*CW: Rape, sexual assault, and sexual violence*
Sprouting from the once formal, political, and philosophical cinema that dominated France’s cultural identity, the New French Extremity movement seems to embody a sort of “rebel child” of French national cinema. This highly immoderate offspring does not hold back: intensified violence, sex, sexual assault, rape, drugs, abuse, and incest are not at all uncommon for the genre; instead, they’re anticipated in each coming release. These films push the far limits of reality with little regard for what is visually appeasing, typically in order to vaguely highlight a societal problem.
While the genre has flourished in cinephile communities over the past twenty or so years, the success and awe of the films within have not sashayed through film discourse without backlash. From early on in the genre’s lifeline, there has been criticism on whether the films themselves hold meaning outside of their ability to reflexively create shock.
In film-critic James Quandt’s ArtForum piece where the genre was originally defined, the debate is posited around the value of the films in a larger context — that is to say, does the New French Extremity take away the value of cinema? However, no matter which side of the debate you are on, whether you defend or attack this off-white horror collection, the retaliation seen in film criticism has, frankly, been missing the mark.
In an academic film genre where rape and assault are nearly guaranteed to appear in any one of the films, the feminist critiques are boundless. In accepting these films for the gory manifestations of Hell-on-Earth that they are, there is blatant erasure when it comes to assessing the impact of such malevolent treatment of women onscreen. Despite the presence of female filmmakers in the genre, the New French Extremity has been male-dominated, and the majority of the narratives are androcentric, with the objectification of women coming as a byproduct.
In a paradoxical manner, female characters in the New French Extremity are often rendered as pieces of flesh that are vital to the telling of misogynistic stories. But yet, they’re also far enough away from the narrative core that their personalities, thoughts, feelings, and overall depth are uninfluential. Ultimately, the New French Extremity has largely focused on putting women’s suffering at the center without a trace of feminist storytelling as redemption.
The principal films that embody the essence of the New French Extremity are testament enough to the unbridled misogyny at hand. Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), inarguably one of the most revered films in the genre, is a classic rape-revenge film, boasting the uniqueness of its reverse chronology. Noé doesn’t waste time in announcing the “take-away” of the story — that “time destroys everything.” The scenes shift with unsteady camera movements to evoke the vagrant qualities of time, and the audience is immediately pushed into the high stakes of the rape-revenge plot.
The injustice in the storytelling here rests on the fact that it is fundamentally told through the avenger’s eyes, and Noé takes no interest in the female character at all. It must be highlighted that the only scene in which the camera remains deadly still in the entirety of the film, capturing even the slightest of movements, is the central rape scene. The anal rape scene, furthermore followed by an incredibly brutal assault, lasts approximately 11 minutes fully uncut. The shots encapsulate the pleasure of the male rapist overpowering the female victim’s suffering, completely rendering her into an object — or rather, a corpse. The novelty of reshaping the chronology to absolve a traditional climax is overshadowed by unredeemed abuse and objectification of women on-screen. For a filmmaker who blasts the audience with the “moral of the story” within the first ten minutes of screen time, not nearly as inventive a decision as critics rhapsodize, Noé seems to have used this film as a vehicle to solely oppress women.
With a plot that similarly pales in comparison to the gender-based violence exhibited, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is a film that premises a revenge-horror plot for the abuse that the two female protagonists endured as children. Martyrs is lauded as one of the most terrifying horror films of all time, and rightly so — it encompasses over 100 minutes of uncurbed, visceral, and explicit abuse and body horror. When the core of the film is unveiled, the viewers learn that the torture is part of an overall scheme to yield martyrdom. According to the film, this mechanism is most effective on young women, and coinciding with that “convenient” logic, they are tortured to the brink of complete submission to finally bear witness to what follows in the afterlife, while the overseers are simply eager to find out what awaits them in death.
Looking back on the body of the film, it is not unfair to say that the overall truth of the film is nothing but a tepid punchline to the feature-length joke that consists of abusing women to no end. The story is nothing more than an unimaginative hyperbole for human suffering. Women have always been martyrs.
This pattern of odd plotlines along with trivial cinematic messages begotten through explicit brutality repeats for the majority of NFE films. It is difficult to conceptualize how certain filmmakers have continued to recreate the already ineffectual source material of the genre’s primordial films. However, there has been a silver lining in the clouds, manifesting in the recent reclamation of the genre by empowering the female narrative with Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017). These two films are highly contemporary works of cinema that epitomize the fundamental principles of the New French Extremity: excessive blood shed, highly evocative violence, and sex. What sets them apart, however, is the commitment to storytelling through the female protagonist’s eyes, positioning women as the central subjects of the film, as it entails feminist narratives.
Raw (2016) follows Justine (Garance Marillier), who has lived her entire life as a vegetarian. When she goes off to veterinary school where her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), currently attends, Justine — like all of the other first year students — is hazed by the upperclassmen, being forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys against her will. Alexia forces the kidney down Justine’s throat, and she consumes meat for the first time in her life.
