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Side Effects is the Soderbergh we have come to expect: clever cinematography, non-diegetic music linking scenes or in place of diegetic sound (Thomas Newman does a nice job with the music here, a composer we have not seen since Erin Brockavich, although I much prefer David Holmes), occasional wit in his characters (Burns is again the screenwriter), some of the same casting choices as prior films, and so on. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, except the nudity, which is a first for Soderbergh’s theatrical releases I believe.

Given its ordinariness, the film’s greatest failure is perhaps the narrative. Side Effects is the story of Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) depression, the side effects from Ablixa, a drug given to her by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), and the murder of her husband (Channing Tatum) due in part to the side effects (Emily stabs her husband while sleepwalking). The moment Dr. Banks discovers stock prices of Ablixa fluctuated after the accidental murder, he decides to go on a wild search to gather evidence to prove Emily’s feigned illness, intentional killing, and profiteering. It was around this initial questioning of the patient’s depression that I could not help but groan. With approximately 45 minutes or more still remaining in the feature, I simply did not want to wait to find out how or why she did it.

Dr. Banks (Jude Law)

Dr. Banks (Jude Law)

We learn at the beginning of the film that her husband was sent to jail for insider trading, he has been gone 4 years, and during those 4 years we are told later on, Emily had been planning the crime with her former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who could give her advice on drugs, side effects, and depression to act a convincing case, and who is also Emily’s lover. There’s a battle of wits between the two doctors, Emily and Dr. Banks, Dr. Banks and his wife who thinks he is crazy for believing Emily is not crazy, which is all very tiring and for the most part unpleasant to watch. Through perseverance and self-proclaimed genius, after losing his wife and step-son to focus attention on the case, Dr. Banks solves the mystery, Emily gets what she deserves, and the doctor reunites with his horrible unsupportive wife. And I was relieved it was over.

The cast were superb, save Zeta-Jones, and Soderbergh works wonders with his camera and editing. However, the ambiguity that I think was supposed to be there – whether Emily was in fact depressed – seemed either misplaced or lacking. If a director resorts to flashbacks to remind viewers how the supposedly complex plot all connects, the film was inadequate in making the prior events and behaviors apparent during. Or the director believes the audience is too stupid to remember. Former or latter, I am unimpressed. If this is supposed to be a murder mystery along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock, Soderbergh certainly forget the suspense.

A further problem, unrelated to story or form, is the big question mark about the legitimacy of mental illness. In a time where persons who suffer from mental health issues are themselves questioned about the truthfulness of their mental health issues, or are under attack by the New York Police (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/feb/18/nyc-police-begin-roundup-purge-streets-mentally-il/), Side Effects could perhaps perpetuate this attack against mental health care not just by the twists and turns and Emily’s motives, but also via the hilarity and comedy of doctors, pharmaceuticals, and therapy generally in the film. Yes, it is a movie and is part of the story, but I nevertheless felt a little unnerved by some of the portrayed patient/doctor relationships and the overall theme of uncertainly surrounding diagnosis.

I really hope this is not Soderbergh’s swan song.

Paper Presentation at Decadence/Decay, Art History Graduate Student Conference at Carleton, March 9 – March 10

http://www2.carleton.ca/arthistory/cu-events/decadencedecay-ah-graduate-students-conference

Abstract:

In this paper I argue that Tsai Ming-liang’s narratives of ruin are also stories of enduring love, providing a depth of interpretation beyond a simplistic labelling of him as a cynic who merely fictionalizes and exaggerates a decaying Taiwan and the failures of the modern world to provide happiness, freedom, and companionship. It is true that in The Hole (1998) and The Wayward Cloud (2005) we see the falling away of civility and morality as such by situating characters in ruinous environments; in these settings, unable to band together for collective action the protagonists do not battle for the scarce resources but accept their positions and lead bland, bleak, and solitary existences, paralleling the emptiness of an autonomous, independent, decadent life elsewhere. However, in the sexually unfulfilled Hole or the drawn out and eventual sexual encounter of Wayward Cloud, Tsai presents a lasting love between his characters without the either/or of so-called love today, i.e., according to Badiou, the well-planned marriage with procreation or the fun, passionless sexual encounter. Love is instead obstinate, as in the plays of Beckett; it is a powerful unchanging element surviving “catastrophic existence.” I suggest Tsai’s films answer Badiou’s call to rally to the defense of love. The duration of shots, minimal editing, lingering camera, lengthy scenes and silences, sparse dialogue, crumbling and collapsed spaces, and importantly the refusal of an immediate and identifiable blossoming romance between characters, all contribute to the re-invention of love as a challenge to endure.

