*Full of a bunch of spoilers for all sorts of movies*
*Also, I don’t usually say this, but I guess I should issue a trigger warning
In my viewing of
twenty-first century French cinema, I have seen the following things: a group
of soldiers gang-rape a woman, and one of the soldiers is later castrated in
retaliation; a man with an axe smashes a car window open and murder a woman and
a girl inside and then rapes another girl; a gay man sodomizes a woman in a
tunnel for about ten minutes and her fiancée and his friend retaliate by
smashing the rapist’s skull to bits with a fire extinguisher inside the most
nightmarish gay club since William Friedkin’s Cruising; a man watches a tape of his brother-in-law having sex
with his niece.
The scenes I have just
described come respectively from the following films: Bruno Dumont’s Flanders (2005), Catherine Breillat’s A ma soeur (2001, released in the U.S.
as Fat Girl for some fucking reason),
Gaspar Noé‘s Irreversible (2004), and
Claire Denis’s Bastards (2013). These films are all examples of what they
call the “New French Extremity:” fucked up movies where every horrible thing
that would once have taken place off screen, or at least that would have been
mitigated by jump cuts and other forms of elision, is depicted onscreen in
unsparing detail. It is underpinned by the
philosophy that every horrible thing can and should be put on film, and that a
film has no responsibility to be pleasant or aesthetically pleasing (Bastards especially lingers in my memory
as a grim, dirty, visually ugly piece of cinema).
Now, I don’t consider
myself to be prudish or censorious in my film-watching habits. I don’t find anything inherently
objectionable in films that depict “extreme” subject matter or that make use of
an “extreme” style. Hell, I love
contemporary Korean cinema, which has to be the most fucked up national cinema
in the world; one of my favorite films is Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (the original, of course), which is an incest-fueled
bloodbath. But it’s a very stylish, even,
dare I say, pretty, incest-fueled bloodbath. Or take Kim Ki-duk’s elegant film The Isle, which depicts: a man
swallowing a bunch of fishhooks, a woman driving fishhooks into her vagina, and
more unsimulated animal cruelty than I’ve seen in any other movie. And yet these are not unpleasant films to
watch. Because the directors understand
that there is a balance to be struck.
And so, if we’re going to have fucked up subject matter, we will balance
it with stylish compositions and clever, engaging plotting.
The problem with the
New French Extremity is that there’s no balance. These films are unrelentingly bleak, drab,
ugly, and depressing. To take Denis’s Bastards as an example: the title could
apply pretty well to all the characters.
Or it could just as easily have been called Very Bad Things Happen to Terrible People with a Gray and Brown Color
Palette. Or let’s go back to Korea
for a moment, and consider one of Kim Ki-duk’s latest films, 2012’s Pietà.
In this movie, which follows a brutal loan-shark as he rampages through
Seoul torturing people who can’t pay off their debts, Kim fails to strike the
balance like he did in The Isle. Instead, we have a tedious movie depicting
horrible things with an ugly color scheme (how this film won the grand prize at
the Venice Film Festival is a mystery to me).
Now, this tendency in French cinema wouldn’t be all that problematic if
it was confined to just a few films, but it’s becoming positively
ubiquitous. Noé and Breillat have always
made brutal movies, but it’s also beginning to suck in directors with a broader
skill-set, like Denis and Olivier Assayas,
Something has to change here, as I can’t imagine that this already
unpalatable film movement has much energy left in it. You can only film so much rape and torture
before you’ve exhausted the permutations and need to find new material. Perhaps we should pin our hopes on the older
generation of French filmmakers; people like Agnes Varda and Jean-Luc Godard,
not content to repeat themselves, continue to come out with weird and
innovative new movies. If only the young
French enfants terribles could take
the lessons of these octogenarians to heart.