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Research in progress presentation, Cultural Studies, Trent University, November 7, 2012

In a New Extreme film, a category first defined in 2004 to note a tendency in recent French film, the lead character or characters are in the midst of a crisis often brought on by forces outside of their own which then lead to indifferent, ambiguous, or downright unpleasurable sex or sexual interactions, performed unsimulated or portrayed as such. Most films end, or nearing the end of the narrative have, at first glance, an unexpected scene of violence that is not gratuitous or spectacular, shot in real-time, and without or with minimal cutting. Dialogue is sparse, natural lighting often preferred, the images have a documentary quality, the actors are usually nonprofessional and do not have a Hollywood aesthetic. Some of these films, in a very simplistic reading, could perhaps be described as dark, depressing, presenting the arbitrary suffering associated with an individual human existence. Directors associated with New Extremism are mostly French, but include others, most famously Lars Von Trier. According to Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall, Hollywood productions have been incorporating elements of New Extremism into their features recently, e.g., in David Fincher’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (2011).

A New Extreme film like Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Thi’s Baise Moi (2000), in its depiction of real sex and the shots which make up those scenes, along with its stylized violence, demands an investigation from the field of film ethics. To give a sense of the narrative, one critic describes the film as “basically Thelma and Louise get laid.” A quick example of possible ethical theorizing of the film: the sexual tension between the two lead female characters does not, like porn genre films for a male audience, result in show all same-sex sex scenes. According to Lisa Downing this refusal to show all undermines the supposed film-viewing experience of a male gaze at the passive female body as argued by Laura Mulvey. By not depicting the heterosexist pornography one expects – i.e., the two female characters to have sex with each other because the possibility exists within the diegesis (they have real promiscuous sex with men, so why not each other, we might ask) – infuses the images of their mutual attraction with a subversive power, resisting a normative viewing experience.[1] This subversion complicates the relationship between film, screen, and viewer, because we are forced to think about how the images and narrative functioned in past feature-length films and subsequently our own expectations and ethics of spectatorship.

What complicates if not challenges ethical theorization of Baise Moi, and others like it engaging real sexual acts and pretend violence, are possible claims to truth. Downing poses the problem: “how can we take seriously the critique of normative codes of sex and gender, and the suggestion of alternative ways of apprehending the sexually explicit spectacle, in a film that simultaneously appears to take the ‘reality’ of sex itself so seriously while evidently playing at violence?”[2] The answer, I think, is in a study of how realist aesthetics come into play in New Extreme films. It would be important, I think, to ask how a film can be realist in Bazin’s sense, what we mean by the term, and if that category need apply in all cases for theorization of film and ethics, which is to say not the ethics of filmmaking but methods of filmmaking that foster a courage in viewers to face the anxiety of change in regards to a specific ethical or political issue. Before we can determine just how a particular film demands courage from us as viewers we must look at what makes the film valuable as a work; once this is accomplished ethical theory can happen. Yet the assessment of form in terms of its power to evoke some notion of realism is uninteresting insofar as it merely represents or mimics a viewer’s perception of reality. Images not only make a correlation between mind, senses, and reality, but can turn spectators on to a kind of thinking about film form as an invitation to perceive everyday experience without normative coordinates. This is, according to Downing, Baise Moi’s merit. To watch these films, or experience them viscerally as Horeck and Kendall and others write, you must not bring in a prior understanding; little will be gained if our expectations of feature-length films precede the viewing of them.

Bazin’s film theory is useful here, his warning in “Marginal Notes on Eroticism in the Cinema” (1957) encouraging a tension in my work, also noted by Downing in her essay. Equivocating images of sexuality (defined as “ontological pornography”) with real instances of death, Bazin declares both are spectacles. “If you can show me on the screen a man and woman whose dress and position are such that at least the beginnings of sexual consummation undoubtedly accompanied the action, then I would have the right to demand, in a crime film, that you really kill the victim – or at least wound him pretty badly.”[3] There should be neither explicit sex nor death Bazin argues; he prefers a “simple story… which never touches the level of reality”, and thus never reaching a “documentary quality.”[4]