Paper presentation at Western University’s (Re)Activating Objects, March 1 – March 3, 2013

http://reactivatingobjects.wordpress.com/

Abstract:

In this paper I argue that actors and actresses’ performances are key objects of analysis in addressing the ethical challenges of New Extreme films. Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) and its fictionalized making-of, Sex is Comedy (2002), incites an ethical engagement not merely in the sense of textual analysis, but requires a deeper investigation inherent to the filmmaking process. The reflexivity of the paired films – the latter as a staged re-enactment of the sex scene of the former, re-performed by lead actress Mesquida – motivates the development of a theory of performance following Linda Williams’ reflections, and in so doing shifting emphasis from director-auteur to the equally important actor-auteur, as Dyer argued decades ago.

Breillat places high demand on her actors to perform (physicality) as well as act (deliver dialogue), evinced by Mesquida’s reluctance and difficultly in shooting the twenty minute scene in which her character, Elena, is coerced out of her virginity in Fat Girl, and its alternate but similar re-performance in Sex is Comedy. The unnamed character-actress of the latter bursts into sobs when director Jeanne finally utters “cut” after the long take. Her tears are powerful within the narrative to be sure, but reflexivity is used here as a method of rethinking Mesquida’s earlier role in addition to films of the New Extremism generally, as Breillat is an oft-cited name for the recent cinematic tendency for flesh and blood: it poses the question of whether onscreen acts of physical and emotional violence manifest in the bodies of actors and actresses off-screen, and further, to what aesthetic and ethical end. In making the parallel between the films (hitherto unaccomplished by scholars) I sidestep theorists who label New Extremism aesthetic pornography or transgressive cinema, and instead refocus the theorizing of these films to issues of performance, the actor-auteur, and ethics.

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Trent Film Society Presents…

Battle in Heaven follows Carlos Reygadas’ critically acclaimed first feature Japón (2002). The 2005 feature we are watching tonight was not as well received however. Although his debut did have scenes of sexuality that were strange to say the least – the middle-aged protagonist redeems himself, finds a renewed vigor for life, through sexual intercourse with a religious 80-something year-old woman – Battle in Heaven, like Quandt suggested of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, perhaps succumbs to the vogue tactics of then recent European cinema.

Like Japón, Battle in Heaven was written with a non-professional actor in mind, in this case, Marcos Hernandez, a chauffeur for Reygadas’ father at the Ministry of Culture. Marcos, in this role, like Alejando Ferretis in Japón, is undergoing an existential and spiritual crisis brought on by forces outside of his control: a botched kidnapping and also a love affair with Ana, daughter of a Mexican general whom Marcos chauffeurs for in the film. This unexpected affair is perhaps the cause of such negative reception. The unlikely couple suffers the same fate James Stewart expected of Scottie’s affair with Madeleine in Vertigo, played by a much younger than Stewart Kim Novak. While Vertigo achieved great success, and as of this year the highest success, the relatively unattractive Marcos and attractive Ana did not convince anyone of the naturalism of their sexual relationship. [I say more about this in the Arthur piece.]

Many critics were upset by the “all shock and no awe” (Johnson 2006) of Reygadas’ second feature with its focus on the body of the young Ana. Furthermore, the lack of both narrative drama and suspense, as well as any hints of psychological motivation, baffled critics (Bradshaw 2005; Smith 2005; Johnson 2006). It is very easy to be critical of the film because I believe our categories of so-called “good movies” needs to shift with Battle in Heaven in order to truly get something out of it. Described better by Manohla Dargis of NY Times as an “acquired taste” (2005), Reygadas pursues something formal or experimental here that I want to briefly explore.

