As I have been writing a fair few reviews of late, I began to notice that I have unfairly focused on American and English produced films, ignoring a whole host of other foreign films which are just as noteworthy (or even better!). French films have recently undergone a gritty makeover, in what’s been described as a ‘new wave’ of pushing the boundaries. These films are all about exploring humans and the emotional struggles that they go through, the dark places in their mind which people usually don’t want to dwell on. This turmoil is present in every human being, and these bold French directors have attempted to capture these grim emotions, to hold up a mirror to ourselves, essentially. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, but it’s not their fault if we don’t like the reflection! I have long believed that some modern French films are the most disturbing that I’ve come across and so I took the time to write this article in order to commend them on their under-appreciated efforts. I leaned more towards the ‘horror’ side of the new Extreme French Cinema than the sexual side, but there are a whole bunch of others too – I have literally just skimmed the surface of this wretched pool!
Baise Moi – this film was described by one critic as a kind of ‘Thelma and Louise on crack’ (despite an absence of crack during the entire film). The title in itself – translated to mean Fuck Me – should give you a vague sense of the films antics, and can even be considered to be part of the ‘rape and revenge’ subgenre of horror films, which is popular with American audiences. There’s something for everyone in this pseudo-documentary film, with hardcore sex scenes (yes, I’m talking unsimulated – the two main actresses are/were porn stars after all) coupled with hardcore violence (plenty of comic-book style action, guns ‘n all). Baise Moi became banned in France shortly after its release, which it seems played right in director (interestingly enough, female) Virginie Despentes’s hands who claims that she always intended to kick up a fuss and to enrage the cinematic establishment. Notoriety followed this film everywhere it went, leading to it being banned in a total of 23 countries!
Promenons-Nous Dans Les Bois (Aka Deep In The Woods) – a peculiar ‘slasher’ type of film with an added ‘whodunnit’ element to keep audiences on their toes. Right from the very start of this film there is a sense of eeriness and foreboding which makes for some gripping viewing. There’s a sinister take on the whole Red Riding Hood story here, in which the characters start getting killed off by the ‘big, bad wolf’! Perhaps not the most expertly done horror film, but the fact that audiences are left guessing who the killer might be, it becomes a more interactive experience which is definitely entertaining. There are all the right ingredients to set the atmosphere off – an old castle in the middle of the French countryside, a slightly secretive handyman, an old man in a wheelchair and his autistic son who just stares ominously for the entire movie. Things take a while to really start happening, but once they do it’s as action-packed as all of those American slashers that we know and love, only this one has a touch more thinking involved.
Les Blessures Assassines (Aka Murderous Maids) – apparently based on a true story about a pair of maids who killed their ‘masters’, this film immediately sucks the viewer in to their bleak and pitiful lifestyle, meaning that one can feel the frustration and rage that slowly builds up along with the main characters. Sylvie Testud’s incredible acting definitely makes this film one to watch, which is especially spectacular given the tough role that she had to play during this. I feel compelled to mention at this point, that there’s a couple of sister-on-sister ‘romance’ (to put it lightly) scenes – which certainly does leave one feeling a little odd (especially as I do have a sister!). The fact that there’s no music throughout the entire movie really does give it an almost documentary feel, making it an even more disturbing watch, in my opinion. So, this one is not as graphic as a lot of the other films I have mentioned in this list, but the fact that it is based on true events makes it all the more shocking.
Trouble Every Day – this is a fairly slow-paced film but had some pretty gross moments for all those hardened horror fans out there. It made me laugh when I saw this movie being described as erotic, as I don’t think it could get further from erotic – not unless you get some enjoyment out of being killed during sex! That’s right folks, during! This film tells the story of a strange kind of medical affliction which, for some reason, makes people get a little too ‘carried away’ whilst ‘mating’, let’s call it. A bizarre concept and indeed a peculiar film this one, but I think it is a really brave move to make a film that has hardly any dialogue in, as this did. Although a lot of the dialogue we do hear is in English, I am still counting this as a French film as it has a French director and the wonderful Beatrice Dalle (also from Inside, mentioned in part two of this article!). Vincent Gallo also stars in this film as the male protagonist – who some people might remember from the movie Buffalo 66, alongside Thora Birch.
