Thursday, May 17, 2012

Let Them Eat Cake. Please.

I was in Paris once. It was beautiful. It looked just like Before Sunset which was exactly what I was hoping for. I went to the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore where, after purchasing a book, I got a bookmark that reads "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise." This quote is believed to be from the American poet Walt Whitman, cause it certainly ain't from no Frenchman.

Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death!
The French are a bruised and battered bunch. The losers of many a war, a bloody revolution fought on their streets, Carla Bruni ... it's enough to make any nation go mad. A particular form of horror films began to emerge in the last decade beginning with High Tension (aka Haute Tension aka Switchblade Romance) dubbed New French Extremity a term coined by James Quandt of Artforum. It was then followed by Frontiere(s), Martyrs, A L'interieur, Irréversible and Ils (later remade as The Strangers). While vastly different in tone all of the films exhibit a strong notion of "body horror". The horror in these films is based around the physical effects of body under duress at its most extreme, torture. The Body Horror tries to prove existence beyond the physical, beyond what we currently perceive. That our cognitive state exists past what we perceive. So films that would easily fit into a double-bill with Maid in Manhattan.

These films are as transgressive as they are difficult to watch. They follow a history of France's aggressively assertive art forms. They may not be accepted by they are undeniable. Keep in mind France's varied and vast history in art and literature. (one of the most influential pieces being Gustav Courbet's L'Origine du Monde) In the 1920s French actor, director and poet Antonin Artaud wrote about his notion of THe Theatre of Cruelty, ""I propose a theatre whose violent physical images pulverise, mesmerise the audience's sensibilities, caught in the drama as if in a vortex of higher forces." Essentially all images (real, visual, written or otherwise) that shock an audience into consciousness. While these films are often thought of as being in "torture porn" genre they actually transcend the torture aspect in hopes of achieving something beyond pain.  And, of course, pain is different than torture.

This movement can be associated with the rise of right-wing politics in France. France is a far cry from the film of Goddard or even Before Sunset. Some believe the FNE as promoting homophobic, conservative ideals which I would argue against (though I can see their point) In the 80s and 90s my only real perception of France were those goofy Stella Artois ads and Amelie. More Moliere than Marquis de Sade. More grand guignol than Before Sunset.

If anything, NFE has more in common with the Grindhouse movement of the States such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, films designed to shock and provoke the bourgeois class. It is meant to shake their notions of family, relationships, education all the things society is taught to seek out. These films (at their best) question the weight put on established norms and what happens when we break the rules.

As Artaud dreamed of an art form that would  "choose themes and subjects corresponding to the agitation and unrest of our times" NFE, it seems, is daring to do that. And our times may be more terrifying than we are willing to believe.