Monday, September 15, 2008

Movies: The Gallic tablesaw massacre.

Before we get to the movie review proper, I'd like to share with you one of the pleasures of the information age: humorously inappropriate adds triggered by God-only-knows-what phrases in a Web page's content. Specifically, I'm thinking of two adds running on the sidebar of the Fontier(s) page of imdb.

Squatting happily next to the data of a movie about Francophone paleo-Nazi backwater cannibals are adds for "Oprah's Superfood of the Year!" and "2008 Diet of the Year!"

I can't tell you any more about the products advertised. I didn't click through. I knew that if I did click on them, and this miracle food was something other than French people, I was going to be inconsolable. I prefer to maintain the delusional possibility that some Internet biz visionary is selling slabs of extra-lean Frenchman to overweight Oprah fans: "Are You a People Person? French women don't get fat, and neither will you. We've always known the French had great taste, and now you can bring that taste home! Surrender . . . to the exquisite taste of French people!"

Quel monde incroyable.

But we're talking movies here, not cuisine . . .

Frontier(s), the 2007 blood-soaked thriller by writer-director Xavier Gens (who, curiously, was a second unit director on the Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dennis Rodman action flick Double Team), is a Frenchified Texas Chainsaw massacre that attempts liven-up a tried and true group-of-young-people-meet-cannibal-clan plot with a contemporary style and a schmeer of political relevance. Gens handily achieves the first goal and fails abysmally at the second.

Plot-wise, there's little I need to tell you about. Given the info I've already dropped in this review, you, dear Screamers and Screamettes, could summarize this film even if you've never seen it. Five with-it urban youths – they listen to rap, have pierced eyebrows, sport tough guy haircuts, and even have a token ethnic friend - find themselves on the crap end of a robbery gone bad. The young thieves did get their hot little hands on a bag full of euros, but one of their number is full of lead and our protagonists had to pop a cop to get away. After some post-bungle dramatic bickering, the thieves split up. One pair makes for isolated hotel near the French/German boarder with au grisbi while the remaining pair will drop their perforated comrade off at the hospital. The wounded robber expires shortly after arriving at emergency care and our lag-wagon crooks hit the road.

What none of the robbers realize is that the rustic inn they've selected as a rendezvous point is run by the Von Geislers: a psychopathic clan of unreconstructed Nazis with a taste for long pig. Whether we're supposed to understand that these guys are weird holdover collaborators from the occupation or foreign transplants who, after the war, decided for some reason to settle in France (foolish war-criminal hunters, they will never look for anti-Semites in France!) is never clarified and not really important. What is important is that, like all people living in close-knit family groups in relative isolation from the urban middle class, they are crazy cannibals.

One almost feels sorry for these isolated cannibal clans. After all, from the Hewitts of Texas to the Von Geislers of wherever, these clans are always in a tough spot. If you keep pushing the bloodline forward without expanding the breeding pool, you get hulking giants that are awesome with power tools and butchery and the like, but not all that bright in an overall social-functional sense. You can bring in new breeders, of course, but then you need to keep them birth-capable. Keeping them birth-capable means you're cutting into your food supply, 'cause meat is meat, as we all know. This eat-it-or-mate-it dilemma isn't something your non-cannibal killer (or you luckily family-less cannibal) has to deal with. It's a maddeningly sticky wicket. In the case of Von Geislers, they decided to sick the women-folk on the men, quickly causing a post-coital status downgrade from "source of babies" to "victuals." The lone woman of the group, Yasmine, will be kept around for her long-term breeding capabilities. We call that resource management. It's what smart cannibal clans do.

For fans of the psycho-clan subgenre, you've got everything right here. There's a feast in which the whole family, plus the captive woman, gather around the body of one of the ex-protagonists. (Whether this is a cannibal tradition or the cannibals mistakenly think it will impress their guest is unclear – but they all do it and the reaction from the guest is always poor.) There's a TCM2/House of 1,000 Corpses underworld full of unspeakable horrors. There's a final girl. And one of the clan even appears to be giving us her very best Sherry Moon Zombie impersonation.