Firstly, in regards to the challenge of casting non-professional actors, Reygadas claims that a “naturalistic” acting or faithful representations of a character are incorrect criteria of judgment: he repeatedly invokes his desire for “the actual human presence”, portraying actors/characters as they are in the world. It’s like choosing someone for a photographic still or painted portrait, he says. By doing this Reygadas suggests a rethinking of the relationship between real and fiction as these persons onscreen, in the flesh – which is to say in their vulnerability, anxiety, and bursts of courage – act out a particular scene. Thirdly then this real/fiction confusion questions directorial responsibility, as critics, namely Paul Julian Smith, are worried that extra-diegetic concerns, such as knowing what the actors were getting into and Hernandez’s wife getting upset over performing sexual acts, raises ethical problems for Reygadas’ art. By raising this point, Tiago de Luca writes of Smith’s review, is to make the actors involved seem helpless and weak, incapable making decisions for themselves.

Besides Ana’s enthusiasm in post-production interviews, Reygadas answers this concern with a quick dismissal of the problem: “…I don’t feel any responsibility towards [Marcos, Ana, and Bertha Ruiz], because I believe in individual responsibility…. Some people say that there is risk of exploitation. I don’t think this idea respects the fact that people are intelligent and grown up” (Higgings 2005). He invokes trust as a necessary component to shooting difficult scenes, and his actors, so Reygadas describes, had complete faith in his work. Elsewhere he explains that nudity was necessary for realism: “It is absolutely essential that things need to be real and not simulated…. [I]f Marcos has to get naked, I don’t want to simulate his penis. I mean, if he’s going to eat a sandwich, I don’t want him to pretend…. [I]f I could have simulated [nudity] with an extra, without harming the film, I would have simulated it” (Marlow 2006). But we must be careful in overemphasizing the depicted sexual acts; sex is something all people do and thus warrants a place within narrative cinema. Similarly, in an interview for Battle in Heaven, he says he “wouldn’t mind shooting people having breakfast or walking in a park.” His 2007 feature Silent Light – which rekindled his critical acclaim – allowed him to shoot such scenes.

I agree with Reygadas that the responsibility is not his but the actor’s; I disagree with him in that the extra-diegetic concerns, with Hernandez’s real wife or Ana’s social standing, are what makes the performance all the more engaging. Performance art is often a risk of bodily integrity and so the sexual acts onscreen add to its intensity.

The first experimental quality of the film then surrounds non-professional actors and the divide between reality and fiction. The other cinematic feat accomplished with this film is its toying with temporality. Reygadas is becoming a stock name in contemporary contemplative cinema, or slow cinema, whereby the long takes and pans across stretches of landscape point to something significant apart from the anthropocentric framing we have become attuned to. Narrative, to address negative reviews of Battle in Heaven, takes a backseat to the static image or the slow pan, exhibiting Marcos’ solitary existential crises, the cityscape of Mexico City, or in some shots, nothing at all. The long take, to bring us to a trait of New Extreme cinema, is itself a kind of violence done to the viewer as we anxiously await a cut, rather than just a horrific act between the characters onscreen.

The film is indeed part of the global trend of New Extreme cinema for the performances of Marcos and Ana as well as for violating spectatorial expectations of rapid edits, narrative logic, and explicit motivation. New Extreme then is not merely graphic sex and violence but films that demand a different kind of viewing experience. And further, with Dumont’s Flanders last week, the New Extreme cinema rarely hides or obscures its stories of love. Through and against all odds this is yet another tale of struggling love, referenced in the title, and this love is made apparent in the play of Marcos and Ana’s, and Marcos and Bertha’s bodies.

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Marcos Hernandez and Ana Mushkadiz

All three of the films are about love and all three ends more or less the same way with proclamations of love; Flanders began with the vocal outburst “Fuck!”, Battle in Heaven begins with “Shit!”, and The Wayward Cloud next week starts with a fuck.

From Trent University’s Arthur Student Newspaper: http://trentarthur.ca/trent-film-society-presents-carlos-reygadas-battle-in-heaven/

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Mexican director Carlos Reygadas continues to impress critics and audiences with each feature. With four to date, each film traverses different terrains while developing a distinct style, influenced by the filmmaking greats Carl Theodor Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Reygadas wanders into New Extremism territory in his second feature Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005) and because of its explicit sexuality and violence, has managed to divide critics as well as spark debate among film scholars. Perhaps a disappointing follow-up to the brilliant debut (Japón, 2002), Battle in Heaven nevertheless pushes us beyond the confines of James Quandt’s lacklustre definition of New Extremity, and so the film is of interest to Trent Film Society’s series of corporeal works.

