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Last October, I caught an advance screening of Belgian-French horror Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau. It tells the tale of a female freshman and vegetarian who, after being forced to eat raw meat during a hazing ritual, develops an insatiable craving for flesh – even that of humans. I loved the odd euro-horror, described it in my original review as “abject”, “dread” inducing and “hilarious”, while also praising it for dealing with real-world thought-provoking themes such as body-shaming and blossoming sexuality. In the months that followed my original review, my mind kept returning to the movie – even going as far as to putting it on my best of 2016 list. Wanting to see more films like Raw – out officially in Ireland April 4th – I began to seek out more horror from the same country. What I stumbled upon was a trend, one which Ducournau’s directorial debut fits neatly into – The French New Extremity, sometimes referred to as “the cinema of the body”.
A controversial and divisive movement – the term French New Extremity was coined by critic James Quandt as a derogatory term – the films associated with this trend range from works considered to be huge artistic statements (Irreversible) to exploitative fare (Baise-Moi, a literal translation of “Fuck Me”). However, while some may be of more merit than others, all the New Extremity movies share a transgressive quality – a willingness to push boundaries rarely pushed before in cinema e.g. graphic sex, violence and abjection. To celebrate the release of Raw, here are some of the movement’s greatest output.
Trouble Every Day (2001) – Dir. Claire Denis
As I said, the French New Extremity divides audiences with no greater example being the reaction to Trouble Every Day, the least well-regarded of all Claire Denis’ output – earning acclaim and scorn in equal measure upon its original release. However, in recent years, it’s achieved somewhat of a cult-following – inspiring many works of a similar ilk. Vincent Gallo and Tricia Vessey star as Dr. Shane and June Brown – newlyweds on honeymoon in Paris. Yet, a wedding celebration is not the reason they’re in the city. Shane’s secretly attempting to track down missing ex-colleague Leo (Alex Descas), an unconventional doctor whose experiments left the American and Leo’s wife Core (Beatrice Dalle) afflicted with vampirism.
From the outset, Trouble Every Day is flawed. It’s under-written and loose approach to its very interesting sounding plot is frustrating. Denis, admirably, is more focused on building atmosphere but she misjudges how much story needs dispensing to keep audiences engaged. Yet, even with this, images and moments from the film stick with the viewer long after the credits roll. Take for instance, an early scene where Core (Dalle – born to play a vampire) escapes her confines (set up by her husband to prevent her wreaking havoc), stumbling into a village to seduce a future victim – a moment replicated verbatim in the acclaimed Scarlett Johannsson masterpiece Under the Skin.
Ultimately what separates Trouble Every Day from the pack is its fascinating unconventional approach to a pre-existing mythology (something it shares with Raw). Although vampirism has always in popular culture been linked to sexuality – the homosexual undertones of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to the numerous think-pieces written about sexual allegory in Twilight – never has it been made so explicit than in Denis’ picture. The powerful uncontrollable cravings for blood and sex are inextricably linked here whether it be Core’s murdering of victims mid-coitus or Shane’s violent sexual fantasies about his wife – culminating with the latter seducing and killing a maid at the hotel in which he and June are staying. It’s in these moments of strange, unsettling gore that Denis’ movie truly comes alive – earning its claim as “extreme”.
Demonlover (2002) – Dir. Olivier Assayas
Before Assayas became a well-respected art-house director with his gangster epic Carlos and Kristen Stewart vehicles Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, he was somewhat of a provocateur. He made two films I’d associate with the French Extremity – Demonlover and Boarding Gate. Both are interesting but the former is the more successful, a neo-noir with horror elements starring Connie Nielsen, Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon. It focuses upon the power-plays between various corporations attempting to be the lead distributors of 3-D anime pornography.
Like Trouble Every Day, Demonlover received a mixed-reaction upon cinema release. It’s understandable as its third act descends into a William Gibson-esque mess of nonsensical twists, murky storytelling and literal torture porn. Yet, up until this point, Assayas’ effort is an excellent and prophetic comment on humanity’s desensitisation to sex and violence in the Internet age. Throughout the movie, business meetings carry on normally while insane hentai porn rages on in the background of characters’ offices. The movie also posits that the more people can tolerate fake shocking material, the more they will be able to except real violence. Thus, Demonlover uses its status as being part of the Extremity movement to its advantage, commenting on its content instead of just simply leaving it for its audience to witness.
Irreversible (2002) – Dir. Gaspar Noe
“Time destroys everything” is the mantra of Irreversible, a truly shocking and in many ways disgusting movie but one that is none-the-less thought-provoking and technically brilliant. A rape-revenge narrative told in reverse, the story begins with Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) entering into gay night-club, The Rectum, with the intention of killing The Tapeworm, a sadistic and violent pimp who raped and beat Alex (Monica Bellucci), the two’s girlfriend and ex-girlfriend. Following this, we are taken back in time scene-by-scene, eventually to the sexual assault mid-way through the film. The movie continues on like this, ending with Alex and Marcus happily lounging in bed unaware of the chaos that will occur later that day.
