John Tells Liz What Happened In The New French Extremity Movement

Dear Frank,

As you know, our good friend John Ross usually tells me about properties related to or derived from female-skewing young adult literature. Today, he’s taken a… different path. But it should be an interesting time!

Love,
Liz

Dear Liz,

Cat FrightenedIt’s the most wonderful time of the year…for most people. But for many, the holidays have the potential to be the most depressing time of year, a time of “unrealistic expectations and excessive self-reflection.” To make matters worse, everything pretty much shuts down — you can’t go to work, you can’t go out, everyone’s gone home to be with family or loved ones — leaving you with not much to do but sit there and dwell on how single you are, how little you’ve accomplished this year, how it’s dark at 4pm, or whatever.

This is also true of the characters in many of our most beloved Christmas movies. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is subjugated to intense self-reflection, forced by ghosts to relive the most shameful moments in his life and even visit his own grave. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey reviews all the missed opportunities in his life that eventually drive him to commit suicide. In the end, however, they always wake up reborn on Christmas and proceed to go bug nuts insane, running down the street, hugging everyone, throwing money around and shouting elatedly.

But this catharsis is only possible after a dark night of forced purgation by an inescapable, seemingly omnipotent entity. Only after they’ve reflected on their sins and faced death can they truly appreciate life.

Wait a minute… That sounds familiar…

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This comparison got me thinking: If so many of our beloved Christmas films are about characters being tormented in this way, why don’t we take it a step further? If you really want to wake up feeling elated on Christmas morning, perhaps you need to put yourself through an even more sadistic hell. And Love, Actually is not going to cut it. No, you need to get nice and cozy with real pain and suffering. You need to experience despair through the eyes of characters for whom there is no hope left, for whom there is no escape. This holiday season, what you need is a brutal, uncompromising, sadistic torture porn.

However, in choosing the right torture porn for your end of the year purification, there are lots of places where you could go wrong. I hope to help you find the right film, the one that will completely suck your soul dry and have you waking up the next morning screaming, “Merry Christmas, movie house!”

First off, I never really liked the term “torture porn.” It always seemed like a cheap attempt by detractors to equate the subgenre with sexual depravity, but really, it’s about as useful as referring to the Food Network as “food porn.” And while there may be a fetishistic aspect to it, you can’t attribute the rise of torture porn in mainstream cinema ten years ago to algolagniacs alone. No, something else had to have happened to account for this sudden fascination with grievous bodily harm. I don’t know what that could have been, but it must have happened sometime in the early aughts… like around late 2001 maybe.

It’s been theorized that horror films, particularly violent exploitation films, surge in popularity during times of crisis. Torture porn went mainstream with the release of Saw in October 2004, just a few months after the government released photos from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. This was also the period when it was really starting to sink in that the reasons for going to war in Iraq were complete bullshit.

America’s righteous retribution against Middle-Easterners in general was suddenly compromised by doubt, guilt and self-loathing. Thus, it makes sense that Americans would flock to a movie in which they’re asked to identify with the torturer as much as the tortured. “That’ll teach that rich businessman! Oh god, I can’t believe he’s cutting off his own leg!”

The torture porn wave continued with films like Hostel, Wolf Creek, and, every Halloween, a Saw sequel until July 2007 when, in my opinion, we hit peak ugliness. Remember driving around in the summer of 2007, enjoying a nice sunshiny day, then looking up and seeing these ads?

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Or these…

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Yes, even prestige directors like Roland Joffe (The Mission) were starting to get in on the torture porn thing, thinking it was the new normal. But his Captivity and Eli Roth’s Hostel Part 2 didn’t do all that well at the box office (those billboards were banned in some states) and by 2010 we had gone from a Saw sequel every Halloween to a Paranormal Activity sequel every Halloween.

Now, in 2013, it seems that our thirst for blood has finally died down to pre-9/11 levels. We’re out of Iraq, we’re back to being scared by bumps in the night (the most successful horror film of the year being The Conjuring), and torture porn, it seems, has returned to its direct-to-video cave.

