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Good French Movies (2005-10): L’extrême

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GJ Cole itcherCritics were quick to identify an invigorating run of extreme, transgressive movies in the early noughties as a trend, noting recurring tendencies in the violence, blood count and difficult sex scenes of some leading directors. While the label – New French Extremity – didn’t especially catch on, there’s no doubt that the savagery of these films became a touching point for a new era in French filmmaking. ~ GJ Cole

Wild Things

Periods of timidity in French cinema are always swiftly punished by the avant-garde, who are driven to respond in contrary and inventive ways. Inspired equally by trash movies, the aesthetic focus of the ‘cinéma du look’, and ‘intelligent’ horror such as the films of David Cronenberg, many of the more extreme French films of recent years use human viscera and anti-social behaviour as rallying cry against the absurdity of the human condition and the complacent bourgeois attitudes that compound it.

But while some of the more notorious films of the age were pure (if original) genre works for their own sake, a genetic line can be traced from some of these pictures back through to the more complex works France’s most ambitious art film directors and the New Wave four decades earlier.

Relaxed censorship laws and a sense of futility at the conclusion of the tempestuous twentieth century mean that formal experimentation now often comes hand in hand with challenging visuals. It’s not always an easy ride, but for now this tendency towards extremity continues to keep French cinema as vital as it’s ever been.

Whether trying to out-horror preceding horrors, rage against the machine, or take the fragility of the human body and soul as a leaping point for aesthetic exploration, these movies continue to inspire filmmakers in France and beyond to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable on our cinema screens.


Extreme French Movie Recommendations

‘Flandres’ / ‘Flanders’ (Bruno Dumont, 2006)

His most expansive film to date, Dumont’s tale is set in dual locations: the French farmland from where a pair of dopey locals are conscripted to the army, and the unidentified foreign battlefront to which they are assigned. While they fight an honourless, dirty war in the Middle-East, back home, the girl that betrayed one for the other (with fairly good reason) suffers a complex of emotions almost as torturous at the men’s literal battles.

As with his previous film, ‘Twentynine Palms’, Dumont uses explicit violence to analogize the ineloquence of men and the emotional illiteracy that exists to some degree in each of us. While undoubtedly also interested in violence-as-violence (and not just as metaphor), the otherworldly pseudo-realism of ‘Flanders’ invites allegorical readings.

Dumont’s use of clumsy non-actors and his coldly visceral visual language, however, draw our attention to the realness of his ideas and his humanity towards the characters he represents.

‘Une vieille maîtresse’ / ‘The Last Mistress’ (Catherine Breillat, 2007)

A period movie with bite, ‘The Last Mistress’ is an erotic tale of passionate lovers unable to stay apart from each other despite the damage they do.

Iconic Asia Argento is the mistress, who refuses to be spurned by the Byronic Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) when he tries to quit her in favour of his society bride. But most of the film involves the recounting of their courtship – a tempestuous affair dotted with duels, a bastard child, physical abuse, and of course, plenty of bodice ripping.

It is another assured study of love, lust and sexuality from Catherine Breillat, and while it bears the hallmarks of a classic costume drama, underneath it is a complex and modern piece.

‘Louise-Michel’ (Benoît Delépine & Gustave de Kervern, 2008)

I’ve got some business in town and then we’ll all attack…

The great Yolande Moreau finally gets the spotlight in this riotous black comedy, starring as an uneducated factory worker who suggests to her colleagues that they pool their unexpected severance cheques to pay for a hitman to whack their boss.

Employing the equally idiotic Michel (Bouli Lanners) proves to be her second mistake, as he’s as squeamish as he is gun-crazy. Desperately trying to outsource the hit, Michel draws Yolande into a sequence of increasingly bizarre scenarios while painting a grotesque alternative vision of an economically biased and culturally restrictive modern day France.

Uneven at times, ‘Louise-Michel’ makes up for it with the best bits – including one visual gag I had to stop the DVD to recover from. You can consider that a recommendation.

‘Enter the Void’ (Gaspar Noé, 2009)

Basically, when you die your spirit leaves your body, actually at first you can see all your life, like reflected in a magic mirror…

I don’t like films about drugs. It’s often a cheap way to motivate characters or to express their feelings and is a pretty boring and hypocritical counter-cultural claim. But Noé excels at such puerility, and here takes the experience of psychedelic drugs as an entirely appropriate device to explore his ideas about life after death while creating a cinematic experience like no other.

Shot in first person (what we see is the main character’s point of view), Noé’s “psychedelic melodrama” relates the story of drug-dealer Oscar, an American in Tokyo, who is betrayed and shot in a seedy nightclub, where he slowly bleeds to death.

His point of view emerges from his body, so that the remainder of the film is seen from his disembodied soul – freeing it from temporal and spatial restraints, and taking us on an epic journey through the conditions that brought him to where he is today.

Eye-boggling cinematography and extreme imagery make for an experience both physical and emotional. Technically, Noé is at the top of his game, and if the story is silly or overwrought – well, that just adds to the fun.

‘Rubber’ (Quentin Dupieux, 2010)

Oh, God, the kid was right. The killer is a tire…

Sometimes a film needs no reason. Made by the man better known as musician ‘Mr Oizo’, ‘Rubber’ represents his second feature in what will hopefully continue to be a long and bizarre cinematic career (he’s already made some equally mind-bending follow-ups).

Rubber is about a tyre, who is also a serial killer. Yes, a tyre – a car tyre. Its name is Robert. Achieving sentience for no given reason, Robert gets an early taste for blood and quickly learns the ability to psychokinetically explode things – bottles, rabbits, people’s heads etc.

As the film develops into a serial killer movie, Robert goes on a killing spree, tracked by incompetent cops with no idea how to deal with the thing (not unreasonable, really). Meanwhile on the kind of meta-level that is becoming Dupieux’s signature motif, a group of strangers watch all the action from a distance – commenting on it as though it were a film.

Silly, stylish and utterly original, ‘Rubber’ may become a little tiresome (no pun intended) after a while but is worth seeing just for the pure joy Dupieux takes in making a movie from probably the stupidest premise he could have thought up.


Extreme Enough?

Whether railing against injustice, exploring the extreme depths of the human condition or merely trying to push the audience’s buttons, extreme cinema is a mode that sees many French directors achieving some of the best work of their careers, experimenting without limits and expressing the raw truths of our reality.

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