Much of Bazin’s claim, real sex = real death – and he notes that this claim is not worked out in full – begins with the actor/performer and his or her “actual sexual emotion[s]”. A concern for actual sexual emotions demands a theorizing of the limit of the real, i.e., how far would a spectator be willing to go in a narrative film. If the physical and emotive aspects of a sexual scene border on real, existing in reality outside filming (for instance, an actor’s arousal exists whether the camera is on and off), having a spectator leap up from his seat and be affected by the action is a possibility.[5] It is worthwhile to hypothesize for Bazin audience responses to real, or bordering on real, bodily expressions and emotions. If for instance, a woman strips in a theater production, Bazin claims she would arouse “the jealousy of the entire male [sic] audience.” In a film however, there is participation and identification, and thus the man who possesses the woman onscreen “gratifies me by proxy” (Bazin 2005, 173-4), reminding us here of Mulvey’s writing on misrecognition by male spectators. This psychological intrigue would then grant and idealize the pornographic. However, the psychological (in terms of a identifying with characters or narrative satisfying a lack) is not the reason why cinema has a high place in art for Bazin; its capacity to provoke imagination is what matters. In Bazin’s thinking on cinema, near the end of his life, the presence of the imaginary serves to justify censorship of the nude (female) body, i.e., not by law but film aesthetics. Ontological pornography is thus the perversion of realist aesthetics, a perversion which neglects the abundance of creative and imaginative potential of film on the part of those involved in production, as well as for the individual’s viewing experience. It is not what can be precisely filmed that is of concern – i.e., its indexical quality – but rather real events and the actual emotions of actors which lead to complicated distinctions between acting and real life. Bazinian realism engages spectator’s active imagination, making connections between narrative, acts and shots, via film style and techniques of director and crew.

Patrice Chéreau’s film Intimacy, released in 2001, provides a possible thread to join the imaginary and explicit sexuality. (The issue of violence I will return to.) Jay, a thirtysomething lonely bartender whose wife and sons has left him, participates in weekly sex with Claire. Claire, a thirtysomething who has a husband and child of her own, without specifying why or seeming to enjoy it, consistently appears to their sexual encounters on time. The film begins with a few of their sexual numbers at Jay’s home, and we quickly realize that their relationship is solely physical, and the two perhaps do not know a thing about each other. Following one of these Wednesday visits, Jay secretly pursues Claire to a pub and underground theater space where she in fact performs as a stage actor. Here Jay meets Claire’s husband and son, befriends them, and interacts with Claire as if the two had not previously met. This moment in the narrative marks a caesura for Jay, as the rest of the film documents the breaking down of his fantasy of anonymous sex and its impact on his emotional well-being – he wishes to know Claire, because he has growing feelings, but her real life encroaches on their make-believe one. Eventually the two lovers, and Claire’s husband Andy, all try to reconcile the affair or make it work without irreparably damaging their lives.

Many aspects of the film stand out, such as the rather plain casting of the actors involved (as I said above, not cast for their Hollywood aesthetic), the natural lighting, and the use of real spaces in London. Of greatest interest are the performances of Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, whom in two scenes perform two real sexual acts. The more notable for Linda Williams is the first, the second being fellatio. In the first, after the characters have stripped, Jay lies on his back with his erect penis visible in the center of the frame, which Claire grasps, and strokes. This is an act which we do not often see in a feature film and Williams is shocked by the intimate gesture for it overturns the standard depiction of woman’s sexuality as unfamiliar “with the movements of sex.”

Though she strokes the erect penis, she does not offer the kind of reverential penis worship that so commonly occurs in hard-core pornography and which is usually designed to showcase the penis’s outward extension from the male body in phallic display. Rather, we feel that she feels both the fleshy vulnerability of the organ as well as its pulsing hardness. Most important, the gesture makes us believe in the reciprocity of one touched body part to another.[6]

With this real gesture we get a sense of authenticity when the couple begins to thrust and pant in an embrace. The camera does not cut to extreme close-ups of penetration and does not need to in this case. “We believe,” writes Williams, “that this couple is connected, whether they really are or not.”[7]

The real gesture of Fox’s hand lingering over Rylance’s penis fools film scholar Tanya Krzywinska. She writes that in this first scene “the spectator is left in little doubt that penetration has occurred” and the film does make use of “real sex” in a different way than pornography.[8] The point here is that a single gesture ushered in an experience of the real, while the actual performance, according to interviews of Fox and boyfriend Alexander Linklater, did not include penetration. Nevertheless, critics have declared its realist tendencies. Jon Lewis, for instance, cites a review by Guardian critic AC Grayling to note the degree of cinematic realism accomplished in the film. Thus Williams approaches the title not just as a description of the sexual entanglement of the characters involved, but between the screen and spectator as well: we witness a real intimacy that the actors are asked to perform, and this performance is “among the rare moments on film when what we are watching and investing and believing in is real.”[9]

