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Categories: Features

A modern trend in French horror has seen some of the most brutal films ever put to the screen, but they also have a lot to say about the modern world.


Ask any horror fan worth their salt who makes the best horror films and you’ll get a heated discussion about the various countries and their cinematic output. Is it the Japanese with their slow-burning, atmospheric tales? Is it the Brits with their social commentary, both horrific and comedic? Or is it the Americans with their tried and true method of blood and bullets? But ask any horror fan who makes the most brutal and disturbing horror movies, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t say the French. In the past decade the country has produced some of the most graphic and infamous horror films that have shocked even the bravest of fans with their depictions of brutality and nihilism, but also with their boldness and strong portrayal of female characters, both of which are tragically missing from mainstream pictures.

The phrase “New French Extremism” was coined by critic James Quandt and is used to describe a collection of films that started taking a more transgressive approach to horror movies than had been before. While there is no set date for when Extremism began, the most likely candidate is Gasper Noe’s controversial 2002 film Irreversible, which forced its audience to endure an 11-minute one-shot rape scene.

irreversibleSince then, and especially within the 2000s decade, there have been a number of films that have pushed the boundaries of violence, providing a disturbing look into human psychosis that hasn’t been seen since the days of Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man and a level of body horror akin to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Given their reputation, it would be easy to see the comparisons towards the Exploitation films of the American 70s, and indeed the critical reception to most Extremism films is similarly mixed, but there’s more style and more substance to the French films that, particularly in today’s culture of jump scares and PG-13 Horror, helps them stand out.

While there are several films that encompass the Extremism label, it’s widely accepted that five films truly capture the term: Inside, Frontières, Them, Martyrs (above) and Haute Tension (also known as High Tension or Switchblade Romance depending on where you’re from). On a personal note, it has been a long time since I last saw Xavier Gens’s Frontières but its political undertones regarding the election of a far right candidate and the inclusion of holocaust imagery and Nazi Symbolism has kept it in my mind.


David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them (French:  Ils) is the most toned-down of the group, preferring a low-key approach regarding a couple stuck in a home invasion. At only 73 minutes long, Them takes on a very realistic approach, shrouding its characters in darkness and not revealing the attackers until the final moments. It’s in that reveal that the film finds its way into the group; not to spoil anything, but when you find out who the attackers are, it raises a lot of questions regarding the emotional value of violence and the social climate that can allow such an attack. Them might not have the same brutality as its siblings, but the roots are still within the realm of Extremism.

a-l-interieurJulien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside (French: À l’intérieur) also looks into a home invasion, but in a different light. In this film, pregnant Sara (Alysson Paradis) who recently lost her husband to a car crash, is attacked in her home by another woman (Béatrice Dalle) who seems to want her baby. Inside is notable for its almost entirely female cast, with the cat-and-mouse game being played between a mother and her female attacker rather than the usual male chasing a young woman. But it’s also notable for the pregnancy angle- it’s rare to have a pregnant character in horror films, especially not as a main character who ends up in such peril, but if horror is to evoke a reaction, then the endangerment of an unborn child does just that, leading to perhaps the most blood-drenched and disturbing ending ever put to cinema.


Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension is a film that’s received the most divisive opinions out of this group, with its detractors calling it a needlessly grotesque picture with an unbelievable ending twist while its fans can look past the logical gaps to enjoy a tale of madness and romance dashed with violence. Again, from a personal standpoint, the ending twist doesn’t turn out as well as the film wants- there’s too many plots holes to make it work – but this is still a strong film that presents its own twisted version of a love story, and for those with a stomach willing, the violence is some of the most visceral seen on film. Aja has since expanded his directional style into success in the Western market, with his remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D.


Finally there’s Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, perhaps the most infamous of the Extremism group and to date the only one to get a US remake, released earlier this year. Martyrs tells the story of Lucie(Mylène Jampanoï), a young woman psychologically damaged from being abducted as a child, who goes looking for her kidnappers with the help of her one true friend  Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and the long standing consequence of her revenge. While some have claimed Martyrs is just another torture porn film in the guise of Saw or Hostel, most prominently in the third act which includes the torture of a young woman for an extraordinary amount of time, the philosophical questions raised by the film and the use of nihilism to hammer home how hopeless of a situation this is keeps it separate from the torture porn label by taking its audience further down the spiral until they understand the situation the characters are in, something that Western horror has trouble replicating.

Nihilism is a main ingredient in French Extremism. Out of all five of these films, none of them have a happy ending; even the characters that survive have been left so damaged by what they’ve been through that to return to their normal lives is a near impossibility. And that is what horror fans want – they’re fed up of being cheated into jump scares or sequel teases or poorly-written clichés masquerading as character, and they want something that makes them feel something. Whether it’s fear or disgust or disbelief, at least they feel something. Out of all the genres, horror is perhaps the most reaction-driven, and Extremism gets a reaction. Yes it can be overly gruesome, but that’s the point, these are violent pictures because they promote violent situations. Would Martyrs be as shocking if it didn’t show how damaging the effects of revenge can be? Would Inside have the same effect if it didn’t feel like the unborn child was in actual danger? We’re a society that is becoming desensitized to violence, so it’s nice to still have something that can evoke a response within us.

frontieres (1)

The other thing these films share is their approach to female characters. In fact, all five of them have females as their main characters but in more than just a “final-girl” capacity. Frontières (above) has Yasmine (Karina Testa), a young pregnant woman trying to escape a group of fascists that want her as their own breeding factory. Them has Clem(Olivia Bonamy), a teacher forced to look after her house when she’s invaded, presenting a very human approach to tackling danger. Inside has the great double-act of Sarah and The Woman; Sarah is put through the ringer trying to save herself and her child while The Woman’s motivations put her into a different light once you see where she’s coming from. High Tension has the great Marie (Cécile de France), someone who deserves to be seen more than discussed here, because how she turns out twists her whole character around by the end of the film.

To mind, Martyrs has the best two characters in Lucie and Anna, with the actresses giving two of the best genre performances ever filmed. Lucie gets the meatier role, showcasing a very real form of madness that manifest itself into psychological horrors and harmful visions, while Anna provides much-needed humanity, forcing herself to help the woman she loves, all the while worrying if Lucie is taking them down a road they can’t come back from. It might be too much to say these films take on a feminist position, but all portray their female characters with both strengths and weaknesses, providing much more complete persons than their Western counterparts.

French Extremism might be a hard sell to people and there are critics who have dismissed these films for their ultra-violence, ignoring the political, social and feminist qualities as a result. But they present something different, something that has been lacking in Western horror for some time now, and having the opportunity to experience it’s worth taking. For all its gore, Extremism presents a new benchmark in what horror can do and the feelings it can evoke in its audience.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

Posted on May 2, 2016

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