The New French Extremity: An Endeavour into Excessive Violence


The New French Extremity – like any industry jargon – sounds like an intimidating film concept, but thankfully the idea of the New French Extremity is very simple to understand. James Quandt, a critic at Artforum who conjured up the term, described the unique genre as:

“Cinema suddenly 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.” – James Quandt, Artforum

In essence, the New French Extremity is a horror sub genre where-in extreme, often sexually oriented acts of mutilation and violence are the focal point of the movies within. Think “The Human Centipede” with subtitles, and you basically have the gist of what movies within the New French Extremity category are all about.

The Influences of the New French Extremity

Films within the New French Extremity have varying influences from an array of horror sub-genres – namely Slashers, Psychological Horrors and Gore Horrors – but all movies within this new age category convey influences from the infamous Body Horror genre. Pascal Laugier, the director of Martyrs – arguably the most recognizable film within the New French Extremity – has cited the gruesome American ‘torture porn’ SAW series and Eli Roth’s Hostel as two major influences on his work.

Another notable director tied to the new found genre, Xavier Gens (creator of Frontiere), has described his most notable work as: ‘A love letter to the genre movie.’ When spurred to shed light on this love letter’s inspirations he has said: ‘There’s a lot of reference to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Fly, and to many others.’

In light of the American/Canadian influences this duo of prominent French directors tied to the new genre have nodded to, it is relatively safe to assume that a significant number of directors linked with this recent trend in world cinema have taken similarly major influences from the rising gore fest film franchises of English language cinema. Now that we have pin pointed the inspirational sources of these ghastly additions to world cinema an important question lingers; have the films of the New French Extremity enjoyed the financial success and critical acclaim of their English language counterparts?


Public Reception of the New French Extremity

In accordance to the Wikipedia page for Martyrs the French horror flick was given a financial backing of €2.8 million, subsequently flopping when it reached the box office and brought back a measly €895,037 which would have left production financiers a colossal €1,904,963 in debt! Fellow French Extremity feature High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance in the UK) time at the box office contrasted Martyrs financial crash. High Tension was budgeted at $2,827,220 and on its arrival at the box office it milked in $6,291,958, leaving an astounding $3,464,738 in profits.

Measuring any individual movies critical success is nigh on impossible to pull off with complete accuracy, but to garner at least a rough idea of the public and critics reception of a few notable movies that form the New French Extremity I will make reference to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Martyrs – which I’ve taken a true liberty in badgering on about – was sniffed at by the critics receiving a meager 52% in positive ratings, but it was largely favored by 10,240 members of today’s audience of which 70% said they enjoyed the movie. Flandres (Dumont, 2007) opened to slightly more impressive critical reception with 68% of critics marking the movie up, however audiences responded less positively. Only 54% of the miniscule 2,274 viewers said they liked it; considering the decisively average public reception of both Flandres and Martyrs, two films of the New French Extremity often referred to as essential viewings by fans of the genre, it can only be assumed that this morbid movie trend has significantly polarized, and perhaps even alienated audiences.

Pascal Laugier neatly summarizes why he feels movies within this new wave of French Horror can’t attain the sizable following they desire:

“The fact is that we are much more successful in foreign countries and in our homeland it’s always the same stuff where you’re never a prophet. What I mean is that even the horror fans, the French ones, they are very condescending about French horror films. It’s still a hell to find the money, a hell to convince people that we are legitimate to make this kind of movie in France. So I know from an American point of view and probably an English one too, there is a kind of new wave of modern horror film, but it’s not true. It’s still hell. My country produces almost 200 films a year and there are like 2 or 3 horror films. It’s not even an industry, French horror cinema is very low budget, it’s kinda prototype.”


The New French Extremities Influence on World Cinema

The New French Extremity appears to have left a mark or two throughout Europe, influencing just a few noteworthy horror films produced within the continent. Lars Von Trier’s Nordic art house movie Antichrist pushes heavy emphasis on the female leads progressive infatuation with sexual violence, which as previously mentioned, is a key characteristic of many films within the New French Extremity. Antichrist caught the eye of a respectable number of British and US movie viewers, alas these traditional audiences were seemingly far from content with the excessive sexual gore that only served to crucify any moral sustenance underlining the movie, judging by the films pages on community sites IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Evidently, unnecessary brutality is not something that appeals to the majority of English language audiences, and rightly so.

