By Matt Smith
This essay discusses the following films: Anatomy of Hell, Irreversible, Trouble Every Day, Inside, Ils (Them), Frontiere(s), and High Tension.
Part II: The New French Extremity – Gore for the Art House Set
Horror films are a way for an audience to interact with mortality at a safe distance, to encounter fears and break taboos. The very idea of body horror as a sub-genre is a direct confrontation with the mortality of its viewers, feeding off the human fear of death, and most importantly, it is directly interested exposing – within the safe boundaries of film – the blood and guts that cannot be dealt with in our own lives without the result of our own demise. Body horror is, as its name implies, tied intrinsically to the horror of our own bodies, of the goop and innards which make up our physical being.
American horror has relied on increasingly innocuous set-ups, with very profitable franchises being founded on little more than the titillation of bound protagonists and cutting, poking and prodding the scares into its audience. Oddly enough, this is something that French filmmakers have been doing for decades outside of the genre’s boundaries, and which they have returned to their own ever more explicit horror films in the past decade. As a result, major risk takers on the international art scene have made it possible for French horror to gain worldwide acceptance, mostly due to the fact that there seems to be something going on behind all the violence.
Unlike the outgrowth of American body horror from the more or less mainstream slasher subgenre (or the Canadian cinema, which has different interests altogether, and which I’ll discuss in the future), the French films share a long history that is intertwined with the boundary pushing in their art cinema by filmmakers like Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noe, and which has shoved its way very consciously into their genre endeavors. This movement within the art cinema has been branded The New French Extremity, and is a broad spectrum of releases whose primary interest seems to be in exploring the physical taboos of our society on screen. What makes the French films so unique and exciting is the inclusion of not only acknowledged genre directors, but internationally recognized artists.
Catherine Breillat’s cinema is best described as genuinely horrific, and is definitely primarily concerned with the horrors of the human body, though her work is preoccupied with sexuality as much as it is with death. The most harrowing and psychologically devastating of these films is her ultra explicit meditation on the female form, specifically the female reproductive organs, Anatomy of Hell, which is also based on Breillat’s novel, Pornocratie. The story is fairly minimal: a man discovers a woman attempting suicide in a gay bar, and she pays him to watch her for four days while she discusses her views of sex and female sexuality. I’ll be totally up-front here and say right off the bat that I don’t particularly like this film, but it is nonetheless fascinating to think about and consider within the contexts of violence, if for nothing more than its imagery. About halfway through the film the discussions of masculine repulsion by female anatomy turns toward the extremely graphic, and specifically in regard to menstruation, a monthly bloodletting that is even portrayed by women as having some sort of horrific context – losing part of oneself – and interpreted very often as a signifier of uncleanliness.
Breillat provides us with some of the most brutal pornographic images within the context of monthly body cycles I have ever seen, during intercourse, with the man’s erect penis pulling out, covered in dripping blood, recalling simultaneously the pubescent horrors of poor Carrie White that day in the showers and the countless violent stabbings of a slasher movie with intrusive flesh substituted for cold steel. Sex itself is a violent act – a penetration from an outside force, and that is as important for understanding Breillat’s films as it is an informative image for her as an artist. The film is much deeper philosophically than I have given it credence here, though for my own purposes I am merely interested in it as an example of just how internationally accepted this mode of French filmmaking has become. As a counterpoint, let’s consider briefly two straight up art house horror movies, Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, both films that intermingle Breillat’s interest in sex and violence, but to more overt genre ends.
The poster child for unwatchable international cinema that so outraged viewers upon its release, Irreversible is a revenge fantasy told in reverse, starting out with the brutal murder of a man in a nightclub by Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and climaxing with the reason for his death, the realistic rape of Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus’s girlfriend, by the stranger in an underpass in Paris. The rape gets the most focus in the writing surrounding the film, mostly because Noe allows the camera to linger, unmoving, on the scene for about nine minutes as Alex is raped and beaten, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the image and the wanton brutality exhibited by the stranger on his victim. But this is only a part of the film’s message, and it gets exhausted to the point of absurdity when discussing Irreversible, particularly because the discussion always turns to whether or not it should be so long, and what that could possibly prove to an audience.
