5 Great New French Extremity Movies
The term “New French Extremity” refers to a collection of French art-house and horror movies that were made in the late 1990s and 2000s. More of a trend than a self-conscious movement, these movies featured graphic sex, violence, and transgressive themes. In the words of the critic who coined the term, James Quandt, it was a “cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo.”
Filmmakers associated with New French Extremism deliberately tried to be shocking to elicit strong emotions from viewers. A few of these movies were well-made and offered interesting social and political points. Others, however, had no artistic merit or tried way too hard to be sensational. Looking back a decade after the trend fizzled out, here are five New French Extremity movies that fall into the former category.
#1 The Life of Jesus (1997)
Director: Bruno Dumont
Freddy (David Douche) is a 20-year-old skinhead who lives in a small town in French Flanders. He doesn’t work or go to school, and his life is generally aimless. To kill time, Freddy rides his motorcycle, hangs out with friends, and harasses immigrants.
Despite the movie’s title, Freddy isn’t exactly anybody’s idea of a Christ figure. He’s capable of kindness at times, but is usually just cruel. When his behavior finally drives his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) away, Freddy plots revenge against the new guy she’s interested in, an Arab man named Kader (Kader Chaatouf).
There’s no single movie that kicked off the New French Extremity, but The Life of Jesus is a good early representation of the trend. Though it’s hard to sympathize with many of the characters portrayed here, the non-professional cast is great, and the documentary-like style adds to the gritty realism of the movie.
#2 I Stand Alone (1998)
Director: Gaspar Noé
Director Gaspar Noé initially rose to fame by traumatizing the Cannes Film Festival with Irréversible (2002), a violent revenge drama featuring a graphic 10-minute rape scene. During the movie’s screening, 250 people in the audience reportedly walked out of the theater, while another 20 fainted.
With a reception like that, it’s little wonder that Irréversible has largely overshadowed Noé’s superior feature-length debut, I Stand Alone. Though equally disturbing, this more “accessible” movie follows several days in the life of a butcher, a nameless psychopath who flees to Paris after beating his pregnant wife.
Channeling Taxi Driver (1976) in some ways, this is a portrait of a highly disturbed mind. Over numerous voice-overs, The Butcher (Philippe Nahon) freely divulges his darkest and most hateful thoughts, ranging from violent fantasies to an obsession with his mute daughter. While the subject of I Stand Alone isn’t a pleasant study, he’s an extraordinarily gripping and original one to watch.
#3 Criminal Lovers (1999)
Director: François Ozon
Alice (Natacha Régnier) and Luc (Jérémie Renier) are a teenage couple who don’t get along very well. Luc loves his girlfriend, but for some reason doesn’t want to sleep with her. When he hears that Alice has been raped by a classmate, the normally passive Luc helps Alice seek revenge.
The couple’s act of vengeance sparks off a brief crime spree, which eventually leads them to a forest. Hungry and lost, they stumble on a hermit’s hut. Like some fairytale monster, the hermit (Miki Manojlović) captures Alice and Luc and plans to eat them.
Criminal Lovers begins as a Bonnie and Clyde-style crime flick, yet quickly turns into a bizarre take on Hansel and Gretel. The plot appears simple at first, but gives to increasing layers of depth as we’re taken through various flashbacks and learn the real natures and motivations of our teenage antiheroes.
#4 Fat Girl (2001)
Director: Catherine Breillat
While the last three directors we’ve seen were relatively new to filmmaking at the time of the New French Extremity, Catherine Breillat was already an established artist when the movement was in swing. Since publishing her first novel in 1968 at the age of 17, Breillat has been notorious for works that deal with adolescent sexuality, explicit sex, and transgressive themes.
In Fat Girl, sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) are on a boring vacation with their indifferent parents. Anaïs, twelve and overweight, is jealous that her thin and older sister is more popular with boys. Over their holiday, much to the envy of Anaïs, Elena strikes up a relationship with an Italian law student named Fernando (Libero De Rienzo)
The plot sounds nostalgic and innocent, but don’t be fooled, Fat Girl is a brutally depressing movie. Anaïs is a lonely figure, mocked by her sister and neglected by her parents. Just as we think things couldn’t get worse for Anaïs and her family, Breillat throws in an ending that is guaranteed to ruin the day of anybody who watches it.
#5 Inside (2007)
Directors: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is a pregnant photographer who you’d think couldn’t be happier. It’s Christmas Eve, and her baby is due tomorrow, yet Sarah is depressed. She can’t help but think about her husband, who tragically died in a car accident four months earlier.
That night, a stranger (Béatrice Dalle) knocks on Sarah’s front door. The stranger, a middle-aged woman, insists on coming into Sarah’s house. After Sarah turns the visitor away, the woman later breaks into her home and demands her unborn baby. Trapped in her home, and faced with a crazed intruder, Sarah must protect her life and her baby before help can arrive.
The New French Extremity gave us an entire new wave of French horror movies, most notably High Tension (2003) and Martyrs (2008). The best of these movies handle atmosphere and scares pretty well, but their endings are usually disappointing. Fortunately, Inside has an ending that doesn’t ruin the movie, and for that I recommend it over its other horror peers.