Marcos Hernandez plays himself, a chauffeur outside the film as well as within it. Anapola Mushkadiz also has a role that stretches no further than exhibiting her extra-diegetic traits: daughter of a General in the film – Marcos is her chauffeur – and daughter of a Mexican media mogul in the real world. Mushkadiz (a pseudonym) is also a self-proclaimed dilettante; the task of portraying a prostitute in a high-end brothel, she claims, suits her just fine. Battle in Heaven then follows Marcos as he struggles with sexuality, religiosity, a meagre, working class existence, and a botched kidnapping of his sister-in-law’s child. Lacking psychological motivation altogether, and furthermore a logical narrative structure, the story’s focus, instead of the uninteresting kidnapping, is on the unlikely couple of Marcos and Ana- unlikely not simply because of the unattractiveness of the former and beauty in the latter, but rather the social strata has divided them to an irreconcilable degree. It is this class division, argues Tiago de Luca, which is the force of the film, demonstrating through the impossibility of these two individuals coming together, a critique of the separation between incomes, health, and race. Where his French peers have focused on bourgeois problems, Reygadas situates characters in an entirely different social milieu, and thus the logical incoherence of the plot provides us with the critical distance to think, and hopefully discuss, class, and racial division in contemporary Mexico.

The realism of the film pervades our viewing experience; non-professional actors, real spaces, and therefore real events taking place on screen. This is the appeal and shock of the sex scenes between Marcos and his wife, and Marcos and Ana. Their fumbling and discomfort at performing these acts problematizes the fiction/reality divide, accomplishing then a heightened awareness of the images onscreen. Depicting the brute facts of existence within a fictional film is a defining characteristic of New Extreme cinema and therefore Battle in Heaven can be thought of as such.

Something to consider…

Larval Subjects .

Over at CineMadeson Dan Sullivan has a brief yet INTERESTING POST up on the significance of Object-Oriented Ontology for film theory. Dan writes:

As I’ve mentioned here before, I think the recent work of Bryant and Graham Harman contains the seeds for a conceptual framework capable of engaging with the non-human aspects of cinema, something that I think film theory will have to address sooner rather than later. So check the posts out (Bryant is an excellent and very lucid writer, so they’re hardly tough-sledding); they inspired me to scribble the following in my notebook after a brief bout of meditation on my fire escape:

“All of the elements of a shot’s mise en scène, all of the non-relational objects within the film frame, are figures of a sort. The figure is the likeness of a material object, whether that likeness is by-design or purely accidental. A shot is a…

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Trent Film Society Presents Bruno Dumont's Flanders

Trent Film Society Presents a Series of New Extreme Films

Any study of New Extremism must begin with James Quandt’s seminal and disparaging review of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003).1 Impressed by his first two features, La vie de Jésus (1997) and Humanité (1999), Quandt was worried that Dumont’s latest proved he had “succumbed to the growing vogue for shock tactics in French cinema over the past decade.” His article then traces this in vogue filmmaking.

Published in Artforum February 2004, “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema”, writes Quandt in 2011 (210), “took on a life never intended, with often uncomfortable results.” Positively, the coining of “New French Extremity” (Quandt 2004) in this piece demarcated a period of filmmaking in France from about 1997 to 2004 (and since expanded to 2009 when Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void finished off the trend for good [Quandt 2011: 212]), and scholars were able to position disparate and stylistically diverse films into an identifiable category based not particularly in a new form, but upon a film’s insistence on graphic sexuality and violence. Negatively Quandt’s article was highly misconstrued and unfortunately led to pigeonholing artists into this newly defined trend (2011: 210). A single film viewed and written upon as an Extreme production does not warrant a director’s oeuvre and subsequent features a labelling as such, Quandt stresses. Catherine Breillat, François Ozon, and Claire Denis for instance are now categorically “Extreme” despite their recent movement away from the cinematic tendencies of earlier works.