What intrigues me about Irreversible is the fact that Noe is earnest in his approach, open and honest, and he got backlash for it. The rape itself is horrific because rape is supposed to be horrific. The lingering camera and total lack of turning away from the moment is a commentary on the sexualization of rape scenes in cinema, not just in revenge films, but across all genre boundaries. I don’t think it’s particularly any more uncalled for than the rapes captured on video in Katherine Bigelow’s Strange Days, which uses the imagery to a similar end. But looking at the big picture, the whole film is a suggestion that everything is destroyed by time, from its constantly moving, tumbling camera to the reverse-chronological storytelling that simply inverts out notion of what revenge is and how we are trained to watch it. Is the rape in this film a vengeance for the earlier beating, or is the story meant to be reinterpreted through the spectrum of our own understanding of time – the film’s time is chronological, after all, counting up from the moment it begins playing. What are the implications of mingling the associations in our minds? Is this not important to do to an audience that may be complicit in both scenes of brutality (the killing and the rape) as titillating imagery of one nature or another?
Then there is Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day, which toys with more traditional genre guideposts, though it’s never clear whether or not its characters are vampires, cannibals or merely insatiable psychopaths whose brains (or DNA) has been reconstituted by some physical experiment in their collective pasts acting out in their separate presents. A brief summary of the plot is as follows: Core (Beatrice Dalle) and Leo (Alex Descas) are a married couple who must cover up the fact that Core likes to lure men into bed and then eat them, and Shane (Vincent Gallo), an American who is in Paris on his honeymoon, but who seems to be looking for Leo and Core because of their joint involvement in an experiment they were all working on some time ago, but the side effects of which have only recently begun to manifest in the subjects – Core and Shane. Much of the film is spent following Shane’s changing behavior, as he leaves his new wife in the hotel and starts stalking the maid at their hotel, and with Core being locked in her bedroom to prevent further incidents, which are unbelievably gruesome and highly sexual.
Taking its cue from the same Sadeian impulses as Breillat, Denis portrays one of Core’s kills in excruciating detail. After luring a man to bed, Core begins to have sex with him, with the sex drive itself also apparently providing the hunger that takes her over. While making love, Core begins to bite and nip at the man until finally she takes a huge chunk out of his neck, prompting horrific screams from the man that, if we weren’t already bearing witness to the physical reality, could be construed easily as screams of ecstasy (at least in movies that have a less than realistic hold on sex scenes). And like a wild cat toying with a mouse before finishing it off, Core kisses the man and plays with bits of him while he watches in horror. The sexualized nature of these kills is nothing new, but the explicit nature of the kills mingling with the hyper real sex of art cinema (and particularly the brutal sexual imagery from Breillat and Noe noted above) is distinct in French horror films because of how far the boundaries are pushed regularly toward the end of direct audience confrontation.
Part III: A New Wave of French Horror, Invaded and Violated (An Overview of the Movement)
While it’s debatable that there is even a real new wave of horror films emanating from France (Pascal Laugier, the director of Martyrs has notably denounced such notions), there is nonetheless a substantial amount of evidence to compare films made within that country to those made in the U.S. in the same vein and to dissect – no pun intended – what fears might lie at the heart of this very visceral and exciting vein (okay that was a pun) of horror films in the past decade. As I see it, there are five main films comprising the so-called new wave of horror in France: Ils, High Tension, Frontiere(s), Martyrs and the most assuredly gory, transgressive and outright frightening of the bunch, Inside. These five movies provide one of the most comprehensive snapshots of human anxieties about our bodies and modern life in general I can think of, and feature all manner of murder and mayhem, ranging from simple stabbing to evisceration to the most inhuman torture imaginable.
There are common threads throughout these films, the most common among them being home invasions that lead to unspeakable violence, and the fear of the Other, most often embodied by Arab immigrants and their offspring and centered on the riots and car burnings in the Paris suburbs in the latter half of the 2000s, and at least one of them, Ils links directly in with the Hostel series’ assumed anxieties about former Eastern Block countries and the disintegration of humanity after reintegration (and just what might have been going on behind the Iron Curtain in the first place). Even that film’s translated name, Them, is indicative of a fear of the Other, the non-French, the non-White, the savage nature of poverty/races/etc. It is, after all, an unidentified group of others – them – that terrorizes the young couple (the wife is French) in their Romanian house.
