Bright Lights Film Journal

The New French New Wave? Sex and Horror in the Modern Arthouse

“The explicit nature of this wave of filmmaking can be interpreted as a riposte to modern cultural sensibilities.”

A year before The Daily Mail‘s Christopher Hart fumed that Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (a new release that he had not seen), “plumb[ed] new depths of sexual explicitness, excruciating violence and degradation,” Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) provoked a similar reaction from the mainstream press, with scenes of graphic violence and methodical, almost mind-numbing torture. Peter Whittle, writing in The Sunday Times, decried the film’s pretentiousness and lesbian chic, noting that “its extreme brutality leaves Hollywood standing” and that “all it really demonstrates is that there is something seriously rotten in the state of France.” Indeed there is, and it is terrifying and wonderful to behold.

There was a whiff of Francophobia in Whittle’s remarks that is no less visible within the general British press and public. The French are seen as fair game for ribbing, from stereotypes involving cheese, wine, and casual promiscuity to notions of a forever-striking and layabout nation populated by surrender monkeys. Our clichés and stereotypes extend into the arts; preconceptions about French film exist – we seem to like our Gallic imports sufficiently bourgeois and arthouse. Perhaps this explains the dismissive critical reaction to modern French horror; after all, other nations have had relatively successful (in both commercial terms and column inches) horror resurgences, but we are guilty of under-appreciating the talent currently emanating from France. Consider the publicity afforded for other foreign horror films in the United Kingdom: spooky ghosts and ethereal notions have long been a mainstay of Japanese horror, from Kwaidan (1964), a portmanteau of traditional and folklore tales, to the onslaught of the successful Ju-On (2000) series. Our friends across the pond, once the primary driving force for inventive and boundary-pushing horror (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), George Romero’s Dead series, or even the work of Hitchcock), now seem content to wheel out tame slasher features or muted reimaginings of original chillers. They do, however, perform well financially. We British have had a fair stab at releasing quite nasty little pictures in recent times like Eden Lake (2008), and Australia has put forth at least one successfully brutal effort in the shape of Wolf Creek (2005), which both performed well. In terms of quality, however, the last decade of horror has undoubtedly belonged to the French.

For a nation most commonly associated with well-made and distinctly de France human drama (the work of Louis Malle, for instance), or the nouvelle vague instigated by Godard, Truffaut, et al., the history of Gallic horror runs deep. Indeed, Georges Méliès might have created the first horror feature, releasing the three-minute short Le Manoir du Diable in 1896 (there has been some contention over whether it was intended as a comedy, and that over the years aspects within it – the supernatural, bats, Satan himself – now remind us of regular horror conventions). The sense of visual awe and terrifying, grotesque images that Méliès went on to hone in films like The Cave of the Demons (1898) and The Infernal Boiling Pot (1903) permeates much of French cinema; for instance, in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) appears the infamous shot of a woman’s eye being slit by a razor. These works not only influenced later horror cinema but seem to have come full circle in France. Consider the disorientating and shocking images in recent output: the brutal and agonising rape scene in Irreversible (2002) or the sight of a pair of scissors piercing a naked (pregnant) belly button in À l’intérieur (2007). The work of Gasper Noe, Catherine Breillat, and Bruno Dumont features explicit and ghastly sequences, yet under the banner of arthouse the merits (aesthetic or otherwise) are at least considered. As a nation, we are so used to the notion of what French film is – or, rather, how it is packaged for us – that our first reaction when a horror film attempts to be visceral or boundary busting is to remark “Oh, those disgraceful French! How disgusting!” Xan Brooks, writing in The Guardian, summarised Martyrs as a “slick essay in Gallic torture porn in which a pair of hysterical young women slip and slide around in pools of blood wearing naught but their undies.”

Outside lofty art-films, Anglophile interest in Gallic film is auteurist; distributors control what gets released on these shores, and whilst we are privy to a selection of well-made and/or taboo-challenging features – Haute Tension (2003) and Martyrs are anomalies that have garnered some interest over here – there remain a number of arresting and rich horror films that have largely stayed within the isolated arena of contemporary Gallic genre cinema.

