EJ Moreno looks at seven iconic extreme French films…
During the 2000s, American horror fans saw a rise in extreme violence in their horror. From Hostel to Saw, it was fair to say that things weren’t the cheesy fun slashers we saw decades before.
But where did this start? For many film fans, we look back at the French horror movement that began in the late 90s and became unavoidable as we entered the millennium. Here we’re looking at films representing or inspiring New French Extremity. The term comes from a critic in Art Forum in 2004 named James Qudant, coining what the genre was slowly morphing into.
While French cinema was always known for pushing the boundaries – look at New Wave cinema in the 60s – a very edgy collection of movies started to pop up from French horror filmmakers. We shall look at the seven most influential and insane offerings, giving fans one great group of scares.
Directing duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo stormed onto the filmmaking scene with an explosive debut. On paper, Inside feels like one of the more traditional movies in this selection; a home invasion and a woman fighting to survive. But the layers this film possesses, the horror that unravels, it all comes together for an unforgettable experience.
While most extreme French movies push the boundaries of good taste, Inside does the unthinkable and adds an unborn baby to the mix. We are not only watching a woman face off with a highly-motivated and sick killer, but she’s also a soon-to-be mother and knows that she needs to make it through the evening to keep everyone alive. Like any good New French Extremity, Inside places the viewer into the upmost uncomfortable and forces you to see it through the end.
We’ll have a common theme of thanking the women who dealt with these graphic movies. Still, a special shoutout to lead actress Alysson Paradis for making this seem utterly believable.
The 2000s feels like the prime era of New French Extremity; while there are memorable entries before and after this time, it’s safe to say that the new millennium ushered in a really wild film era. Take 2000’s Baise-Moi, for example, a film that makes the grindhouse era of the 70s blush.
Baise-Moi follows two women out for revenge against men in this even-more-twisted version of Thelma and Louise. It’s simple, straightforward, and graphically in-your-face; precisely what you want from your rape and revenge films. Many have called the film immoral, but that often feels like the point when dealing with revenge based on heinous acts. To quote Hemingway, as Ebert did in his film review: “it is moral if you feel good after it, and immoral if you feel bad after it.” This is the perfect “feel bad” movie.
What also helps this film is the women involved, Raffaela Anderson and Karen Bach, elevate the material with their performances.
Alexandre Aja’s masterwork made itself a force in the industry and the genre. One of the most famous films included here, High Tension (a.k.a. Switchblade Romance), defined this moment and helped push New French Extremity to the mainstream. Without this film and the rise of extreme Asian cinema, the American “torture porn era” wouldn’t have happened.
In a movie that writer Dean Koontz once called “intellectually bankrupt,” the acts of violence on display here definitely push its audience. There’s offensive kill after offensive kill, all of that to lead to an insanely bizarre plot twist; it’s understandable the pushback, just not fair to call this film not smart. High Tension takes everything you thought you knew and twists it wonderfully, making horror feel unsafe again.
Still, to this day, filmmaker Alexandre Aja is kicking ass. Of all the filmmakers included here, Aja’s extreme styling found a home.
Trouble Every Day
Claire Denis is often hailed as one of the best filmmakers of our time, but it’s wild to think her 2001 film Trouble Every Day is often looked at as a low point of her career. In one of her most interesting films discussing bodies and femininity, Denis’ erotic horror film deserves reappraisal.
Trouble Every Day hits you hard and doesn’t stop until the credits roll. It’s honest and raw, which you expect from Claire Denis, but we often see graphic horror clash with intimate looks. Like Claire Denis, the film doesn’t seek respect or admiration but deserves all of it. Even when this is at its sickest, we feel something from this that most of the other movies don’t have: love. Never has violence felt so filled with passion.
It’s honestly a shame Denis doesn’t dip into horror again, given how strongly she performs in the genre, especially at a time when all French horror was fighting for attention.
If you enjoyed The Strangers or the rise of sleek home invasion films, in general, we saw in the latter half of the millennium; you can thank this gnarly little film for that. 2006’s Them feels profoundly influential and brings forth the terror alongside the disgust we usually feel in these movies.
While the majority of the New French Extremity collection is all about sex and violence, Them puts a focus on tension and suspense, but it doesn’t lack the scares its peers have. The acts we see in this film have just as much weight to them as in High Tension, purely because of who is perpetrating them. The final lines in this film will sit with you for quite some time, bone-chilling delivery, making the whole movie feel sicker.
For those too nervous about something insanely graphic, Them is a perfect introduction to French horror. But these scares could hit you harder than all the blood, guts, and sex.
It’s far to assume that legendary shock artist Gaspar Noé would hate the term New French Extremity, feeling like his work transcends that label. That would be fair, but his 2002 film Irreversible is so influential that it’s hard to think of extreme French cinema without it.
Once you see this, most other films feel like Disney entertainment. But like any good extreme movie, there’s something to say here, with Noé tackling trauma and how it ruins everyone’s life. The viewpoint feels mature and polished, even if the movie lives for being messy and chaotic. Artful as much as it is heinous, just one viewing of Irreversible can send anyone into a cinematic spiral forever.
If we mention acting that elevates beyond graphic horror, let’s not forget that Irreversible includes an all-star duo of Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, giving it their absolute all here.
For most extreme horror fans, 2008’s Martyrs is considered the holy grail. From its thrilling tale of revenge to its deeply-layered story, no movie on this list seeps into your soul quite like this. It’s hard to overstate this film’s legacy and impact, simply going for “you need to see to believe.”
By 2008, New French Extremity had felt like it hit all its highest marks, but then Pascal Laugier’s twisted vision came and gave the era a defining moment late into the game. We’d soon see so many films after this try to recapture its sleek brutality and clever plot, but no one got why Martyrs hits so deeply. Don’t let the praise of its intelligence fool you, though, as this is easily one of the hardest viewings.
Once again, the women who acted in these films are troopers, giving themselves entirely to the horror. Martyrs is no expectation, with two of my favorite horror performances ever.
If you’d like to get involved with Flickering Myth’s own horror project, please check out the Kickstarter campaign page for The Baby in the Basket, a 1940s set gothic horror starring Amber Doig-Thorne (Winnie the Pooh: Blood & Honey), Paul Barber (The Full Monty) & Annabelle Lanyon (Legend).