Watching Ils is an exercise in carefully calibrated suspense, and though it’s far less interested in gore than its counterparts, there is still a bit of blood, and there is no doubt about the invasive nature of its protagonists’ deaths, which are surely filled with awful violence. The plot concerns a couple besieged by a group of children one night and toyed with vis-a-vis a game of hide and seek, wherein the very house they live in becomes a trap from which they might not escape. The film is filled with dark spaces and unknown entities, seemingly unending, and wholly terrifying, and the finale is as bleak as they come, with the woman, Clementine, finally evading the children in a sewer system only to come upon a grated opening on a roadside, unable to escape. The film follows a fairly standard practice ever since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, proclaiming the film as being based on true events and giving us follow-up information on the murders of Clementine and her husband, Lucas. I think i would actually have preferred not knowing about the children who killed them. I’m not sure why.
The earliest film in this cycle of releases, at least in the consciousness of International audiences, is High Tension, which notably was released under the title Switchblade Romance in the U.K. The film concerns a couple of college friends, Marie (Cecile de France) and Alexia (Maiwenn Le Besco), who are on vacation at Alexia’s parents’ home in the country when their visit is interrupted by a stranger who breaks into the house and viciously murders Alexia’s family and abducts her in his truck, leaving Marie to save her. The film features a twist which leaves a gaping plot hole in its logic (Roger Ebert said it’s “not only large enough to drive a truck through, but in fact does have a truck driven right through it.”), but is nonetheless harrowing. The twist is that Marie is the killer, and has some sort of split personality disorder which disassociates her actions as killer and as savior, a weakness in logic that in no way hampers its transgressive nature.
What the film has going for it is that the first time I can remember when so much blood came from every single wound, starting with the father’s death, and the number of times a person was repeatedly hit with what should be life-ending blows, but which they always seem ready to come back from for one final round of blunt force trauma. For instance, the father is stabbed in the face and hand during the killer’s initial entry into the home, bleeding profusely, and then has his head shoved between the railing of the staircase before being decapitated by a table in the foyer. In the unedited version of this film, the blood pours from the body and pools on the floor. Director Alexandre Aja is no fan of subtlety, and that’s a trend that continues across the board in these films.
Frontiere(s) is interesting in its set up, because it gives voice to two specific racial anxieties, juxtaposing the modern issues with the Arab riots and the very recent but often disregarded Fascist past of Europe. The main characters, Yasmine (Karina Testa), Tom, and Farid – thieves who have fled Paris during the rioting over the election of a conservative government – find themselves waiting to cross the border at an inn in the countryside run by old-line Nazis who have been sustaining their bloodline by abducting girls, and who also kill and eat people. Translated into English, the film’s name means “borders”, and is fitting for a movie that features a multitude of them: the physical border of France, the racial borders explored in the film’s opening and the Nazi scenes, the bodies of the victims, which also serve as borders that can either remain uncrossed or violated.
The bodies are especially important here. In Ils or even High Tension there is certainly creepiness, and at least in the latter film plenty of bloodletting, but the horror turns more on whether or not the killers will catch the victims. In Frontiere(s) the characters are already trapped – the only escape option comes toward the end of the film, after three of them have been tortured and killed. What surprises me most about this movie is how explicit it is with small details (something that harkens back to the brilliance of Hostel: Part II and which ties it to Inside as well) while remaining relatively ambiguous about the truly gruesome things we supposedly witness. For every shot of Tom hanging upside down from his feet pierced by meat hooks in the ceiling, we also get cutaways and side shots for the truly gory material – rarely a straight-ahead look – like when Goetz, one of the sons of Nazi elder Von Geisler, is cut in half by a circular saw in the meat packing facility underground late in the film. There is a lot of blood, but the longest shots are of poor traumatized Yasmine, who has witnessed so much carnage already that it sends Karina Testa into overacting histrionics, an abyss of poor choice from which the film barely escapes.