One of the most striking features of recent years is Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s À l’intérieur. Our protagonist, Sarah (Alysson Paradis), has survived a car crash alongside her unborn baby but lost her husband; four months following the accident, on the eve of both Christmas and the child’s birth, a strange woman named “La Femme” (played by Béatrice Dalle) appears at Sarah’s house asking to use the phone. Thus begins a battle (of wits, sure, but with the added assistance of nails, fire, scissors, etc.) that, had it been produced in America or the United Kingdom, would most likely have been another snoozefest aggressor-victim feature a la Captivity (2007) or even the behemoth Saw franchise; or admirable but ultimately tame efforts like Mark Tonderai’s Hush (2009). Where À l’intérieur succeeds is in its perfectly judged brevity (more films, not just horror ones, could benefit from an 83-minute runtime), and a compelling visual aura that, bizarrely, feels at once realistic and ethereal; Sarah’s home is suspiciously misty, whilst the sight of the black-hooded La Femme standing ominously outside French windows could have been snipped from a Méliès joint. Whilst the motives and context within the film become increasingly clear (and, come the conclusion, almost indecently moving in a Darwinian, basic human emotions sphere), the primary focal point is inevitably drawn toward brutal and unrelenting violence – thoroughly modern in its execution (bloody, visceral, inventive) yet tethered to a notion of a classic(al) battle between good and evil forces. To reveal much more would be to spoil what is a heart-racing ordeal of the highest order; it’s the film Eli Roth wishes he could make – taut and truly menacing.

À l’intérieur accentuates a theme that has, thanks to Antichrist, become a heated topic at present: femininity. Notably, von Trier’s feature and Fabrice du Welz’s new film Vinyan (2009) are both readily applicable to the French Feminist wave that came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Theorists like Julia Kristeva and Bracha Ettinger were less concerned with political doctrine and instead focused on notions of the “body,” posing a more metaphorical and effusive slant than Anglophone musings. Whilst there are themes in À l’intérieur and Frontier(s) (2007) that explicitly reference the primal bond that exists between woman and child and, to an extent, imply that this power stemming from nature elevates the survival of women over men, there is a clear link between theses contained within French feminism and the metaphorical and metaphysical insinuations in Vinyan (with Emmanuelle Béart’s character ultimately presented as some kind of deity) and Martyrs (where fertile females are the most capable biologically of achieving martyrdom). Catherine Breillat, a purveyor of transgressive sexuality, has railed throughout her career against a cultural mood that, in her eyes, would not accept female sexuality as readily or as openly as they would male. Following the classification of her 1999 feature Romance, she declared that “censorship was a male preoccupation,” and that “the X certificate was linked to the X chromosome”; the poster for the film accentuated the point, a naked woman with her hands between her legs emblazoned with a large red “X.”

Scores of critics have denounced von Trier’s confrontational Antichrist as inherently misogynistic; Wendy Ide, writing in The Times, simply stated “We get it. You [von Trier] really, really don’t like women,” whilst Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly felt that the overlay of “pseudo-Christian allegory” was thrown in in order to deflect “a reasonable person’s accusations of misogyny.”

In truth, the discourse that emerged following Antichrist surrounding issues of gender is hardly revolutionary; women have been mistreated and misrepresented in cinema since film began. In addition, von Trier presents a female character (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who, actually, is infinitely more interesting than her smug, self-satisfied husband (Willem Dafoe). Despite being the subservient “patient” of Dafoe’s therapist learnings in the first half, she is ultimately the stronger person and arguably the more sympathetic. As von Trier states in the film’s production notes, “My male protagonists are basically idiots who don’t understand shit.”