Visually, the film is on familiar ground too. We get the loving-detailed slick squalor that is the international signature of horror flicks since the look's development for the film Se7en. Like all good horror films shot after Blair Witch, there's an unnecessary collection of POV "hand-cam" shots. There's the slo-mo/fast-forward of Wolf Creek and various slasher remakes. It's all well done, just as it was before by countless predecessors. It's a slick, professional product. Gans handles his cameras and his editing suite with assured professionalism.

What we've got with Frontier(s) is a completely serviceable flick that is basically a Gallic mix-tape of countless American flicks of equal quality. In fact, just about the only original thing about Frontier(s) is that its in French. The lesson: If you're an American with a fairly generic horror idea that you're confident you can execute in a unobjectionably professional manner, then go abroad and film it in another language. If Rob Zombie shot this thing (and he kinda sorta already has), horror fans would declare it tediously derivative. Slap on some accent marks, subtitle it (reading is what real cinema lovers do, y'all), cast a perpetually wounded looking exotic femme in the lead, and certain segments of the blog-o-sphere will practically sprain their wrists in a mad attempt to be the first to cum all over your flick.

What the auteur Gans can't quite sell quite as well is his political ambitions. If he can breeze effortless through the aesthetic demands of film, his handling of politics is bizarrely amateur, almost laughably juvenile. The film begins with images of rioting in Paris, the reaction of the commoners to the election of a right-wing government that is, one can safely assume, a never-named stand-in for current President Nicolas Sarkozy. The victim/protagonists regular compare this new government to Bush and the film equates the devolved Nazis with the government that is taking power. None of this, however, makes any since. Unlike the visually and thematically more powerful Inside, which used the backdrop of France's racial unrest for a critique of French society, Frontier(s) tries to fob offer political unrest that never manifested (the riot footage is a mix of the race riots previously mentioned and the short-lived youth unrest about changes in labor laws that would make it easier to fire underperforming workers – a riot about wallets, not ideologies) to imply that there's some parallel between the Sarkozy government and the crude, primitive, violent, backwater Von Geisler clan. Really? The same "crude" Sarkozy whose wife is on the cover of Vanity Fair with the tagline "The next Jackie O?" The same "violent" Sarkozy who has avoided entering into Iraq and who was the only significant Western leader to tie his attendance at the China Olympics to the condition that China open diplomatic communications with the suppressed government of Tibet? Admittedly, Sarkozy is right-wing by French standards. But is a commitment to neo-liberal economic policies and a belief that NATO should help prevent Afghanistan from falling back into the hands of the Taliban really the moral equivalent of genocide, imperialist national socialism, or cannibalism?

The argument is further weakened by the fact that our "heroes" are a bunch of cop-killing thieves that whole-hearted embrace traditional Euro misogyny and regularly toss around the word "faggot" as an insult. Even the attempt at giving them a little ethnic flair fall flat: the Muslim character carefully avoids practicing in any way – he drinks, has premarital sex without qualms, engages in violent criminal behavior, doesn't pray – until it becomes convenient for the plot that he announce he does not eat pork.

Thematically, Frontier(s) is a step down from what passes for political discourse on even the Internets. Though, honestly, perhaps I'm expecting too much. I've seen people argue over the slightest nuances between horror subgenres, while at the same time espousing political predictions and conspiracy theories that would embarrass Oliver Stone. Perhaps a horror writer/director who is a precise and talented filmmaker, but who possesses an easy, over-simplified, and self-aggrandizing politics is a perfect mirror of his audience.

Despite intimations of an impending French horror invasion, Frontier(s) is proof that French filmmakers are just as capable of producing middle-tier movies as their American counterparts. A fine, but not particularly notable, addition to the crazy bumpkin subgenre, the flick is a solidly-built thriller that delivers the gory goods once the knives and guns come out. Past that, however, the filmmaker's ambitions rapidly outpace his talent and ideas.


spacejack said...

This reminds me of an old joke from Mad Magazine about adding credibility to a cheap & quick English film by dubbing over it in a foreign language, adding English subtitles, then selling it back to an English-speaking audience as an art film.

Anonymous said...

Sir, I have good evidence that one cannot embarrass Oliver Stone. At All. He is one of the lizard people.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

It's almost too easy. I wonder if somebody has actually pulled it off.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Or so the Bush/Israel/Masons axis would have you believe . . .