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Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity (Book review)

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For my money, the late ‘90s and early ‘00s represents one of the most fascinating recent creative booms of genre cinema, especially where European filmmaking is concerned. French directors, in particular, began to blur the lines between horror, thriller, and arthouse, infusing their work with political commentary, explosive violence, and sexual transgression with films like I Stand Alone (1998), Romance (1999), Baise-moi (2000), Trouble Every Day (2001), and Irreversible (2002), among many more — as a result, the loose subgenre (coined by Art Forum writer James Quandt) is one of my favorites and this subject is near and dear to my heart. I’ve come to see a lot of these New French Extremity titles as loosely kicking off a crossover that has continued in recent years, where the divide between horror and arthouse has begun to fade; more contemporary examples include titles like Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), and Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2015).

Which brings me to Alexandra West’s Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, the first volume to focus exclusively on the gory, sexually explicit, controversial, and often transgressive French films from the late ‘90s. As I mentioned, many of these titles exist somewhere between horror and arthouse and West attempts to map this geography, including everything from historical and sociological referents to an obvious love for genre cinema. West is a Toronto-based writer; in addition to Films of the New French Extremity, she’s written for the Toronto Star, Rue Morgue, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Diabolique (check out her column here and in past issues of the magazine), among others. She also co-hosts one of the first female-fronted genre film podcasts, Faculty of Horror, which has been running for a few years now (with her co-host, Andrea Subissati, who provided the introduction for Films of the New French Extremity). West has also lectured at the Black Museum; for those of you in the Toronto area, they’re actually hosting the New French Extremity book launch tonight.

West begins Films of the New French Extremity with a discussion of both French history — particularly bloody eighteenth century events that culminated in the French Revolution — and the national film industry, providing a brief background that will be helpful for anyone unfamiliar with the subject matter, especially as it relates to the cinematic analysis to follow. (And if the first chapter sufficiently whetted your appetite and you want to know more about the events of the 1790s and their impact on contemporary Europe, pick up Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.) After this, the book essentially consists of a series of essays on films grouped loosely together by content: for example, it kicks off with a spirited exploration of director Gaspar Noé’s films like Carne (1991), I Stand Alone (1998), Irreversible (2002) and their overlapping themes, which is one of the strongest chapters of the book.

The bulk of Films of the New French Extremity is loosely divided into two sections. The first is made up of chapters that explore some of the more unusual, even obscure New French Extremity films, namely those that focus on controversial depictions of sexuality and gender; it coincidentally reads like a list of my favorite films from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. For example, Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999), and Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi (2000) are grouped together, perhaps obviously, because of their collective, transgressive approach to sexuality (and even pornography), though this first half also explores other more experimental films, giving much needed attention and analysis to some neglected masterpieces like Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998), Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002), and Christophe Honoré’s Bataille adaptation, Ma mère (2004), among others.

The second half focuses on some of the more well-known New French Extremity titles, which are also the ones that tend to fit more directly into the horror genre: films like High Tension (2003), the Belgian production Calvaire (2004), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008), among others. West goes a bit more in depth with her analysis of these films, which should please horror fans, and High Tension, Martyrs, and Inside are all given small dedicated chapters. The book winds down with a discussion of how New French Extremity impacted American genre cinema through a discussion about a few American remakes of those films. There’s also a nice appendix: an interview with Toronto International Film Festival programmer Colin Geddes, who was the first to introduce many people to these films through TIFF’s influential Midnight Madness series and is at least partially responsible for the boom in the subgenre’s international reputation.

Films of the New French Extremity stands as a welcome introduction to this cinematic movement from an author who is clearly well-versed in the horror genre and not afraid to veer slightly towards the academic. But it has a wide appeal (at least for horror fans and probably cinephiles in general): at under 200 pages, it’s quick read and is certainly geared toward casual genre fans (rather than academics/film historians) from one of their own. Newcomers, in particular, are likely to learn a lot about extreme contemporary cinema and French culture alike, though it would be great to one day see an expanded version of the book; of course my personal taste tends toward the very long and very academic, which I know doesn’t necessarily appeal to the average reader. And if you’re someone who prefers more classic horror (from the ‘30s to the ‘70s), West makes a strong case for giving some recent titles a chance and you’re likely to find yourself with a sizable “to watch” list after checking out her book. Pick up Films of the New French Extremity through its publisher, McFarland, or through Amazon.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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