Combining the techniques used by a director and performances of the actors, as well as one scholar’s reflection on the film, I have hopefully hinted at a method of reconciling Bazinian aesthetics and filmed sexual acts. This was to show, following Williams’ critique of Bazin in Screening Sex (2008), that the imagination does not lose its proclivity when “confronted… with a penis, a vagina, or a blow job, or with many of the ways of performing – not just acting or simulating – sex.” Rather than just posit the always active role of the imagination while experiencing a film, I tried to stress the importance of specific techniques that enhance the imaginative process, in this case, Rylance and Fox’s performance, an essential element in what I want to elaborate upon: realist aesthetics. In the talents of director, crew, and performers, the requirement to show the sexual act in close up and in detail falls away when realism is creatively evoked by the artists involved in the production. “Neither tastefully erotic nor insistently hard-core… [Intimacy] make[s] us realize how impoverished are the gestures and emotions of most cinematic sex acts.”[10] This is perhaps why many of the New Extreme films, even the ones that have real sexual intercourse, do not feel the need to document it in fact – what Williams called in Hard Core (1989), maximum visibility and the frenzy of the visible. The assumption of “real” sex is already there in the viewing experience and our imagination is stimulated in a way altogether different from merely showing us the act of penetration.

My own reflections on Intimacy do not yet touch on the pretend violence that other New Extreme films portray. Perhaps one example can shed light on this issue and again hint at an answer to Downing and Bazin’s problem by theorizing two extreme limits of performance. Sadomasochism in film is perhaps the most challenging to both ethics and cinematic realism because in practice it is both real in the sense of effecting a body, and illusory, through performing particular prearranged roles.[11] Any sadomasochistic scene encounters this duality, most powerfully Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999). Emma Wilson notes the scene of Marie’s (Caroline Ducey) untying after having been bound and gagged to the point of physical anguish. It becomes troublesome because this untying is staged to be sure but also appears as the untying of actress Ducey: her tears and anguish seem “genuine”, observes Wilson, and this is the pushing of performance to its limit which renders the experience of it haptic. “Breillat manages to convince her audience that, as in various scenes of intercourse, and in the scene where Marie masturbates, we are witnessing ‘real’, unstaged physical responses and reactions. This lack of mediation is shocking for the viewer… and promotes the film’s immediacy, its tactile presence.”[12] A tension is revealed in what is visible onscreen, again between the pretend and real, i.e., the feigned yet real violence of sadomasochism and the actual emotions or physical response of tears.

Tears are a staple of film, as far back as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The close-ups of Maria Falconetti are no less affective than those of Ducey after her bound and gagged performance. Likewise we can suggest the feigned or actual orgasm of the performers in many New Extreme films is a realist aesthetic similar to an actor’s tears, i.e., as immersion into a character and scene. In the films I am focusing on for the most part, unlike Williams’ attempt to turn porn into a genre in its own right, orgasms are portrayed less in visible ejaculations than by bodily spasms and groans, and thus male or female, orgasms are equally invisible or in Bazin’s terms equally real in the body of the actors.[13] Such is true of Ducey’s masturbation scene in Romance. It is not as Williams hypothesizes in her text on pornography, that we are witnessing a frenzy of the visible here; this act provokes a heightened sense of realism by treading a line between imagination, screening masturbation, and its climax. Ducey’s performance is not filmed in a close-up of the genitals but beginning from her toes the camera proceeds upwards to her thighs, her hand between her crossed legs and without seeing the genitals, to her upper body and finally on her anguished face at the climax. (I say anguished because the film’s narrative centers on Marie’s sexual problems with husband Paul.) Whether “actually” masturbating or not, treading between real and imaginary provides a more authentic viewing experience. Spectators are active in engagement with characters and the then live performance. Rylance, Fox, and Ducey do not merely act. Performance is an opening up of one’s body to the challenges of physical and emotional of a situation, i.e., actual onscreen sex whether one desires the other or not: “The physical motions and the accompanying emotions”, whether orgasm or tears, are performed and experienced by viewers as “more real than just acting.”[14]