At first glance, this is an ethos that can be readily discerned in many recent French horror efforts. Consider À l’intérieur, for instance, focusing on a protagonist and an antagonist who are both strong and independent female characters. Male characters that are potential saviours are cruelly dispensed with, useless against such feminine guile; policemen are dispensable cannon fodder (indeed, there is a rather Godardian theme against authority in Vinyan, À l’intérieur, and Frontier(s)). Yet a snobbish school of thought has arisen: if an auteur like von Trier or Breillat explores sexuality or gender issues, then one must consider their argument, and label it misogynistic, misandrist, or neither accordingly. Should an examination of sexuality be offered under the banner of horror, however, then one may dismiss it as a cheap ploy, just another meaningless facet of exploitation.

The notion of “lesbian chic” that Peter Whittle identified should, by his definition, be applicable to much of the output of recent Gallic horror. In Haute Tension, there is a strong sexual undercurrent between Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maiwenn Le Besco); in Martyrs, the opening half concerns the exploits of troubled lovers Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and Lucie (Mylène Jampanoi). Essentially, however, this lesbian chic transforms into an exploration of female empowerment; the metamorphosis seen in Frontier(s) of Yasmine (Karina Testa) from a woman with flowing locks in the early stages of pregnancy, to short-haired terroriser covered in blood and mud, is not dissimilar to the (Joan of?) arc of Marie’s character in Haute Tension. In Vinyan, Emmanuelle Béart’s character, a slightly unhinged grieving mother, transforms so that by the final scenes of the film, she is an embodiment of maternal power and allure.

The film concerns Paul and Jeanne Belhmer (Rufus Sewell and Béart), husband and wife who have lost (in the traditional sense) their son George. Whilst living in an idyllic setting in Thailand, Jeanne believes she glimpses George on a videotape shown at a local fundraising event. The parents undertake a journey into Burma in their efforts to locate said child, and suffice it to say things don’t exactly go to plan. The parallels between this feature and Antichrist are significant. Both concern a couple who are distraught by the loss (in either sense) of their child; he is the more stoic and measured, she the more hysterical and overtly affected. Both travel from their homes into scary (in a somewhat illustrative and existential sense in Antichrist and in very real way for most of Vinyan) territory. The male characters, once in control of their female counterparts, become increasingly marginalised and dominated by both the environment and their wives. Whilst less graphic than von Trier’s picture, it proves a far more desensitising and disturbing examination of grief, nature, and motherhood. The technical prowess and sheer confidence on display in Vinyan is indicative of modern Gallic cinema, perhaps afforded due to the nurturing nature of the French government with regard to their film culture. It would certainly be difficult to recall superior sound design in recent history than that found in Vinyan, the superlative work of Frédéric Meert and Emmanuel de Boissieu providing an aural assault that matches the visual horror. One wonders whether the similarities between these two films are purely accidental or whether they indicate a certain cultural aura. If one aligns with the view that these may be inherently misogynistic, then perhaps a notion of the female gender as equally unforgiving and evil as nature itself can be seen as a revolt against postmodern feminism. For instance, Mary Joe Frug’s assertion that sex is not something natural and that cultural mechanisms encode the female body with meanings is at immediate odds with the associations drawn between nature and women, and between the fundamental differences between the sexes seen in both Vinyan and Antichrist. In this sense, the explicit nature of this wave of filmmaking can be interpreted as a riposte to modern cultural sensibilities.

The unsettling acoustics and confrontational visuals that are also prevalent in the films of Gasper Noé or Pascal Laugier can be related to the notion of what Toronto-based critic James Quandt has coined, the “New French Extremity.” Lamenting that subjects and images once resigned to just exploitation and splatter films are now becoming proliferate in the “high-art environs of a national cinema whose provocations have historically been formal, political, or philosophical (Godard, Clouzot, Debord) or, at their most immoderate (Franju, Bunuel) . . . at least assimilable as emanations of an artistic movement (Surrealism mostly).”