Critics and theorists have made sure to separate New Extremity from genre study, defining it as a style, or as a particular movement (Quandt 2004; Grønstad 2006: 163; Beugnet 2007: 25). In fact the director’s associated “often deconstruct a range of generic tropes rather than constituting one collectively” (Horeck and Kendall 2011: 5), and further, have a near total “disregard for genre boundaries” (Horeck and Kendall 2011: 3, quoting Beugnet). New Extremity is used then as a trend or tendency that is not exclusive to representations of an ideal generic form, nor for that matter, restricting itself to France but emerging internationally (Grønstad 2006: 163). The tendency can be approximated nevertheless, and such is Quandt’s (2004) exaggerative description, deserving to be quoted in full:

Bava as much as Bataille, Salò no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement. Images and subjects once the provenance of splatter films, exploitation flicks, and porn – gang rapes, bashings and slashings and blindings [?], hard-ons and vulvas, cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest, fucking and fisting, sluices of cum and gore – proliferate in the high-art environs of a national cinema whose provocations have historically been formal, political, or philosophical… or, at their most immoderate…, at least assimilable as emanations of an artistic movement….

From such a statement one would think the filmic content would be comprised of grotesque images, plot developments, and stories. New French Extremity, as I and others come to define it, seems inappropriate and “torture porn” (Lockwood 2009), or “the new brutality film” (Gormley 2005), seem the more apt terms for Quandt’s viewing.2 True, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) and Marina de Van’s In My Skin (Dans ma peau, 2002) have their fair share of gore to go alongside a story of cannibalistic vampire leads in the former, and repetitive, bloody auto-cannibalism in the latter, but both neglect the other characteristics listed above. Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) has several scenes of fucking and sadomasochism, again lacking the rest. Dumont’s Twentynine Palms penultimate scene features a male-on-male gang rape followed by a brutal stabbing. Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Thi’s low-budget art-porn Baise Moi (2000) has plenty of satirical if not humorous violence and more than a few unsimulated sex scenes. Baise Moi and Jacques Nolot’s Porn Theatre (2002) are the only two that provide viewers the sperm and cum Quandt thought was repeated ad nauseam in these films.3 I have yet to see fisting in a New Extreme film and incest has only appeared in Yorgos Lanthimos’ recent picture Dogtooth (2009). Collectively the New French Extreme accomplishes all that Quandt perceives; individually they are diverse, eclectic, and demand investigation on their own cinematic terms.

Where the fiction of the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille, Quandt’s literary parallels, center around repeated and progressively more disturbing violent sexual acts as the story unfolds, New Extreme films contain many dramatic elements that make them distinct from the “shock tactics” (Quandt 2004) of those two authors. Images are not about shocking the viewer, despite their insistent “shocking acts”, including “explicit and brutal sex”, rape, and murder (Horeck and Kendall 2011: 1; Vincendeau 2007: 205; Beugnet 2007: 36). The casting aside of Sade and Bataille,4 or in more cinematic terms a Hollywood brutality film – a feast for the eyes in terms of spectacular, choreographed violence – a New Extreme film alters the conventional or generic presentation of shock images. Opposed to the sensational, Martine Beugnet (2007: 16) suggests Extreme films exhibit a “cinema of sensation”, which is to say a film experience of more than sight, an experience with multiple senses; the sensorial takes precedence over the visually sensational, achieving an intellectual engagement on a visceral or embodied level (Beugnet 2007: 8, 59; Williams 2009: 188; Palmer 2011: 59; Horeck & Kendall 2011: 7-9).5 In other words, the pleasure of onscreen violence, of a director like Quentin Tarantino, is far removed from the style and aim of the New Extreme, preferring instead the looming intensity of what has recently been dubbed “slow cinema” (Archer 2011; Flanagan 2008; James 2010): the long take and static or “objective” camera, to name two basic characteristics.

Offering an alternative to the fast-paced editing of recent multiplex features, the New Extreme cinema gifts viewers with the opportunity to contemplate and engage the image, make it available for us to ask, as Gilles Deleuze writes, “What is there to see in the image?” and not “What are we going to see in the next image?” (1989: 261). We may think of André Bazin’s praise of Orson Welles’ depth of focus, a depiction of multiple folds of meaning dancing across the two-dimensional layers of four (or five)-dimensional space; a miracle of cinematography merely from holding the camera still and focusing on both foreground and distant background (Bazin 2005: 31ff). Dispensing with psychological motivation altogether, Lisa Coulthard (2011: 185), writing about Michael Haneke’s films but perhaps describing much of the New Extreme,6 camera-techniques developed and deployed by Welles are taken up anew to reveal characters/actors as they are. Director Carlos Reygadas, among many other in his trade, utilizes the non-professional actor so that he or she is simply being there in the world and providing a spectatorial sensation of the respective film-image, a sort of fictional and narrativized at-homeness of the person onscreen. There is also a corresponding anxiety when stripped of that home and non-professionals add a sense of realism to the fumbling, ambiguous sexual encounters necessary to the plots of many New Extreme films: these actors have no training and are thus forced to play themselves in what would be a similar, real-life brief encounter.

