Thursday 19 April 2018

Films Of The New French Extremity

The French Evolution

Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity
by Alexandra West
McFarland Books
ISBN: 978-1476663487

Alexandra West’s Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity is another book I got given for my half-century Birthday this year and, I’m happy to say, it’s one of those slightly rarer film books that is actually pretty well written and which holds a certain kind of intelligence projected at 24 frames per second into the eyes of the reader and on into the celluloidal soul.

The film looks at a certain group of films from the late 1990s to the late 2000s (a roughly ten year period) which the author, amongst others, have embraced and labelled the New French Extremity movement in cinema.

Now I like some labelled ‘movements’ in cinema because they are a useful ‘catch all’ term to group certain similar directors, regardless of the real validity of a movement which is perceived as a collective. Most cinematic groups I could think of off the top of my head are usually not trying to be part of a specific movement, although, like the French Nouvelle Vague, they can at least be said to rise from similar goals and ideals. The only ones I can think of, off hand, which were deliberately trying to be specific styles of cinema both came from Germany. The first would be the German Expressionist movement in the late 1910’s to late 1920s which was deliberately manufactured to combat the plethora of American product in the German marketplace by making films with a very specific, overtly stylised leaning. The other being, in the wake of the Oberhausen Manifesto, The New German Cinema with people like Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Herzog and Wenders making films as a reaction to the likes of the frivolous German sex comedies which were in such abundance at the time.

From what I can understand of the New French Extremity collective, if you want to identify it as that, is that this too was not, unlike those last two examples I gave, a deliberate movement but something which has been looked at and labelled in this manner. Now I’m quite happy to throw my oar in and agree with the various people defining this upsurge in a particularly extreme ‘anything goes’ version of French cinema as a specific trend but I’m not one hundred percent in agreement on certain parts of the definition, to be honest.

The writer starts off the book by giving us a long history lesson on the violent and troubled past of the country in question... as opposed to the stereotypical romantic portrayal of the country which tends to stick in people’s minds. So she looks at the various battles and wars of France and paints a picture of a nation which has always been covered in blood and viscera. She looks at the way the collective consciousness of France is troubled and confused by things like the history of the Nazi atrocities that played out on French soil, for example, and the collusion of the country with this, to a certain extent. And all of this history is great for someone like me, to be honest, as a person who really didn’t listen too much in school anyway.

The second chapter does the same for the history of French cinema, to give this latest movement some context... so again the French New Wave, the Cinema Du Look etc (that last being a term which I find as insulting and overstated as I do accurate). And when she catches up to the New French Extremity she points out really useful stuff like the films in question tending to not go for jump scares like a lot of horror movies but rather to look at the subject head on while pondering and revelling in the grotesque elements which come into play.

After this, the book then gives a chapter by chapter look at one to four films which the writer has collected into little sets and which seem to go together as miniature groups of movies, for one reason or another. And it’s quite invaluable... not always so much in the things it sometimes identifies as signposts to the movement’s concerns but more so, for me personally, as a shopping list of films I need to pick up, in the cases of the ones I haven’t already seen.

The book also seems a defence, in some ways, of the movement... specifically, it seems, in disagreement with another critic, James Quandt, who apparently rejects a lot of these films as being worthless and, in some way, failures... while still recognising the existence himself of a New French Extremity movement. A movement which has also been called ‘cinéma du corps’ - cinema of the body.

As the film wades through many films I haven’t seen, as well as some of my genre favourites such as In My Skin, Inside and Martyrs (reviewed here), various points are made which tie the films into an exploration of the troublesome country of origin and, while some of the films explored are certainly defended more fervently than I myself would bother with - I personally found High Tension, for example, to be overly obvious right from the start and problematic to the point that I really couldn’t enjoy the film - the comments of West are never trite and, even when I don’t agree with them, always have value, even if that’s just as a starting point to lead to further discussion/exploration of the subject. Something which I think Colin Geddes, programmer for the Toronto Midnight Madness festival, who is interviewed in this volume's appendix, might approve of.

The book finishes with an examination of the various ‘American remakes’ of famous horror films that some of these French directors have perpetrated on an unsuspecting public in recent years... like The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D (reviewed here) and The Eye but... yeah, I’m not really into these commercially hopeful remakes so, while I found this chapter interesting, I wouldn’t have necessarily grouped them into this collective, to be truthful.

The one thing I really don’t agree with is the discussion of this movement as something which is already done and dusted. I think this particular style of French cinematic history, if one does choose to define it as such, is really still only getting started. After all, another film which left me bitterly disappointed and underwhelmed last year, Raw (reviewed here) is surely deserving of being grouped collectively with the other films mentioned here and I suspect there’s more to come soon (hopefully with a lot more bite to them, so to speak).

That being said though, Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity is a big winner with me and I certainly welcome it onto the shelf of film books worth taking time to delve into (I’ll get around to actually physically putting them on a shelf one day). A very interesting tome and I hope the writer has some more like this up her sleeve.

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