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.