The sad thing is, after all that time in the spotlight, the US torture pornographers never did manage to produce a movie that was really any good. They dabbled in various themes but never in a way that really resonated. As Pinhead would say, “It’s a waste of good suffering.”

And as gory as the films purported to be, I found them to be surprisingly tame overall. Ironically, in the US, the bloodiest, most violent torture film of the aughts was probably The Passion of the Christ.

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Enter France. At the same time we were mocking them for opposing the Iraq war (remember “freedom fries”?), they had their own little horror film revival underway. As if irritated by how repressed Americans were, the French were not afraid to take the violence, brutality and gore to shocking new extremes.

The wave of films has since been dubbed the New French Extremity movement and at its peak it produced some of the best horror films of that decade. They weren’t all “torture porn” so much as horror films with torture porn levels of violence, but their concurrent release with US torture porn made it easy to label them as such. Regardless, I’m sure one of these would be perfect for your Christmas screening! (Just don’t consume any eggnog beforehand.)

Warning: I feel like I should cover my own ass here and reiterate that these films are quite the endurance test when it comes to blood, gore, violence and brutality. And it’s not the kind of over the top gore that you can laugh off, like “Dead Alive.” No, these effects guys do a pretty good job of approximating what it might look like if someone were to, say, get shot point blank in the face with a shotgun. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. I can confirm, however, that except for the gross out scene at the beginning of “High Tension” described below, the films I’m reviewing here don’t feature any graphic sexual content or rape.

High Tension (2003)

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One of the movement’s earlier seminal entries, Alexandre Aja’s High Tension was released in France in June 2003, three months after the US invasion of Iraq, then opened in the US two years later after a long festival run. The director, Aja, was subsequently imported to the United States to direct the Hills Have Eyes remake and Piranha 3D most notably, but it’s safe to say that High Tension is by far his bloodiest, most shocking film.

High Tension is more meant to be endured than enjoyed. It opens with a guy in a parked truck getting some head… as in he appears to be getting a blow job but it turns out to be just a severed head, which he tosses out the window before speeding off.

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Okay, then. Moving on.

The story is that of a typical slasher film, with a faceless cypher stalking two young women and brutally mutilating just about everyone they come in contact with. The technique, however, is pure New French Extremity. The violence and gore are obviously amped up, the cinematography is gritty looking yet classically composed, and the soundtrack consists mostly of a kind of non-stop, low-frequency droning that makes you feel like your head’s about to explode. (The cacophonous soundtrack trend may have started with Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible.) The overall effect is to keep you constantly on edge without ever being so flashy as to remind you “it’s just a movie.”

The biggest problem that I and most critics had with the film has to do with its ridiculous twist ending which I believe violates a cardinal rule of twist endings, that being that it must be guessable. SPOILER ALERT: In the third act, it’s revealed that one of the girls being stalked and the faceless cypher are the same person!

Now, I think the idea of the stalker and the stalked being the same and together representing a character’s internal conflict is a good idea that has potential, but when I found out that everything I’d been watching up to that point was just a bald-faced lie, I felt cheated. So while I do recommend High Tension as a primer on NFE, I can’t heartily recommend it overall. (It’s still better than Love, Actually, though.)

Frontier(s) (2007)

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Another notable entry in New French Extremity was Frontier(s), directed by Xavier Gens who later went on to direct the American video-game-to-movie Hitman (starring the Justified guy). Frontier(s) is basically Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Nazis instead of hillbillies, but what sets it apart is its politically charged bookends.

It opens with scenes of rioting in the streets of near-future Paris after the controversial election of an extreme right-wing majority. There we meet our young future murder victims, on the run from the police after a violent clash. “I told you that France was ten years behind the USA,” one laments, “Here it comes. Finally we have our George Bush!” After escaping the city, they take refuge in an isolated hotel near the German border where…well, you can guess.

