book I am going to go back and revisit the films I enjoyed with a new perspective.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Emily Hill

    Had some weird grammatical and syntax errors that I found distracting. (Maybe it was translated from French? Not sure.) Regardless - very interesting, would recommend to film buffs / horror aficionados.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Angela

    Great book discussing many of the films and directors related to this movement. The author did a good job of tying in French history to how this particular movement came about.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nico

    Informative with relevant background, purposeful interpretations, and inclusive of lesser known titles.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Very informative book. Have seen two of the movies discussed, Irreversible and High Tension, and was interested in reading the background of these types of movies.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Neal

    Poorly written-stylistically reads like a film studies theses from a state college-with banal ideas about the provocative movement.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    This book offers, A deeper look of these films. Which brings back memories of these films and wanting to revisit some of them to see what I may have missed and simply dismissed too simply. If anything this book and the reviews reminds me and us to look deeper into not only the films they discuss and summarize, but inspired one to once again look deeper into the films. Discover what they are really about. Pay attention to the construction. What you love, hate, like, dislike about a film. Try to ex This book offers, A deeper look of these films. Which brings back memories of these films and wanting to revisit some of them to see what I may have missed and simply dismissed too simply. If anything this book and the reviews reminds me and us to look deeper into not only the films they discuss and summarize, but inspired one to once again look deeper into the films. Discover what they are really about. Pay attention to the construction. What you love, hate, like, dislike about a film. Try to express the beauty and promise you might see and it's themes. Don't think of it as a waste of time or just pure trash, Wasting. Disposable entertainment. Realize that this is art and for some a parable of society and the world. It teaches us that something's just aren't put there for no reason that there are layers to what we are watching or that at least we can find some depth.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Izzy Lee

    A very in-depth look at the extreme French art house and horror films of this movement with interesting insights from West that give these films a broader flavor. I quite enjoyed it. Fans of academic explorations of cinema will find a lot to love within these pages.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Audrey Azel

    Love this book. It is one of the most insightful reads for Horror fans to reminisce on some of your favorite French Horror films and their history. It is a great reflection of France's dark underbelly and the films they produce. Love this book. It is one of the most insightful reads for Horror fans to reminisce on some of your favorite French Horror films and their history. It is a great reflection of France's dark underbelly and the films they produce.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  16. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

  17. 4 out of 5

    Onbezield

  18. 4 out of 5

    William

  19. 5 out of 5

    Douglas MacGregor

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jon Högman

  21. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Barnett

  22. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Kobes

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jason Beau

  24. 4 out of 5

    Janne

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jason Heller

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  27. 5 out of 5

    Fern Underground

  28. 4 out of 5

    Peter Whitney

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jami

  30. 4 out of 5

    Zack Long

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