A Book Review by Alex Brannan.
When James Quandt coined the term “New French Extremity” in a piece for ArtForum, he referred to such a naming as something a “critic truffle-snuffing for trends” might do (“Flesh and blood”). Perhaps to his own chagrin, he was snuffing in exactly the right place to spot the trend. 12 years later, the notion of a New French Extremity has continued to haunt Quandt. Writing for a book of essays entitled The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, Quandt explained that: “The [ArtForum] article appeared to give form to an apparent but hitherto unspecified affinity. (To mistake it for a movement would be a step too far, as that term implies a communal consciousness and coherency that the disparate [New French Extremity] obviously lacked)” (“12 Years Later”).
In the opening paragraphs of Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity (McFarland, 2016), Alexandra West admits the grouping of filmmakers under the umbrella of New French Extremity to be “disparate,” but her main point adheres firmly to the idea that the trends constitutes an important movement to the progression of modern cinema (8). West’s basic premise is that the New French Extremity consisted of a loose association of films that depicts extreme content in order to allegorically illustrate the social ills of French society at the time. “Horror films,” West writes, “illustrate and explore what a society is scared of. The New French Extremity movement has shown what the French are afraid of, [sic] themselves” (8).
West’s thesis is that the films she discusses in the book share the theme of “the pliability of the self, how characters can be overtaken by circumstances beyond their control or even by themselves which irrevocably damages the world around them” (8). She frames her analysis under the historical understanding of France as a national identity where “the tension of the divide between classes has always been simmering just below the surface” and the “deep resentments between classes and communities continue to be a source of civil unrest and political upheaval” (13). Of course, many nations have a history of class divide and revolution, but West’s historical summation is an adequate means of establishing her argument.
West’s claim that these films are united by a common history is not helped by how she approaches analysis. Each chapter of the book presents two or three films which are grouped together by specific generic or thematic identifiers. Within these chapters, West proceeds to critique each film individually, rarely putting the films in conversation with each other. If the goal is to analyze the importance of a movement, it seems counter-intuitive to create so much space between the films. In many parts, West offers strong analysis of the films in question, but her way of organizing her case for New French Extremity-as-movement seems to undercut her own argument.
Only one aspect of West’s argument sets the New French Extremity apart from other modern films of extremity: the French identity that she alludes to in the book’s title. Often, West’s analysis does engage with the distinct French-ness of the films. For example, she comments on the alleged homophobia and racism of Gaspar Noe, relaying his own assertion that his films are not bigoted in this way but are, in fact, depicting a bigoted culture. West counters Quandt on Irreversible by stating that the aim of the film is to show the audience “a view into a world they choose not to know, [sic] or avoid at all costs” (55). This echoes part of West’s over-arching argument: “the films of the New French Extremity present what is uncomfortable, not talked about or forgotten … [mirroring] the sentiments of French history, which sought to forget the atrocities of the past” (8). This claim appears to solidify a connection between New French Extremity and a distinct sense of French-ness. Yet, the argumentation does not maintain focus from film-to-film.
Her analysis of Frontier(s) highlights a connection between political riots over the right-wing French government and the remnants of Nazi occupation, all as a means of showing racism in France. This is similar to Gaspar Noe’s self-described efforts in his films. The same chapter also discusses Calvaire (2004), which West admits is made by a Belgian director and is only New French Extremity through its invoking of “violence from the past” and a French-language script (124-125). Though West never goes on to connect Calviare with a re-emergence of past violence. She loosely equates the film to real-life murders, but otherwise concludes her analysis by shifting the focus to the film’s unlikable protagonist, who must “embrace his role as performer” (128) when his widowed captor forces him to portray the captor’s wife, Gloria. Perhaps the protagonist-as-“Gloria” is a metaphorical re-emergence of the past. This would be a stretch, but it makes more sense than connecting a fictional narrative about a man who is forced to play another man’s estranged wife to a real-life Belgian serial killer who kidnapped and murdered six women. Either way, how is this violence distinctly New French Extremity in terms of West’s socio-political argument? If nothing else, Calvaire is indicative of a New Belgian Extremity, as West quotes director Fabrice du Welz talking about how the film connects to the history of his home country (125). The other film in the chapter is Kim Chapiron’s Sheitan (2006), which West declares is attacking the “backward way of life” – i.e., Christianity in France (131). It is unclear how this religious criticism aligns Sheitan with West’s broader socio-political claim. The alignment might be there, but West never points to it.
West also discusses how a film like Romance (1999) “challeng[es] patriarchal order” (57), one like Trouble Every Day (2001) “plays on the audience’s fear of sexuality” (86), and one like Demonlover (2002) is “a comment on humanity’s newfound dependence on communication reaching us through a backlit screen” (109). Not only are these themes dramatically disparate from one another, but none of these individual film analyses illustrate West’s larger point. Those themes could easily be transplanted into a film from a different country. Doing so may make the films less French, while West’s analyses would still hold true.
Films of the New French Extremity’s argumentation is compelling but ultimately leads to more complications than enlightening perspectives. Her book is perhaps the first to address the New French Extremity exclusively and attempt to pin it down as a culturally relevant movement. It is possible that the films in the book all have something important to say about French culture, but West’s discourse only extends far enough to illustrate how each film has its own distinct cultural themes – leaving her claim, that the films constitute a coherent movement, largely unsupported.
Quandt, James. “12 Years Later, The New French Extremity is Still Pissing People Off.” TIFF: The Review, 4 Nov. 2016.
– – -, – – -. “Flesh and blood: sex and violence in recent French cinema.” ArtForum, Feb. 2004.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.