‘Cinema determined to break every taboo’: New French Extremism and the bloody world of Gallic horror

By Steve Balshaw, Grimm Up North

To celebrate Grimm Up North’s imminent screening of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and his new movie the Tall Man on Thursday February 7 at Stockport Plaza, Steve Balshaw explores the new wave of French horror…

Switchblade Romance, Them, Inside, Frontier(s), Martyrs, The Horde, The Pack: The new wave of extreme horror films coming out of France and Belgium over the past few years seems to have taken most people by surprise, traumatised many, and sent a fair few into a state of shock. But it really shouldn’t have. The real surprise is that it took so long to happen.

This is, after all, the country that produced the Marquis de Sade, who gave his name to sadism, and whose fusion of angry, cynical, nihilistic philosophy, scatology, pornography and extreme, sexualised violence is still unrivalled in its power to disturb and disgust. De Sade’s work might be uniquely horrible, but his influence is considerable.

It can be found in the violent, fetishistic sexual fantasies of Octave Mirabeau’s Torture Garden and Georges Bataille’s The Story of The Eye. It provided a model for the defiant, decadent, damned poetry of Rimbeau and Baudelaire. Above all, it established a tradition of using violent, shocking and often sexual imagery for philosophical and aesthetic purposes; a melding of the visceral and the intellectual, that has been a characteristic of French culture, both high and low, ever since.

It is evident in the gory spectacles of the Grand Guinol and Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. It was a defining element in the work of both the Symbolists, and the Surrealists.

And the Symbolists and Surrealists, with their morbid, macabre, fantastic imagery did much to determine the nature of French Cinema from its very inception. As early as the late 1890s, film pioneer and illusionist Georges Melies used a deft mixture of magicians’ stagecraft and camera trickery to depict trips to the moon, encounters with the devil, floating severed heads and many other remarkable scenes. Louis Feuillade created a whole language of cinematic suspense in a series of cliff-hanging cinematic chapter plays, inspired by the pulp novels of the period.

The Fantomas sequence (1913 – 14), Les Vampires (1915) and Judex (1916), in which larger than life supernatural characters enact lurid, fantastic narratives in real Paris locations, were much loved by the Surrealists for their pulp poetry and fusion of the real and the unreal.

It was thus perhaps inevitable that the Surrealists would start to experiment with film themselves. Un Chien Andalou (1929) was the creation of two Spaniards, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, but it is very much a product of the Paris-based Surrealist movement. A plotless, seemingly stream-of-consciousness series of absurd scenes and jarring images, it contains one of the most memorably shocking sequences in the history of cinema – a straight razor slashing open a woman’s eyeball.

It is a moment of pure Grand Guinol, conceived to provoke and outrage an audience, an assault on the eye to assault the eyes. The scene has been referenced and replicated in various horror films over the years, but the powerful effect of Un Chien Andalou remains undiminished. And the film’s defiant attitude, and fusion of humous, poetic, surreal, and shocking imagery was to have a lasting influence on subsequent French cinema of the Fantastic.

Never more so than in the case of Georges Franju. Franju was co-founder with Henri Langlois of the Cinemateque Francaise, and the respected director of a series of unflinching documentary portraits of Paris, including the still harrowing Le Sang Des Betes [The Blood of Beasts] (1948), depicting the workings of a slaughterhouse. And then in 1960 he outraged public opinion with the astonishing Les Yeux Sans Visage [Eyes Without A Face], a lurid tale of a mad surgeon who attempts to repair his beloved daughter’s burn-ravaged face by kidnapping a series of beautiful women and cutting their faces off to use for skin grafts.

Combining noirish expressionism, lyrical surrealism, and genuinely shocking gore (the face-peeling sequence is still wince-inducing), boasting a screenplay by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose novel Entre Les Deux Morts was the basis for Hitchcock’s Vertigo), and a soundtrack of eerie, off-kilter fairground music by the legendary Maurice Jarre, it is arguably France’s first true horror film. But if so, it is horror film as high art, the work of a filmmaker steeped in his country’s cinematic history, and filled with love for the pulp-poetics of the past. It was a difficult act to follow, but follow it Franju did, tellingly, with Judex (1963), a delirious homage to the work of Louis Feuillade which he had done so much to preserve and promote, and to a tradition of filmmaking to which he clearly saw himself as belonging.

Franju’s influence, and that of Feuillade can be seen in the esoteric oeuvre of cult exploitation auteur Jean Rollin. With their narcotic pacing, oneiric narratives and obsessively-recurring motifs of somnambulant, oft-naked female vampires, crumbling 18th century chateaux and desolate, overcast pebble-strewn beaches, their occasional bursts of crude, bloody violence, and overall tone of listless despair, Rollin’s films are both unique and uniquely odd. Considered simply as horror or as erotica, they fail, being neither scary, nor particularly sexy, for all of their gore, sex and nudity.

But viewed as part of an ongoing tradition of French Cinema of the Fantastic, which fuses Symbolism, Surrealism, and the lurid poetics of the Pulps, they make perfect sense.

What becomes increasingly clear, the more one studies the history of French horror, is how often the horror element is subservient to some other factor. It is common enough practice for horror films to tackle social issues, to be shot through with symbolism and satiric elements, even to serve as parables, but the French filmmakers working in the horror and fantastic fields seem particularly prone to this. Consider the work of Alain Jessua. In his most famous film, Traitment de Shoc [Shock Treatment] (1973), an aging fashion designer discovers that the revolutionary new rejuvenation treatment she is undergoing at an exclusive clinic is a kind of scientific vampirism, wherein the wealthy are receiving the blood and body parts of illegal immigrants.

