Friday, December 13, 2013

On the Decadence of Contemporary French Cinema and the So-Called “New French Extremity”

*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 as well*

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.

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