Can one take the current surge in provocative Gallic horror as a direct confrontation with the state of French society? Catherine Breillat, director of the challenging Romance (1999) and A Ma Soeur! (2001), argues that “French cinema is terribly bourgeois. You’re either an artist or a conformist – if you’re conformist, you show society conforming to the way it likes to see itself. If you’re an artist, you show a society that’s much more transgressive.” Rebelling against societal and artistic ideals is certainly not revolutionary in Gallic cinema. Indeed, there is a rich history of dissent; Jean-Luc Godard, for one, made the merciless satire Week End (1967), a damning indictment of bourgeois culture that steadily descends into chaos and doom as the film progresses. His scathing attitude is mirrored by not just Breillat et al. but many recent horror films. Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) lacks the leanness and intimacy of Bustillo and Maury’s À l’intérieur, but compensates with a ferocious political subtext; the ludicrous-on paper premise (small-time hoodlums retreat after a robbery in the country, holing up in a rural family-run motel that happens to be a hotbed of Nazi cannibals) was borne out of Gens’ own political frustrations. In 2002, the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen, after defeating the Left’s primary candidate in a first-round upset, took second place behind Chirac in the French presidential elections, illustrating the underlying problems that the country had with xenophobia, racism, and nationalism. This was the context under which Gens was writing, and one can see similar cinematic revolts. Gasper Noé’s Seul Contre Tous (“I Stand Alone”) can also be seen as an indictment of the cultural mood; The Butcher’s embittered outlook on the world (spewing hatred against immigrants, gay people, blacks, and women) articulates the mindset of the Le Pen constituency to its excruciating extreme. Noé has even put forth that his film is defiantly anti-French, suggesting that a waning sense of national identity informs the film’s grisly vision.

Even if one takes on board Pascal Laugier’s rejection of a significant horror movement in France – “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. I think a genre really exists when it’s industrially produced like the Italians did 600 spaghetti westerns” – one cannot deny the thematic and stylistic traits that have emerged from the nation in the last decade, nor the sustained level of quality and transgressive-ness.

The notion of a supposedly idyllic rural retreat has long been a staple of the horror genre, but recently the countryside appears to be the location du jour for extreme brutality and terror. Take Calvaire, where a small-time entertainer finds himself trapped in a small town full of unsavoury character; or the depraved acts of violence at the family retreat in Haute Tension; or Frontier(s), where cosmopolitan (albeit under revolt) Paris is escaped and retreat to the “borders” instigates debased activities. Perhaps this theme ties into anti-imperial sentiment: marauding invaders who come unstuck at the hands of native inhabitants, or perhaps, as in Britain, class and conflicting sectors of society remains a vital arena for struggle.

The issue of sexuality, too, provides the directors with added ammunition to provoke: incest is a feature of Seul Contre Tous and Frontier(s), and whilst lesbianism is covered in Martyrs and Haute Tension, the homosexual tensions Marc (who appears to be struggling with his own anxieties about sex) encounters in Calvaire with his hotel-owner cum tormentor lends the picture an uneasy ambience – the terrifying bar scene where the local men dance together is particularly squeamish. There is a sense that these directors are attempting to burst the “bourgeois bubble” that Gallic film hovers in. For a nation that perhaps views itself as indivisible (culturally or geographically), the attempts to actively create tension in these areas – particularly in the theme of urbanity versus the borders – indicates a collective sentiment amongst these new purveyors of horror.

Alas, the temptations that Hollywood dangles before prominent up-and-coming directors has seeped into the Gallic horror division. Either for the money or just because nothing else is readily available (one struggles to imagine it is for artistic licence, given the generic pictures they go on to produce), hungry and talented artists like Xavier Gens and Alexandre Aja have bitten from the poisoned tinseltown apple, delivering passable-at-best banalities like Hitman (2007) and Mirrors (2008), respectively. Pascal Laugier explains, “After Martyrs I received one French proposition from a producer. At the same time I was receiving forty, fifty American propositions. I really wanted to stay in France to make films because for me it was much more interesting, but after a while you kinda feel desperate and you go to people who desire you much more.” Sadly, for now, it appears that in France arthouse remains the only “legitimate” authority to produce bold, extreme, and topical features.