The upsurging British director Ben Wheatley (creator of 2013’s acclaimed black comedy Sightseers) likewise flaunts traits of the New French Extremity in his notoriously violent, yet widely appraised works. Wheatley’s crime thriller/horror of 2010, Kill List briefly incorporates sexual taboo and violence in the same setting when the protagonist Jay murders a child pornographer on the list, and alike many a title of the New French Extremity, Kill List clearly aims to mess with the minds of its audience as best it can. Kill List satisfied a majority of film critics who were impressed by the unconventional transition from thriller to ‘visceral horror’; on the other hand audiences emerged on the other side of Kill List both underwhelmed and dramatically disturbed by its contents. Once again English language audiences expressed undeniable disdain for cheap psychological shock tactics.

Kill List | Official Trailer

The New French Extremity has no home in modern cinema, that much is clear. Speculation of the New French Extremity transforming into a European Extremity, and a subsequent new breed of horror movies altogether is an idea nothing short of farfetched in my mind.

The bottom line is the majority of the English language audience understandably don’t wish to withstand excessively violent, exploitative cinema because said violence is often used to cover up shallow morals in the story, and in some cases little technical skill on behalf of production teams. I’m not saying English language audiences are totally unwilling to fork out the cash on trashy, escapist entertainment – because that would be telling major porkies – but I don’t believe for one second that extreme body horror will hold a place in English language cinema for several decades to come, and frankly I’m taking that as a godsend.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Have you ever seen The Divide? It is Xavier Gens’s first american movie and boy is it good! I have to warn you, it is dirty, disturbing and uncomfortable but in a very pleasing way. Don’t be scared by the IMDB rating, very underrated.

  2. I’ve never really looked into French Extremity. Seems like a mixed bag, though. I don’t mind excessive violence in film, but it’s rare to see well-done violent movies. Great post.

  3. New French Extremity movies are not for everyone, we know that. But I’m telling you, there are some amazing treasures here. The front runners, Martyrs and Frontiers are of course my favourite, but there are more.

    I disagree about this not reaching the states, I think within the next few years, we will see a great number of titles in this ‘genre’.

    • Ber Lect

      There are good and bad movies. You watched Inside? F;king ridiculous movie. Agree bout Martyrs/Frontier

  4. Taylor Ramsey

    I have no issue with violence in entertainment, but a well made film is more important that the style or thematic content.
    This makes me want to look into some new areas of film, thanks.

  5. I’ve got loads yet to explore it seems =P I’m a addicted watcher of American Horror classics. I’ll give this a chance with an open mind. Why do I sense that I will regret it!

  6. You either love them or hate them. Sure, there are the exceptions that are just bad, but IMO some of these are amazing. Martyrs was my introduction to the French horror scene and it changed my life lol Or almost anyway, I don’t think I will ever be able to watch a torture horror movie in the same light as Martyrs. Honestly, I don’t think we need this type of horror here, the French are doing a great job with it already.

  7. Robbie Cochrane

    Interesting article – French films are not something I have particularly explored personally – however If you are into the French extremist films I would highly recommend 7 days to all readers.

  8. Andrew Couzens

    Nice to see something about what is definitely a more niche genre at the moment. I do feel you have overlooked the aesthetic value of many of these films, and also that you overemphasise the importance of aggregate sites such as Rottentomatoes and IMDB in your dismissal of the genre. Genres that deal heavily with explicit material are often shortchanged by these sites, as there are many who are offended by such material and will not judge the film on its artistic merit. I appreciate that you have made a more level-headed judgement here, and not a knee-jerk response to the shocking nature of the material.

  9. Mike G

    Martyrs and Inside definitely caught my attention and opened the door for me to all these amazing Horror movies. Pretty much any Horror film out of America these days fails in comparison to what some these French filmmakers are coming out with.

  10. Payal Marathe

    As someone who knows nothing about French horror films, I still found this post incredibly interesting and informative. I’m impressed that you could get someone who’s entirely unfamiliar with the subject invested in it through careful, original writing. Awesome job!