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At the end of the ordeal, the final girl, having escaped from the lair of the evil aging Nazi and his psychotic family, drives back towards the city and reluctantly turns herself in at the first police checkpoint she comes to–the current fascists being preferable to the old school Nazis she just escaped from. I don’t know where the title Frontier(s) comes from, but I’m guessing it’s meant to connect the Nazis in the old frontier to the extreme right-wing post-9/11 political frontier. It’s a clunky metaphor for sure, but far more intriguing than any of the political dabbling in the Hostel films.

Do I recommend Frontier(s)? As I said, the overtly political themes set it apart and I like that it addresses the anxieties of French progressives at the time. But as an NFE film, cinematically, it’s not the best example. The camerawork and editing are often too flashy, making it feel more like an audition reel for an American directing job than an NFE film. Still, if it’s a choice between Frontier(s) and Love Actually, definitely go with Frontier(s). It has less torture in it.

Inside (2007)

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I’m sure there’s something interesting to be said about the gender politics in Inside, but what I like most about it is that it’s just a terrifying premise. I can’t recall the last time I was this scared by a film before watching it. Also, Inside is the perfect candidate for your annual holiday cleanse as it’s a home invasion thriller that takes place on Christmas Eve.

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What is it about Christmas and home invasion? I guess because everyone’s home with lots of expensive presents. Anyway…

Sarah, nine months pregnant and recently widowed, is spending Christmas Eve alone at home and, like Kevin, someone is trying to break in.

Here’s where it deviates from Home Alone just a little bit though: The woman who’s trying to break in wants to cut Sarah open and take her baby.

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Part of the success of torture porn is that the promise of gruesomeness greatly increases the anticipation inherent in the premise, the extra anxiety making for greater curiosity. And that goes double for NFE films unburdened by MPAA prudery. I have to admit I was already a little freaked out before I even put the DVD of Inside in my player. And now that it’s all over, I can report that (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) the worst possible thing you can imagine happening based on that premise…happens… and then some.

The first thirty minutes of Inside are truly effective in a classic sense — a tense, slow burn a la When a Stranger Calls with Sarah getting strange phone calls and catching glimpses of a mysterious stalker in flash photographs. It’s great peek-a-boo stuff. Eventually the woman (Beatrice Dalle) makes her way in and thats when things start to get messy.

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The confrontations between Sarah and la femme are great, but the movie really stumbles with its supporting characters. While the women are duking it out, a parade of victims — including perhaps the dumbest policemen I’ve ever seen — show up one at a time to check on Sarah and are summarily picked off. While the kills are delightfully gruesome, part of me feels like they’re only there to pad out the gore and/or the runtime. (It’s too bad there’s no market for 50-minute short films because Inside might have been a good candidate.)

More importantly though, some of their decisions are so dumb that it really takes you out of the movie, and in the NFE movement, anything that reminds the audience that “it’s just a movie” is kind of a capital offense.

Overall, Inside is a terrifying little movie with a classic horror set-up and some truly accomplished gore effects that will really put you through the ringer. There’s also a twist ending that I was careful not to give away.

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No, no, nothing like that. There are no happy endings allowed in NFE.

So, yeah, it’s better than Love, Actually. But if you’re truly determined to endure heinous acts and emerge spiritually cleansed, if you want to be as enamored with humanity as you are disgusted by it, the best candidate for your Christmas purgation is, in my opinion:

Martyrs (2008)

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Martyrs does for torture porn what Unforgiven did for the Western genre: Sure, you could make another one after this…but why? It fulfills the expectations of the subgenre while destroying it at the same time. I have to agree it’s one of the best horror films of the last decade.

The DVD includes an introduction by director Pascal Laugier in which he thanks you for choosing the film but isn’t “sure you made the right choice,” as he tends to alternate between being proud of the film and being ashamed of it. And it’s certainly polarizing. The user reviews on IMDB typically alternate between ten stars and one star and American critics were split with a 55 percent Tomatometer score.

