Welcome to the first installment of Garland’s Movements in the Dark, a multi-part series where each week you and I will take a deep dive into a movement within horror cinema. With every installment, we will take a look at key films and moments within the selected movement, and how the movement itself rippled throughout horror cinema at large. The ultimate goal of the series, as a whole, is to accentuate and analyze the immense variety and creative imagination on display throughout the long history of horror films. In order to kick things off with some flair, it only seems appropriate we take a look at the wild and brutal world of the “New French Extremity” (NFE) movement.
What Is It?–
In an article for ArtForum, critic James Quandt discussed, albeit abrasively, a recent influx of horror films produced in France that featured a blend of unrelentingly visceral violence and nihilistic/transgressive philosophies. In that article, Quandt labeled this collection of films the “New French Extremity,” thus giving way to a bold new movement in the global horror canvas.
While the article was published in 2004, the movement of which he gave a title had been around since the end of the 1990s. That is if we are merely limiting ourselves to film. The ideas and broad visual concepts that appear throughout every film associated with the movement have a long history in French literature and paintings. First, we must identify what these tropes are and where they come from in order to understand how the most successful and acclaimed offerings from the NFE movement marry them with some of the most merciless imagery in horror history.
A key element that drives the aesthetic of any film under the NFE umbrella is a strong focus on the destruction of the flesh through the infliction of pain, and the sense of liberation of mind and feral spirit that comes with that corporeal annihilation, an idea that can be most notably attributed to the work of infamous deviant and transgressive literature frontiersman Marquis De Sade. In his most depraved and enduring work 120 Days of Sodom, the writer displays his penchant for smuggling rebellious political philosophy through a loose narrative surrounding a group of upper-class citizens taking out all of their debauched fantasies on a group of young hostages. The work endures over other works of ‘fetish fuel’ exclusively because of its extremely confident Trojan Horse-esque takes on the hypocrisy of government. In its most basic form, the core of the thing is to explore how pain can be intellectually distilled and dissected, even exploited for philosophical gratification. Such is the essence of a film in the NFE movement.
De Sade’s dichotomy of brilliant and feral, mindless and genius, inspired a minor canon of similar madmen like Octave Mirbeau, Michel Houellebecq, and Georges Battailles, whose landmark and shocking novella Story of the Eye might as well have been written by Sade himself. The essential idea here is that that from the moment Sade sat down in his cell in the Bastille and began scribbling down his work on scrap papers, a literary lineage began, which continued when a group of filmmakers across the country of France transferred, and adapted, the material from the page to the screen.
Perhaps the best figure in the movement to begin with is Gaspar Noé. Not only is Noé the most internationally well-known NFE director, but he is also a filmmaker still producing work within the movement’s guidelines. In 1998, Noé released his debut feature I Stand Alone, a fractured and freewheeling mix of avant-garde camera work and voyeuristic hyperviolence. It was a striking vision that sought to exploit the mundanity of everyday life and the universally human capacity for heinous violence. Noé followed the film with one of the most controversial films of all-time, an underground classic and one-time-only watch, with Irreversible (2002). The film moves chronologically backward through an evening rife with sequences of woozy cinematography and flashes of shocking violence. Noé continued to produce cult-classic boundary-pushers with subsequent films Enter the Void, Love, and Climax. Noé, as iconoclastic as he is, retains his position as a provocateur due to his ability to tap into the same stream of madness infused pseudo-philosophy that drove Sade and his various spiritual successors.
All of that being said, though Noé is the most prolific and well-known/circulated of the associated directors, the “key films” of the movement can be distilled down to three films (of which Noé has nothing to do with). The three films in question are Inside (2007), Martyrs (2008), & High Tension (2003).
`Inside is a film that garnered perhaps the most acclaim, critically speaking, of the three. The essential bones of the film are pulled straight from Hitchcock’s morgue–a simple setup that is solely reliant on escalating the tension. That is to say, the goal is not to build out a large mythology or increase the kill count in various creative ways, but rather to essentially deconstruct an elevator pitch concept until is unfamiliar, unsettling, and, in the case of Inside, absolutely merciless.
The “elevator pitch concept” in question when it comes to this film is: ‘what happens when a pregnant woman is terrorized on Christmas Eve when she is home alone?’. That is the plot of this film in a nutshell, and it’s a template that has become cliche in the horror film world, the home alone vulnerable female being menaced by an unknown threat, but it is only in this film that the template is not only subverted but philosophically exploited with the specific goal of exploring ideas rooted firmly in the French transgressive tradition. What makes the entire thing work, and almost objectively brilliant, comes with the film’s distinctly feminine twist.
Essentially the only two characters in the film are the pregnant woman, and her tormentor, a scorned woman clad only in black and wielding a single-minded vengeance, which she carries out with extreme brutality and coldness. Horror film regular Beatrice Dalle turns in one of horror’s great female roles in her vicious and committed turn as the intruder, a woman bound by tragedy to the pregnant woman’s past. The entire thing is framed as an unblinking observance of this intruder’s assault on the woman’s home, and eventually, her body.