Infamous for its nine-minute rape scene and rightly so. A continuous, unbroken shot – along with a sequence from another feature on this list – it’s one of the most disturbing and nauseating scenes I’ve ever witnessed (Noe even utilised low-frequency sound at certain sections of the drama to induce sensation of sickness in viewers). However, as Roger Ebert noted – the jumbling of the time-frame enables the movie, despite its extreme cruelty, to gain a morality. As the critic said: “The film doesn’t build up to violence and sex as its payoff, as pornography would. It begins with its two violent scenes, showing us the very worst immediately and then tracks back into lives that are about to be forever altered”. He notes how Irreversible shows how “to know the future would not be a blessing but a curse. Life would be unliveable without the innocence of our ignorance”.
Noe’s direction is fearless. The disorientating camera-work is incredible – particularly in its opening twenty-minute stretch with Marcus venturing deeper into the underbelly of the The Rectum. The movie did lead to accusations of homophobia – ones which I don’t entirely disagree with. Yet, even so, the way Noe stages the scene, the camera speedily jittering around Marcus as he interrogates possible associates of The Tapeworm – often while those being questioned are simultaneously engaged in sex acts – effectively evokes the sensation of being in hell – something helped by the neon blood-red lighting. The moments of violence are also visceral and unflinching. A scene showing a man’s head being caved in with a fire extinguisher served as inspiration for the famous lift scene in the Ryan Gosling starring Drive – with Nicolas Winding Refn allegedly calling the French director for advice on how to stage the moment. At one point in Irreversible, Noe focuses on a poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey – particularly its tag-line “The Ultimate Trip”. It’s fitting for Irreversible, the ultimate trip into and out of absolute horror.
The Ordeal (2004) – Dir. Fabrice Du Welz
This spot could have easily gone to the unflinching visceral horrors Switchblade Romance  or Inside . Yet, I chose The Ordeal (titled Calvaire in some territories) because its less well-known and because it shares a tangential connection to Raw. Part blackly comic-thriller but mostly psychological horror – it centres upon a low-level singer specialising in light pop ballads. Losing his job working at a retirement home, he hits the road to perform at a Christmas Party. En route, his van breaks down in backwoods village where a seemingly amiable and elderly man runs a hostel. However, the more time the singer spends there, the more things grow increasingly sinister – particularly as the old man keeps comparing the lodger to his ex-wife – someone who was too an entertainer.
Starring French New Extremity regular Laurent Lucas (who plays the protagonist’s father in Raw), The Ordeal is genuinely creepy. A scene where a group of villagers grow hysteric to the sounds of polka music is spine-chilling. It’s also perhaps the most easily accessible entry in the extremity movement. Although it features bestiality, a crucifixion and a near-rape, it’s more tastefully alluded to then portrayed in all its nastiness. Worth noting too is the fact that The Ordeal was shot by Benoit Debie (the cinematographer for Irreversible, as well as Spring Breakers). Not only does he give the horror’s woodland wintry setting a harsh beauty (the final scene taking place in a bog-land is gorgeous), the climactic set-piece is filmed with an awesome overhead shot in a slow 360-degree-spin – reminding viewers of the DOP’s stellar work with Gaspar Noe.
Martyrs (2008) – Dir. Pascal Laugier
One of the most disturbing and unpredictable films of all time, Martyrs begins with a seemingly pleasant family eating breakfast. They appear likeable as the children argue with their parents over what they want to do in life. We assume these characters will be the protagonists of the movie. But no. Within ten minutes of following them, a young woman named Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) enters the house and executes them all by shot-gun. We come to learn, as the killer and her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) attempt to dispose of the bodies, that Lucie was kidnapped and tortured as a child by the parents. The adults were agents for an ongoing and mysterious cult experimenting in subjecting women to enough cruelty that they would be able to provide insight into the afterlife.
At times, unbearable to watch – a montage towards the end depicting a protagonist being beaten and broken mentally is probably the most distressing thing I’ve ever watched. Yet, Martyrs never feels exploitive or a part of the torture porn sub-genre. It’s a very complex movie about the nature of suffering. Lucie is stalked by a terrifying monstrous creature who inflicts violent cuts across her body, something viewers later learn is in her head – a manifestation of guilt for not being able to save a fellow victim as a child. Director Pascal Laugier in combating claims that Martyrs is of a similar elk to movies like Hostel stated: “the film doesn’t talk about torture, it talks about pain”. His statement neatly sums up the French New Extremity at its best.
Works like Demonlover, Irreversible and Martyrs – despite their hyper-violence – aren’t driven solely by a will to be extreme. Lurking under the surface are often themes being probed in fascinating and unique ways.