In this tendency of recent filmmaking the sex is explicit because it plays a significant part of the narrative, for instance, in Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001): the heterosexual embrace there has an odd form and so the story could not develop without depicting the act. Since emphasis is less on dialogue and a causal chain narrative leading the characters from one point to the next, the body has magnified significance and itself becomes the essence of a narrative, however sparse it may be (Beugnet 2007: 15; Palmer 2011: 60). Ozon answers this question about the refusal of conversational exchanges and replacing them with sexual acts: “for me, these are moments when characters no longer project their discourse, but reveal themselves through their bodies” (Palmer 2011: 62, quoting Ozon). Thus the New Extreme cinema is not without its antecedents in this regard. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) and the late Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) characterize protagonists via their intimate and wordless encounters. And violence in Extreme cinema, additionally unlike Sade, is often climactic, symbolic, or an element of fantasy, for instance in Breillat’s features, or taking place off-screen in the style of Haneke. Again, antecedents are plentiful, with possibilities lurking in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Yoko Ono’s Rape (1969), Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle (1974) and The Story of O (Histoire d’O, 1975), the 1970s avant-garde/minimalist filmmakers Marguerite Duras, Jean Eustache, and Chantal Akerman, and the oeuvre and style of Stan Brakhage (1952-2004), Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961-1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1965-1982), David Lynch (1968-present), and many others, including the surrealists.

Explicit sexuality and brutal violence are essential to New Extreme features but are also overemphasized by critics and theorists. These scenes often comprise only a few minutes of the action. In addition to depicting a naturalistic moment of violence (Bogdan 2012), directors also play with slowness and style, and attempt via stylized cinematography, non-professional actors, and real spaces to portray the ambiguity or ambivalence of characters’ relationship to both sexuality and violence. Scenes and sequences prior to and proceeding the sexual or violent outburst warrant our attention as much as those that are perhaps morally reprehensible. It goes without saying then that Quandt’s attempt to negotiate disparate films into a tendency falls short of its goal, if the primary focus is the, albeit lengthy, explicitness of those named.

New Extremism beyond France

Moving away from “typically French” film may prove difficult for spectators outside the academy. Martin Barker’s audience research (2010: 145) suggests that British reception of French cinema has suffered since those who quickly dismiss a feature do so because of its “Frenchness” – explicit, pornographic, pretentious, artsy shit – and those who embrace a film fail to provide adequate reception by praising its “Frenchness” – explicit, provocative, erotic, bold and daring, intelligent, etc.7 That being said, in line with scholarship, I tend to agree that by 2011 Quandt was correct in noting the tendency in France has gone beyond the country’s borders and impacting filmmaking practices elsewhere. This is not to say that it is only fresh directors that are categorically extreme; some have indeed been making feature-length films before 1997 (Breillat, Leos Carax, Tsai Ming-liang, Larry Clark). But the French Extremists, for the most part, are post-1997.

Last semester we screened a film by Catherine Breillat to mark her influence and prominence in New Extreme studies. This French director precedes the trend by two decades with A Real Young Girl (Une vraie jeune fille, 1976) and it was not until the success of Romance, more than twenty years later, that her Bataille-inspired film was given a release.8 The most important film is perhaps Fat Girl from 2001, falling within Quandt’s proclaimed period of New French Extremity, and perhaps provides the best sense of my narrow interest in the field, and secondly, is a no more perfect film to define the trend’s characteristics and features.