As automatic as the flip of a switch, following a full-body rash and sweats that resemble an allergic reaction, Justine begins to crave meat constantly. Hamburger patties pocketed at the cantine, extra portions, and raw chicken are only a few examples of this metamorphosis. Justine’s newfound carnivorial tendencies take flight, and not in moderation. When Alexia gives Justine a bikini wax as a sisterly rite of passage, she accidentally cuts her own finger off, causing a spout of blood to emerge from the wound. In an animalistic fashion, Justine cannot contain the impulse to pounce, consuming her sister’s severed finger.
From the first time Justine tastes human flesh, the story warps into a cannibalistic tale; except in this case, the torture she endures is wholly self-inflicted. Raw’s narrative satirizes the formerly relegated prodigiousness that is female desire, as it has been historically expunged from the cinematic spectrum. The film plays with Justine’s growing appetite and acute cravings to the degree that the analogy of carnal drive is integral to the mise-en-scène. Justine’s choices and pursuits, whether they be delving into cannibalism or sexual exploration, are the platform on which the plot is constructed. These decisions single the film out as a cinematic masterpiece of the NFE without victimization embedded in the heart of it. Depicting female desire in an allegorical way not only is visually captivating and authentic, but also revolutionary in the depiction of what it actually looks like.
Finally, there’s Revenge (2017), the more controversial feature of the two. Coralie Fargeat’s debut reappropriates the rape-revenge plot that is habitual among NFE films, so in that sense, there is little invention to the premise. However, the mechanics of the story allow for a new way of interpreting this cinema. For the first component of the film, before the rape occurs, the male gaze is a key player in the mise-en-scène. In fact, Fargeat could not have possibly brought the voyeuristic lens to a further extreme. The cinematography is littered with close-up shots objectifying the body and personality of the protagonist, Jen (Matilda Lutz). Much of the dialogue is also comprised of “locker room talk” between the three men at the vacation home.
For this portion of the film, the sole purpose of Jen’s character is to look pretty as the coveted mistress of the overly masculinized main character, Richard (Kevin Janssens). When Richard has to leave the desert home on an errand, Stanley (Vincent Colombe), who had been infatuated with Jen from the night before when they danced together, took their prior interaction as an invitation to sexually force himself upon Jen, and thus, rape her. The rape scene is both a mechanical and contextual turning point. Acknowledging the extensive gore and violence in the plot to come, the rape scene, inarguably the most volatile and destructive act of the entire film, is not at all physically shown. While Jen is suffering, the camera mainly pans off to different parts of the location, choosing instead to highlight the other friend’s complacency in the assault, an ostensible problem in sexual violence.
When Richard returns, contrary to protecting the prized object that Jen is made out to be, the havoc wreaked on the other two men is minimal. In an effort to escape, Jen runs barefoot through the desert only to be cornered by the three men and eventually pushed off of a cliff by Richard. As she falls to what should be her death, with a massive tree trunk puncturing the whole of her chest and abdomen, Jen eventually awakens with her innards spewing out of her corpus. Staying true to the extremity, Jen’s ravaged and mutilated body has never been stronger — her fall serving as the trigger to exact revenge, and spoiler alert, she does. The remainder of the film entails an empathetic venture into the bodily pain Jen experiences, following the narrative through her eyes alone. The movie is bloody, disgusting, and anxiety-inducing, but the violence is not free: the viewers do not have an easy pass to take pleasure in her pain. Instead, they are forced to stay afloat in the tension as the hunt builds. Ultimately, on a deeper level, beyond the narrative streaming through Jen’s consciousness, Fargeat adds a deeper dialogue on the ways women and men handle pain, with women swallowing more than men can tolerate.
As Céline Sciamma stated in her BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture from December of 2019, “cinema is not a safe place for female characters.” Some filmmakers more than others are responsible for this audacious, yet undeniable claim, as some genres have carved out an unmatched environment for this sort of fictional predation. Society has started on the steep quest of questioning the roles and interactions within cinema. As we have overall begun to back the task of not separating the man from the artist, we also must apply this logic in its inverse: not separating the art from the man, and thus, the possible damage that cinema can produce within society. Art cannot simply be used as the means of attaining a space to perpetuate any unrectified violence or oppression, as cinema is not just a form of entertainment, ultimately a remarkable apparatus for political expression.
The New French Extremity will be under a close watch in the coming years, as a feminist revolution has been on the rise in France following actress Adèle Haenel coming out with pedophilic sexual assault allegations against a director she worked with as a child, and her eventual exit from the 2020 Césars ceremony following convicted pedophile Roman Polanski’s win for Best Director (amongst many other factors). There is prodigious potential for the genre to take on more politically inclined stories that center feminist narratives, as a response to the feminist coup brewing in the country. If the genre follows in a similar trajectory from the past few releases, such as Raw and Revenge, the future of the New French Extremity is looking bright.