Scarred and Feathered: The Very Best Of French Extreme Cinema
I have never taken more pride in my French heritage than I do at this exact moment. Why? Well, film is (I’m about to sound like a douche) a very important medium to me. And as you can probably gather from spending a little time here at this site, I tend to enjoy films that focus on some of the darker aspects of life. Only because I feel that is the reality to life, and the truth is, life can be dark. Life scars us and leaves us troubled. I understand there are people who live their lives pretending stuff like that doesn’t exist, but I am the opposite of that. And I am slowly realizing, that is the French part of me. The Portuguese side of me just wants to eat delicious food and drink hearty wine and laugh with my friends, but the French side? The French side wants to have kinky sex and thinks about death all the time and imagines myself in ungodly scenarios for no discernible reason. I never knew that was the French side of me, but now that I have seen all that the new wave of extreme French cinema, I can take comfort in the fact that there are people far more disturbed than me. And they make some truly unsettling and unforgettable films that carve their way into your subconscious and just kind of stay there, forever. Here are just a few of those films. Keep your eye out for a few trends across all the movies here. Namely, strong females and passive males. The women are often the victor and the victim, but in much more pronounced roles than typically found in American films. Be forewarned, these films are pretty brutal.
The film is essentially an exercise in testing how much one human can endure for the sake of spiritual enlightenment.
Make no mistakes about it, Martyrs changed the way I watch movies. It is brutal and unforgiving, but in the same breath, it is as spiritual a movie as I have ever seen. The movie begins, and it is intense, but you have NO idea where it is going. At first, you mistake it as a revenge film. Then it evolves into a film about spirituality and death. But it moves quick, and if you can’t keep up, the movie will swallow you whole. Pascal Laugier, who directed this movie (and The Tall Man, more recently), is one of my favorite directors, just for how brave he is and the places he is willing to take us all, proverbially.
While I always hold back when talking about this film to people who haven’t seen it, lest I say too much, I will tell you, the basic idea around Martyrs is the question: The closer one comes to death, is that the closer one comes to God? While most people walk away from the movie with wildly different versions of what they think they saw, one thing is for certain: Martyrs asks bolder questions of the viewer than almost any other film that came before it, in any genre. I talk about Martyrs a bit more in-depth over here, at my weekly horror column with Matt Donato, at We Got This Covered. Go check it out. Seriously, do it, or I will torture you until you see God.
This film is so hopeless, it can make you physically sick.
This movie is tough to recommend to people, because it is so soul-ruining. But there is a story that is told, in an incredibly unique way, and I feel it is a film experience that people NEED to have. Do I understand when people can’t make it through this film? Ofcourse. Do I blame people or curse people who condemn the movie? Not at all. It took me a long time to be able to sit down with this movie and make it all the way through. A large factor in that is the nine minute rape scene, which is one of the most disturbing things ever put on film. But there is a reason for this movie. It is nihilism, and you can look away if you must (which you will need to, at times) but all Gaspar Noe does with his films is shine a light on an aspect of life most would not want to admit exists. The dark underbelly, if I may.
Irreversible is simply one day in the life of a couple, told in reverse order, and it is a day you will never forget. I talk about Noe’s I Stand Alone over here. Both movies will ruin you, so approach with caution, but know, just because a story is f*cked up, does that mean it has no right to be told? That is the strength of French extreme cinema. It tells the stories that no one else will, and it doesn’t care if it f*cks you up in the process.
By the way, Vincent Cassel is in this movie. Anytime you see his name on a movie, see the film. The man never shies away from unbelievable roles in incredibly visceral films. A truly remarkable actor.
High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance)
High Tension is the movie that opened my eyes to French horror.
Aright, let’s toss the shitty, nonsensical ending aside, shall we? If not, we will be here for hours. If you discard that aspect of the film, High Tension is a damn-near perfectly paced film. Not to mention, horrifying and intensely gory. It is one of those movies you need to watch with someone, so they can elbow you and remind you to breathe from time to time. There are scenes when the main character is hiding, and you feel like you are there with her, holding your breath, so this mindless killer doesn’t find you and slaughter you.
High Tension was the first film I saw on this list, and it is the movie that opened my eyes to what the French could do with the horror genre. From the very first scene, it pulls you in and never lets up. Oh, and speaking of the very first scene:
I remember thinking, when I first saw this scene: Hey, movies aren’t allowed to do that!
Also, it should be mentioned that the main actress in this film, Cecile De France, is like the France’s version of Natalie Portman. To think of Natalie Portman doing some of the things in this film that Cecile does just shows you what the French think of taboos. Speaking of taboos….
The is one of the few films in the last decade that actually scared me.
Inside is one of those “took me awhile to muster the courage to see it” kind of movies, only because the subject matter was so heavy. Woman breaks into other woman’s home on Christmas eve with the intent of taking her unborn baby from her. Even writing that makes me squirm in my seat. But, as is the case with most of these movies, there is much more to this story than is hinted at, and as it unfolds, it is impossible not to keep watching. Granted, the violence and gore in this film is some of the most believable I have ever seen on film, and you WILL be watching it with your mouth hanging open at certain points. It may be the most extreme film on the list in the sense that what happens in this film actually happens to people.
I also feel the need to say that the antagonist in this film, played by Beatrice Dalle, is the scariest woman ever put on celluloid. Seriously. She scared me so much that now, when I see shots of the actress, I cringe out of terror. Inside is the sort of movie you never get over. And it loves that. That is exactly what Inside wants.
Less graphic than the others on this list, but easily just as unsettling.
Everyone has seen The Strangers, right? Great film, no doubt. But Ils did it first, and did it far better. What makes this film, and ultimately all the movies on this list, so disturbing, is that they all feel real. They all feel palpable. And Ils might be the most believable of the lot. It is a movie that takes residence in the pit of your stomach, and never moves out. I expected to enjoy Ils when I finally watched it, but I didn’t expect to be as genuinely creeped out as I was when the movie ended. Oh, that ending.
Easily one of the best closing shots I have EVER seen in a movie, without question.
Frontier(s): Texas Chainsaw meets Hostel. With Nazis.
Trouble Every Day: A French couple and a fresh spin on the cannibal genre. This is the film where I confuse Vincent Cassel (who is NOT in it) with Vincent Gallo, who is. Thanks for the tip, Rob.
The Horde: A French zombie film? I knew it would be good, but it is better than good. Also, another amazing ending.
Man, Super Mario really f*cks shit up in The Horde.
See, we are not all baguettes and berets. We are rape and cannibalism, too. Take that, ethnic stereotypes!