Love it or hate it, I can at least guarantee it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. It’s shocking not just on a visceral level, but on an emotional and existential level as well. I myself had to sleep with the light on. However, when I awoke the next day, for reasons I still can’t quite explain, there was a spring in my step, as if I’d been given a new lease on life. Was this the Scrooge effect?

The movie opens with shots of a young girl, Lucie, badly bruised and beaten, running through an abandoned industrial area. Credits roll over Super 8 footage of a police detective taking us on a tour of the area where Lucie was found, including a room to which she was confined and routinely abused. How, exactly, Lucie won’t say, they just know the abuse was never sexual in nature.

Lucie is sent to an orphanage where she’s befriended by another girl, Anna, who becomes her closest confidant. The police interview Anna about her interactions with Lucie, desperate for any clues that might help them find Lucie’s abductors, but beyond the fact that one of torturers was a woman, Anna doesn’t have much to report.

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All the while, Lucie is being terrorized by what looks like one of those J-horror ghosts only way more disgusting and feral. When Anna finds Lucie in the bathroom with cuts all over her arms, Lucie insists she was attacked by this ghost woman but Anna suspects the cuts might be self-inflicted.

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The movie then skips ahead fifteen years to the present day. Lucie and Anna are still together and still on the hunt for the people that tortured Lucie as a child. Now Lucie believes she’s finally found them: A bland, white couple living in suburbia with two teenage kids. But Lucie is so unreliable and unhinged at this point, it’s hard to know what to believe.

The first 45 minutes of Martyrs is one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had viewing a film. It’s shockingly violent for sure, but what sets it apart for me is how profoundly heartbreaking and sad it is at the same time. Lucie is a broken human being, but Laugier does such a good job of putting the audience in Lucie’s panicked mindset that you can’t help but sympathize with her, even during acts that would otherwise seem unforgivably heinous.

Lucie and Anna’s friendship (and implied romance) is also strangely touching. Anna seems to have sacrificed a lot for this friendship, essentially dedicating her life to helping this poor soul who, to anyone else, would seem beyond help, making the final outcome all the more tragic. It’s just so fucking sad!

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In the second 45 minutes, things take a major turn for the worse, as if that were even possible. SPOILERS AHEAD. Without giving too much away, our heroines are finally hunted down and we learn something about Lucie’s torturers. In a nutshell, they’re part of a well-organized cult with a whole network of underground torture chambers where women are systematically broken down until they achieve a state of “martyrdom”–a catatonic state between life and death during which they will be able to get a glimpse of the afterlife and report back.

Anyway, as you no doubt might have guessed, one of our characters gets “martyred.” It’s harrowing, painful, and has a lot of references to The Passion of Joan of Arc which I think the French are totally allowed to do.

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As our final girl is slowly broken down, it gradually dawns on us too that there really is no escape for her and every last ounce of hope we might have had is sucked dry. Even the bad guys lose all hope. The amount of hope gets so low, we actually start gaining negative hope.

And from there, there’s only one place to go…

I’m sure there are people out there who have seen Martyrs who think I’m insane for suggesting that anyone watch Martyrs on Christmas Eve (or ever), but I’m dead serious: If you’re depressed on Christmas Eve, watch Martyrs, try to sleep if you can, then see how you feel on Christmas morning. Then tell me I’m insane.

Oh, and God bless us, everyone!

Love,
John

John Ross is a writer/filmmaker living in Los Angeles. He is also the best for doing this.

Freaked out? Don’t worry! Liz Tells Frank will be back tomorrow with a much more merry post!

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About A "Liz Tells Frank" Guest Writer

I'm a guest writer for Liz Tells Frank What Happened In..., which makes me a very special breed of person, and someone Liz admires deeply! Want to become a guest writer yourself? Just reach out to Liz and ask!

Posted on December 23, 2013, in Movies, Other People Telling Liz Stuff, Some Spoilers and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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