The film’s significance comes in the way it takes nearly every trope established in the home invasion setup and pushes it as far as it can go. In fact, the very idea of invasion itself is taken to an extreme progression: invasion of mind, invasion of home, invasion of body, and finally invasion of life. Of course, this is not novel to the film, but rather an oft-explored premise in the work of Sade and Battailles, as the body becomes a vessel of life’s most primal and base desires. It’s a discourse that lends itself naturally to the subgenre of body horror, which this film very warmly embraces with its sequences of almost unwatchable violence.
As it pertains to the movement as a whole, the film’s very abrasive, yet firm, insistence that both of these characters have agency, intelligence, flaws, etc., lends the film a nauseating relatable intimacy present throughout the best work of the movement’s repertoire. The film simply does not work if the characters do not seem like they could be real, and certainly not without the notion that they exist in the “real world.” This verisimilitude is imperative to the film’s horror effectiveness, and indeed the overall horror present throughout nearly every NFE horror film, which is firmly centered on the lack of control; that is, the horror of having knowledge of one’s violent end as it occurs, and knowledge that it is inevitable, a foregone conclusion. Instead of a kill being the source of entertainment, it becomes something painful to witness, a relentless source of dread. For all of its gore and shocking scenes, the horror stems from the style’s commitment to bleak realism.
Where Inside took an angle of revenge and honed in on the primal nature of our fellow human being, 2008’s Martyrs took the notion of a revenge flick and used it to smuggle in heady discourses on the concept of “The Sublime”. The film is just as indebted to the aforementioned works of literary transgression as it is to the work of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher known for his ideas on Aesthetics. Martyrs takes influence from Kant’s idea that “the sublime” is a state of being that exists beyond the confines of nature or law. It is an idea that has had an incalculable influence on the horror genre, and popular critical thinking in general.
Martyrs begins with a gritty and shocking sequence of events that serves as something of a red herring for the film’s true intentions. A young woman, seeking revenge for crimes committed against her in her childhood, breaks into a family’s home and assassinates all of them. Following that, she kills herself. The film then shifts perspectives to Lucie’s estranged childhood friend, as she discovers the family was imprisoning and torturing a woman in their basement. Once that horror dries up, the film moves into its real endgame, which is where a cult shows up and explains that they physically and mentally break young women down until they either die or achieve a state of euphoric acceptance, aka “the sublime.” It is a singular blend of philosophy and unbelievably graphic violence. So much so does it embody the movement’s entire thesis that it stands as the pinnacle statement from the NFE.
It’s all about pain. Pain is the name of the game for these filmmakers and thinkers. The experience of pain is so universal to the human condition that not only is it rife for horror storytelling, but it demands to be critically assessed in all forms of art and discussion. Martyrs seeks to pose the question of pain’s possibilities in pushing the human perception to a place of transcendence. What is it about the essence of pain that drives certain elements of the human spirit? The film wants to answer this question by making a case for the destruction of the body being a conduit for one to experience the “sublime”, and all of the ethical questions that come from that. It’s what horror films have always done–taken a fundamental element of the mundane and turn it into a source of fear. Is it torture porn? Is it philosophy? Both? The occupation of that grey area is what any successful NFE film hopes to achieve.
Finally, though it may rub many viewers and critics the wrong way, we must briefly touch on the 2003 film High Tension, directed by Hollywood crossover Alexandre Aja. The film is important to the discussion because it represents one of the key times, perhaps the only one of this accord, where a major Hollywood studio attempted to make a NFE film an American crossover, going so far as to edit the film down to achieve an R-rating and overdubbing the entire thing into English. The film, reworked and retitled from Switchblade Romance, failed to be the foreign hit that Lionsgate had hoped for. However, the film found a large cult following when later released in its unabridged format, and in its native tongue, on home video.
In the beginning, Aja’s film is another feminine-centric take on the home invasion genre, before slowly morphing into something of a psychological slasher by the end. It’s noted by fans for it’s twist ending and the type of graphic violence associated with its NFE peers. That being said, the film lacks the commitment to mixing the feral with the cerebral, and though it jumps many narrative hoops and performs acrobatics with its own internal logic, the film never really attempts to say anything, which is something that not only distinguishes it negatively against many of the movement’s lesser-seen offerings, but provides a feasible reasoning for why a Hollywood studio would take a gamble and pick this particular film to try and crossover with.
Horror has always had one foot in psychology and one foot in literature. It’s designed by nature to be in search of a reaction while also trying to contextualize those sequences in a framework that narratively at least makes some sense. The New French Extremity movement, especially Inside and Martyrs, sought to marry those two worlds with the world of nihilism and transgression to create a new wave of uncompromising cinematic visions that had much more on their minds than just matinee entertainment.
It’s a movement that is as respected as it is derided, as intimidating as it is strangely accessible. The films that work the best within the movement had their eye on bringing to light the idea that there is no way to out-think or overcome the banality of evil present within everyone. That is why it is terrifying–that intoxicating cocktail of heady misanthropy and the pure spectacle of the visceral. If it makes you feel like you’re watching something you shouldn’t be seeing, it’s working.
Thank you for joining me for this inaugural installment of Garland’s Movements in the Dark, published every Thursday exclusively here on Dark Nowhere. Next week, I’ll be back with Part II: The Universal Monsters.