How is it possible then that these films address ethical issues, particularly with reference to forms of violence and sexual violence? What does a real sex act add to the pretend world in a film? In the climactic violence of Breillat’s Fat Girl, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, Larry Clark’s Ken Park, Bruno Dumont’s The Life of Jesus and Twentynine Palms, Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, Von Trier’s Antichrist, to name a few, the murders that conclude the narrative and the real or real-looking sex occurring prior to that end serve a purpose beyond the immediately affective, although it certainly is experienced in this way and I agree with theorists on that point. But we must state firstly: The realist aesthetic of these films is astoundingly affective in order to bring the shock of onscreen violence back into the viewing experience. Sex is exhibited as a normal part of the narrative when we contrast sexual images with the brutality of the murders for instance. Chéreau’s Intimacy “surprises” and “shocks”[15] despite lacking a violent climax if we watch this film in a body of work under the heading of New Extremism. Extreme cinema’s propensity towards actual sexual emotions alongside pretend acts of violence suggests that via the imagination of the spectator the pretend is felt as real within the diegesis and the film experience, and with this assumption it is possible to overcome the problem of taking seriously the explicit critiques of graphic violence in these films (although they are in fact unreal and illusory). In this brief attempt to satisfy Bazin and Downing’s provocative claims, realist aesthetics implicate the spectator in ethical modes of viewing.

Some suggest extreme cinema uncovers humanism as false piety, while others suggest that despite their disturbing misanthropy, the explicitness of the images and narratives are in fact humanistic in their challenge “to the numbing complacencies and stock humanity of much mainstream cinema.”[16] Grønstad’s claim is the more compelling no doubt and this is a line of argument that needs to be given sufficient attention and connected explicitly to the films. Developing a project on extreme realism then is simultaneous to develop a theory of ethics as Downing and Libby Saxton attempt in Film and Ethics (2009). The authors try to show, following Michelle Aaron’s lead in her book Spectatorship (2007), that the film viewing experience already engages ethical thinking. Whereas Downing and Saxton bring continental philosophy texts to film to produce a strand of ethical theory – from the writings of Levinas, Derrida, Lacan and Zizek, Mulvey, Foucault, and Badiou – I want to begin with a trend or movement in contemporary film that carries weight in the ethical field without as much recourse to 20th century philosophy. Sexuality, because of its diverse reception in cinema and its complex negotiations in everyday life, and the stark contrast of brutal violence as I have explained above, should prove to be the perfect points of reference to theorize cinematic realism and its connections to ethical theory. A rudimentary definition of New Extremism is fortunately reduced to those two traits in most scholarship – James Quandt’s article where he defines New Extremism is titled “Flesh and Blood.” New Extremism perhaps overdoes the ethical implication of viewers by its explicit sexuality and violence, and this is why I find it so compelling, both as an area of film studies and as an object to develop film ethics.


[1]               Downing, Film and Ethics, 80-87.

[2]               Ibid., 83.

[3]    Bazin, What is Cinema? V. 2, 173. There is also a similar claim made by the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in 1986. Seeing sex is ‘in the flesh’ and thus audiences bear witness to any abuse or perversions therein (Williams, 1989, 185).

[4] Ibid., 174. Cf. Williams, Hard Core, 185-186.

[5] Cf. Williams, “Film Bodies”. Here she outlines the merit of a horror, melodrama, or pornographic picture is perhaps based on the degree to which one is scared, sad, or turned on.

[6]               Williams, Screening Sex, 272-3.

[7]               Ibid., 273.

[8]               Krzywinska, Sex in the Cinema, 223-224.

[9]               Lewis, “Real Sex”.

[10]             Williams, Screening Sex, 273.

[11]             Williams, Hard Core, 195.

[12]             Wilson, “Deforming femininity”, 154.

[13]             Williams, Hard Core. She spends a great deal of time making the case that the visible male ejaculations in 1970s pornography are the stand-ins for the invisible pleasures of the female.

[14]             Williams, Screening Sex, 274-275.

[15]             Ibid.

[16] James Quandt, “More Moralism from that ‘wordy fuck’”, 213; Asbjørn Grønstad, “Abject desire”, 164.