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.
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.