Lurid, trashy and decidedly twisted, it satirises 70s jet-setters, free love, and the vanity and selfishness of the very rich, its tone for much of its length as much comedic as horrific. In Les Chiens (1979), Jessua uses an “animals on the rampage” narrative to offer a parable about the rise of the New Right. A young woman survives a violent rape, and buys a large dog to serve as her protector. Many other people in her town feeling themselves increasingly under threat from local criminal elements, begin doing the same, all of them from the same sinister dog breeder, who has a sinister, racist agenda of his own…  Garish, vulgar, pulpy, and filled both with genuine anger and a wry sense of mischief, Jessua’s best films have some of the riotous dark energy and confrontational verve of American B-movie maestro Samuel Fuller.

Jessua continued to work on into the 1990s, but as his unique approach to genre met with less success, he opted for an increasingly mainstream, “respectable” approach. Which was ironic, because just over the horizon were a whole group of French filmmakers who were about to challenge boundaries in a way he never dreamed of.

Serving as a kind of outrider, a herald of things to come, was Alain Robak, with the uneven, yet highly unsettling obscurity BABY BLOOD (1990); the grotesque and grisly tale of a young gypsy circus girl who finds herself inhabited by a millenia-old wormlike parasite, that travels from body to body until it finds one it can gestate in. The reluctant “mother” proves the perfect host, and soon finds herself being forced to commit gory murders to keep the parasitic “baby” fed with the fresh blood it needs to grow and flourish.

Part AIDS parable, part morose meditation on motherhood, part severed-tongue-in-cheek splatter fest, veering wildly between trashy ridiculousness and something truly dark and disturbing, it owes a debt to Jessua, to David Cronenberg and to the wilder excesses of Troma Studios, as well as to the gloomy, psychosexual dramas of Catherine Breillat…

This brings us pretty much up to date.And then, with the advent of the New Millennium, Cinema in France suddenly went hog wild.

The critic James Quandt, in a largely disparaging piece in the February 2004 issue of Artforum, noting how a new wave of filmmakers, including Gaspar Noe, Francois Ozon, Bruno Dumont, and Alexandre Aja, as well as more established talents such as Claire Denis, Leos Carax, and Catherine Breillat were including ever more sexually explicit, violent and shocking imagery in their work, identified – and condemned – what he termed “The New French Extremism”:

“…a cinema … 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.”

This “New Extremism” was not really a cinematic movement, per se, but more of a trend. It could be found across a wide variety of films from otherwise very different filmmakers, with different interests and preoccupations, who have since gone on to have vastly divergent careers.

Looking at the list of names above, all cited by Quandt, the one that seems slightly out of place in retrospect is Alexandre Aja. Of all the films identified as being part of this New Extremism, Aja’s Haut Tension [Switchblade Romance] (2003), is the only one that is intended purely as a horror movie. And thus, while the others have continued to work within what might be loosely described as French Art House cinema, Aja is now in Hollywood, bringing new levels of extremity and ruthlessness to big franchise American horror, such as The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha reboots.

In one respect, this is as it should be – for the lasting legacy of the New Extremism has been on the horror movie. In the bloody wake of Aja’s breakout film, there followed a whole series of increasingly challenging, boundary-stretching horror from France and Belgium: Pascal Du Welz’s Calvaire [The Ordeal] (2004) and Vinyan (2008), David Moreau and Xavier Palaud’s Ils [Them] (2006), Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s A l’Interieur [Inside] (2007), Xavier Gans’ Frontiere(s) (2007),  Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher‘s La Horde (2009), and Franck Richard‘s La Meute [The Pack] (2010).

All were characterised by a fierce intelligence to match their ferocious imagery, all had things to say about society, about the body, about the nature of horror itself. They were genuinely genre-shaking works. French language horror had finally found a consistent, coherent voice, that was leading the field. And one that was entirely in keeping with a tradition of confrontation that harks back to De Sade.

Yet as Pascal Laugier has complained, “we are much more successful in foreign countries [than] in our homeland”. Aja is not alone in having decamped to America: Gens and Laugier also found their way across the Atlantic, as did Aja’s partners in crime on Haut Tension Franck Khalfoun and Gregory Levasseur. Indeed, Khalfoun made his directorial debut in the US, with the brutal and claustrophobic psychological thriller P2, and has recently been generating all manner of controversy and outrage with his disturbing, no-holds-barred re-imagining of William Lustig’s notoriously seedy 1980 shocker Maniac.

America’s gain is France’s loss, and ours too. While it is clear that this new wave of French Horror Extremists will bring some much needed new blood – copious amounts of it, it fact – to American horror, it is unlikely that they will be able to tell the kind of horror stories they could in their native France.

They will not be able to go anywhere near as far, or ask half as many awkward questions about the human condition. Maury and Bustillo, having been attached to various US projects finally turned their back on them all and returned to France. They may find themselves prophets without honour in their own country, but they are at least free there to tell the kind of stories they wish to.

One suspects De Sade would be proud of their defiant spirit.

Grimm Up North is screening a double bill of Pascal Laugier films – the infamous Martyrs, and the upcoming new release The Tall Man at Stockport Plaza on Thursday February 7, 7.15pm, tickets £8.

There’ll be a chance to see a pre-release screening of Franck Khalfoun’s controversial reinterpretation of Maniac, alongside the UK premiere of 247°F, at the Dancehouse on Thursday March 7.

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