  11. Kelsey Clark

    I have never really looked into French horror cinema. French films I have seen in the past generally seem obsessed with either romance or just down-right strange narratives. I was getting a Dogma-esque vibe from this style of cinema. Do you think it follows the Dogma style in any way?

    • In a way yes, I suppose it does depending on how you perceive it. Here is a film scholar Jon Towlson’s opinion on what the New French Extremity is trying to achieve (from the New French Extremity Wiki):

      “the New French Extremity movement, [sic] can… be seen most significantly as a response to the rise of right-wing extremism in France during the last ten years…, a response that filmmakers are in the process of working through”.”

  12. Katya Ungerman

    Wow, this is really interesting. I had no idea it was going on.

  13. Kahlia Sankey

    I have to say that I am an extremist fan and enjoyed ‘Dans ma Peau’ and ‘Martyrs’. It is an acquired taste, but I would predict that horror will continue into extremity and end up more clearly defined from thriller films. The fact is that audiences want more, they want to “see” more and that is what these torture-porn films are doing – satisfying the audience itch for more.
    Interesting article!

  14. Amanda Gostomski

    I never even knew about this genre/movement. Thank you for the education.

  15. There seems to be some confusion as to what New French Extremity actually pertains to. It is not a term that is synonymous with French horror despite the fact that there are several horror films in the canon. While Martyrs, Frontiers and Inside are all deserving of the title, there are a huge number of films associated with the ‘movement’ that are largely overlooked and not a firework show of arterial spray and skull fragments (although violence is often employed to varying degrees); films that deal with sexuality and gender, corporeal issues and subject matter that is decidedly deeper than just exploitative brutality masking ‘shallow morals’. I don’t think by looking solely at the 4 films included in the article you capture what this collection of filmmakers are aiming at with their art. Nor do I think that just because a contemporary film is excessively violent it has necessarily been influenced by this strand of French cinema.

  16. Inside has to be one of my favorite horror movies. it’s just an incredibly well-crafted piece of brutality. Wasn’t a fan of martyrs and the twist at the end of Switchblade Romance ruins the whole films.

    Does Irreversible fall within the boundaries of the new French Extremity? If so, it’s easily the most heinous and unpleasant of the bunch.

  17. Im very interested in these French Horror films!!! I want to watch them all.Its very hard to get some of these films. I dont understand why more people are aware of these french extreme movies. I stumbled onto them from frontiers, it was love at first sight. Im so over watching all these american horror films. Feels like I have seen them all….I want to expand my horizons! Help Anyone…..

  18. I think it is hard to say whether there really is an appetite for extreme violence. Films by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino do well but the violence is placed within a context and it has meaning and value to the story. Granted the FNE is much more extreme in its violence but I don’t think that is necessarily what is making them fail. In the first half of Martyrs I felt the violence brought a huge amount of realism whereas the second half was gratuitous and tried to impose a self-aware metaphysical reading onto what was essentially violent sensationalism.

    If people were using extremes of violence in a similarly challenging and subversive way to the French but with the kind of strong, pacy plot and black humour that this kind of brutality needs to stop it becoming relentlessly heavy-going, we might actually have something that could achieve a larger following. Martyrs was a horribly smug and self-conscious film that really deserved to flop. Hostel was, I think, sort of refreshing because the victims were male so it wasn’t so sexploitative but even so it didn’t have much going on and if you’re not into watching terrified men in their pants being tortured there’s not a lot to appeal. And the sequel was hugely sexploitative and that was a rightful flop.

    Extreme violence should be a part of the whole, not the sole objective of the film, and extreme violence can be very effective as a storytelling device: it provides great tension that makes a great opportunity for humour or can turn up the heat on an audience. But most people don’t enjoy seeing a woman being endlessly beaten for a whole section of a film and then being skinned alive when that is the only thing happening. It is not sensational, it is terribly, terribly dull unless you’re a monstrous sadist or a squeamish person who likes feeling sick. Give normal people something to watch and they might like the film despite the violence. Use the violence to heighten moments and create greater contrasts and so on and they might like it, in part, because of the violence.

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