Irreversible – now this film became infamous for two of its scenes, the man getting his face beaten to a pulp with a fire extinguisher and the rape scene (which has got to be the longest and most excruciating rape scenes that I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness). Just as Memento did a few years earlier, Irreversible used the reverse chronological technique to tell this harrowing story, and it is done remarkably well. This film has been described as ‘ugly’, which I suppose it is, but nothing in there I would call gratuitous, perhaps the most horrific thing about this film is the knowledge that things like that do happen out there in the real world, to real people. The spinning camera work and flashing lights throughout the film all help to add to that frantic, nauseous feeling that Gaspar Noe was so determined to provoke in the viewers. Great performances from Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel (who were actually a real couple at the time), but this is definitely not one for the faint-hearted (Newsweek claimed that it was the most walked out film of the year) – still, it has to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Malefique – a nice little dose of prison crazies and black magic is present in this film. It is not quite as memorable as a lot of the other films on this list but it definitely has its moments, (there’s a ‘limb twisting’ scene here which reminds me very much of the infamous rack one from Saw 1V). There’s quite a simple concept for the film, being that there are four prisoners who desperately want to escape and happen upon an old book from a previous inmate, which sets them on a path to freedom. No big scares here and the camera seldom strays from the confines of the cell, but it’s only a short movie, and it manages to keep interest peaked throughout – perhaps due to the ‘interesting’ collection of characters who are forced to share a room together!
Dans Ma Peau (Aka In My Skin) – a truly disturbing film which actually managed to make my stomach turn a little bit (which is a very impressive feat!). It tells the story of a woman who suffers an injury to her leg and then becomes fascinated with her body and how much ‘damage’ it can take. Marina De Van was the main character for this one, as well as director and writer, so it is definitely her creation and the majority of the praise must go to her. If you ever needed proof that a film can be disgusting without the aid of chainsaw wielding psychopaths or grotesque, salivating monsters, then this is it – all you need is a woman with some serious mental issues! I think that the reason this film manages to be so horrific is because it is actually set in ‘the real world’ and so you can’t help thinking during the course of this film that it can/does happen. The most fascinating thing about this movie is that it doesn’t actually show too much really, but just the sounds are enough to make me cringe!
Haute Tension (Aka High Tension or Switchblade Romance) – brought to you by the director who also gave us the remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors (Alexandre Aja), this film has a real American slasher feel to it – which is probably why it managed to cross the border and even gain a moderate following among English speaking fans. The premise for this one revolves around a student and her friend who are staying in a country house with her family, when late at night they start to get killed off one by one by an unknown assailant. There’s lots of blood and violence to satisfy the more vicious viewers out there, and even a twist ending which helps to give a bit of an original flavour to an otherwise well-worn story. Much praise goes to Cecile De France here for all of the work she put into making this film a success – she spent time training as a Thai boxer to get in shape for the role as well as performing a great deal of her own stunts – and it really does show. Two big thumbs up from me!
Cache (Aka Hidden) – for a lot of people, the director Michael Haneke should bring to mind the films The Piano Teacher, The Time of the Wolf and Funny Games (both versions), but this little gem of a film is also one which manages to unsettle viewers. He is famous for his drawn-out, lingering shots in an almost documentary-like style, forcing the audience to keep watching, whether they want to or not. The Times (the UK newspaper) voted this the ‘Best Film of the Noughties’ – which really is an honour considering that it’s a ‘foreign’ (French-Austrian) film! Cache tells the story of a perfectly ordinary middle class family who start receiving weird videotapes and pictures from an unknown individual, which understandably freaks them out. As the film moves forward, we discover that the father/husband (played by Daniel Auteuil) is not quite as squeaky clean as we initially thought. This is just another example of Michael Haneke’s masterful art of capturing an audience’s attention by telling a gripping story. Cache comes highly recommended!
Ils (Aka Them) – although this is hailed as being based on true events, I have yet to come across any such thing, however this should not be taken as a criticism of the film itself. An incredibly short feature length film – being just about 74 minutes – it still manages to fill every one of those minutes with nailbiting tension. The story plays out rather similarly to the 2008 American horror film The Strangers (though this has never been cited as a remake) as it follows a young couple who are being terrorised in their house at night by some unknown persons. Ils (technically a French-Romanian film) has a low budget feel to it, which very much adds to the realism in my opinion. It also took advantage of the internet much the same as The Blair Witch Project did by featuring mock interviews of a woman claiming to be Clementine’s sister on their official website. This film has a very simple premise which is nice and easy to just dip into – it’s not too taxing on the brain and if it’s watched late at night with the curtains drawn, can create a great sense of eeriness.
Sheitan – Vincent Cassel, starring as the bizarrely mysterious shepherd/farmer character, is almost unrecognisable in this creepy horror film, in all the good ways! There are plenty of ‘satanic’ references throughout the film for any of those viewers with keen eyes (e.g. the club is called Styxx) which are nice little indicators of what’s in store. It’s always nice to see a film which mixes horror and comedy, something that’s not quite as easy to get right as people may assume – the balance has to be correct, or it just doesn’t work! This is not an especially violent film, only when things start kicking off towards the end of the movie does the disturbing elements begin to come together in a dramatic climax. The contrast between the city ‘kids’ and the country bumpkins makes for some entertaining viewing, the perfect background for a solid horror movie.
For more ‘extreme’ French films, see the second half of this article which is coming soon!