With Breillat’s 2001 feature it becomes quite clear that the French Extreme is concerned with atypical bourgeois storylines, minimalist storytelling along the lines of a chamber play, depicting a two character drama9 in which, following ambiguous and risky sexual relations and the impositions of social/cultural norms, a graphic and brutal attack occurs on one or both of the characters, symbolic of desire or a manifestation of it, i.e., desire’s radiant passions, depravity, anger, and oppressive past. The climactic scenes of violence appear toward the end of the narrative, much of the time unexpectedly, thus forcing the viewer, upon leaving the theatre, to return to elements of the story and put the pieces of the puzzle together. As in the case of Breillat, she will come outright with her message; Dumont, whose film we are watching tonight, conversely has said in interviews, “I am interested in sensation, not sense,” and “My film has nothing to say.” Eschewing sense-making and politics in many cases (Beugnet & Ezra 2010: 35), New Extreme filmmakers respect the integrity and intelligence of the viewer, allowing him or her to have an entirely subjective experience of the material object. It is the filmmakers’ philosophical engagement through characters in the midst of existential crises and nihilistic encounters (Coulthard 2010: 171) which foregrounds this cinema as a more contemplative one than its counterparts on both small and large screens.

The directors explored in this series are part of the festival circuit, and make their living so to speak, on exhibiting at the most prestigious. Breillat, Dumont, Reygadas, and Tsai have won countless awards, including a number at Cannes. Flanders, for instance, received the Grand Prize of the Jury in 2006.

I suggested in the Arthur article (http://trentarthur.ca/trent-film-society-presents-a-series-of-new-extreme-films/) that Flanders provides the space for critical reflection on war and wartime atrocities by refusing to gesture toward politics. Dumont asks us to think for ourselves about the images and events; he presents rape, torture, and death with an objectivity that will no doubt make us uncomfortable. In addition to a squad of soldiers fighting in a desert somewhere – filmed in Tunisia but never identified as such – Flanders is a story of love and the catastrophic impact not just on those doing the killing or being killed themselves, but on family and friends anxiously awaiting news of death or life back home. Adelaide Leroux plays Barbe, the lover of characters Demester and Blondel; the anxiety of knowing whether your one love may survive war is tough enough, and having the two most important persons on the edge of death in turn devastates her emotionally. All three characters are played by non-professional actors, again adding to this sense of realism as these individuals may very well be called off to fight. Samuel Boidin for instance, who plays Demester, does not have a Hollywood appearance – there is something already real in the way he looks to us, his facial features and gestures speaking much louder than the few lines of dialogue he actually delivers.

The landscape of Tunisia reminds us of the recent battles in the Middle East, and the title refers to technological warfare’s beginning: all three characters reside in contemporary Flanders and thus Dumont invokes the horror of WW1 in a contemporary context.

Flandres 1

1 Tanya Horeck and Tine Kendall 2011, 10: “It is notable that almost all the essays in this volume [on New Extremism] refer to Quandt’s impassioned essay, even if it is only to set themselves in opposition to its claims, a move that testifies to its enduring significance as a tour de force in polemical writing.” Additionally, I would add, many other essays post-2004 begin with Quandt’s definition. Few however, perhaps because Jonathan Romney (2004) already did so, take him to task. For a more positive review of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms see McKibbin n/d; for theoretical treatments see Coulthard 2010 and Archer 2011.

It is also worth noting that Sight and Sound took notice of recent explorations of sexual and violent European cinema as early as 2001, devoting a whole issue to the subject. Cf. James 2001.

2 Aware of his mistake, Quandt notes the distinction between New Extremism and recent French horror/gore films such as Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) and Julien Maury’s Inside (À l’intérieur, 2007). High Tension (Haute Tension, 2008) is also often discussed within the subgenre.

3 Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer (1999) depicts a “money shot”, however, it is in the pornographic film shooting within the fictional world of the film, and so real semen, i.e., from the body of a porn-actor, is therefore no more offensive or shocking than the birth-scene of Romance.

4 François Ozon’s See the Sea (1997) ends with a disturbing murder akin to the finale of Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). The dramatic unfolding in this 51 minute feature, besides its gruesome conclusion, does not resemble The Marquis is any other way.

5 Martine Beugnet has also published a short essay, “Cinema and Sensation: Contemporary French Film and Cinematic Corporeality”, Paragraph 3.2 (2008), 178-188, consisting of her first section in the previous year’s book Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression (2007). Despite the publication date of the article, I take the book to be the polished work and refer to it throughout.

6 Beugnet and Ezra (2010: 35) make a passing remark about New Extreme generally in this regard.

7 See the IMDB message boards for any of the New French Extreme works for these user reviews.

8 Banned. See Keesey 2009

9 Breillat mentions the uniqueness of this picture for her, having three main characters (2004b)