Of the bunch, I find Inside the most fascinating, and most difficult to watch. (I’ve already written more extensively about Inside on my personal blog, if you’re interested.) Concerning a pregnant and recently widowed woman named Sarah (Alysson Paradis) under attack in her own house by a woman (Beatrice Dalle) who wants to steal her unborn child. Taking place in the suburbs around Paris, the film builds upon the mid-decade riots in unexpected ways, pointing out that not all threats are emigrated. A few months after a car crash that killed her husband, Sarah receives a knock at her door from a woman who she can’t see, and who seems to know an awful lot about her and her husband’s death. Sarah calls the cops, but when they come, the woman is nowhere to be found, and the image Sarah was able to take with her camera is too dark to make out features. After a few hours, Sarah goes to bed and the real assault begins. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, I recommend you stop reading right now and watch it – I give away practically the whole enchilada.
While Sarah is in her bed, the woman enters the home and finds a large pair of scissors. She hovers over Sarah and pulls her shirt over her swollen belly before slowly pushing the scissors into her belly button. I’ve always had a fear of something like this (surely I’m not the only one), and this shot is as close to nausea inducing as I’ve ever been while watching a horror movie. And it is quite literally nothing compared to what follows. Over the next hour, the film introduces character after character only to have them dispatched in increasingly Grand Guignol fashion, with Sarah even mistakenly stabbing her mother through the neck with a knitting needle when she tries to get her out of the safe haven of the bathroom. And the wounds are shown in great detail, and blood flows and flows.
The finale, which finds Sarah – still breathing, having suffered stabbings, strangling, and a self-tracheotomy to open up her airway – going into labor, and the woman straddling her on the staircase, cutting the baby out and the blood flowing like a river down the stairs. The last shot in the film is that of the woman, her scarred face from an earlier attempt by Sarah to kill her by setting her on fire looking down lovingly on the child torn from the womb, sitting in a rocking chair as the camera pulls back and we fade to black. Darkness wins, taking over, with no hope and all despair.
The reveal in the third act that the woman was the other person in the car crash, and that she miscarried as a result adds a dark fairytale aspect to Inside that makes the movie work all the more for me. Essentially we have a pair of mothers who want to save their child from the wicked witch – one that was stolen by death and one that is in danger of being stolen by a psychopath. But just like Marie in High Tension, who’s to say that the woman is simply blinded by her love, completely unaware that she is doing something crazy. This isn’t a psychodrama by any stretch of the imagination, but clearly Dalle’s character has mental issues if she thinks her problem will be solved by cutting a baby out of a woman who has lost as much as herself. But then she gets the chance to find out if everything turns out for the best, and the baby is hers at least for the few minutes after the film ends.
Who knows what happens after that, and furthermore, why would that matter? The baby is with the wrong mother, and the mother lay eviscerated on the staircase, her intestines and everything else splayed open and pulled out, the audience given full view of this autopsy gone awry. Difficult to watch, even more disturbing to think about the implications.
The overt nihilism is part of what makes this cycle of films so fascinating to me. We are confronted repeatedly with not only our own mortality, but the very real possibility that there will be nothing there to greet us on the other side, only darkness and nothingness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but as human beings we seem to at least feel like our time here on Earth means something to someone – but as with all of the survivors, if all of your friends have been killed, then what has your time meant? In all of them the victims are traumatized to the point of never being able to move on with their lives even if they do survive, but so many of them have no survivors. As a person who has these fears – of the Other, of home invasions, of bodily evacuation of all sorts – I find this concept of comfort in hopelessness, the eternal human condition, to be essential to an understanding of our mortal selves, no matter if there is life after death or not.
In the most extreme example of this, the ultra bizarre Martyrs, which I’ll discuss in the final installment of this essay series in depth, the “victim” is venerated and idolized by a secret organization looking to discover the very mysteries of life and death that these films force us to consider. In that film, too, there is not only a nasty streak of nihilism, but the only hope it does offer is the possibility that in the moment of our deaths – and only in that precise moment of ultimate suffering – can we truly know immortality before plunging into the great abyss.
As the French seem intent to prove, it is not our corporeal existence that should be held sacred – the insistence of showing any and everything is evidence of this. The body is meant to be examined, explicitly and eternally, to deepen our understanding of our own humanity, what we call our souls, and what we hope lies in wait for us at the end of it all. Body horror is the only genre which truly forces its viewers to consider this in full.
To be concluded in Part 3 of 3