Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity [Book Review]
Don’t let the long title of this book fool you: it’s an exceptionally accessible study of a subgenre of horror films that have never received their rightful recognition in the canon of cinema… until now. In her new book, author Alexandra West, who, along with Andrea Subissati produces the excellent Faculty of Horror podcast, discusses not only where the term comes from but how the subgenre evolved in the first place.
What is the New French Extremity, anyway? Essentially it’s a subgenre of horror that began in France in the 1990s and continued for a little over a decade. The films of the New French Extremity were marked by extreme violence and/or gore and overall, are considered exceptionally transgressive, even by horror cinema standards. Some of the filmmakers and films included are Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day), Gaspar Noé (Irréversible), Fabrice du Welz (Calvaire), Xavier Gens [Frontier(s)], Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (À l’intérieur), Alexandre Aja (High Tension), and Pascal Laugier (Martyrs).
The first chapter of the book delves into French history, specifically the country’s history of conflict and violence. While conflict and violence are found in the histories of all countries, West cites specific examples that provide the backdrop for why French filmmakers have made horror films that, either overtly or subtly, address France’s history, specifically its political, religious, and racial struggles. While this topic might sound daunting, this is a riveting, informative, and educational introduction.
From there, West examines each film that is considered a part of the New French Extremity and discusses the narrative of each as well as how the film can be seen as an artistic response to real-life political situations. In some cases, she groups several films with similar themes in one chapter, while other chapters are devoted to just one film.
The best film scholarship is marked by a detailed discussion of individual films from not only a genre-specific context, but also broad cultural, political, and historical perspectives. West’s prose follows this trajectory, describing enough of each individual movie to give you an idea of what’s going on but not providing an exhaustive plot summary. She also incorporates contemporaneous reviews, audience responses, and quotes from interviews with the directors.
While many of the films in the New French Extremity subgenre are controversial, West never passes moral judgment, not even on the quality of the films themselves, which is refreshing. Best of all, the ideas addressed and questions raised in the book make you think about the relationship of art to artist in a wholly different way, a kind of outlook than can even be applied to films outside of this subgenre.
If you are curious about the New French Extremity or even if you’re just looking for some horror films you’ve never heard of and haven’t seen yet, this book is a must-read. It also includes a long interview with film programmer Colin Geddes, who has premiered many of the New French Extremity films at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness programme.