Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movies: Viva le difference.

Over at PopMatters, critic Marco Lanzagorta discusses the traditional American dominance of the fright flick game and the recent rise of France as the go-to nation for high-gloss scares.

After giving a very cursory outline of the international ebb and flow of horror films, tropes, and styles, Lanzagorta runs down a nice list of recent French flicks that would serve as a decent checklist for anybody looking to explore the recent French boom.

In the past few years, French filmmakers have delighted us with films such as I Stand Alone (1998), The Crimson Rivers (2000), The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), Irreversible (2002), High Tension (2003), The Ordeal (2004), The Crimson Rivers (2004), Sheitan (2006), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008).

Some would debate whether Noe's flicks are best understood as "horror" films, but I think somebody interested in the broader trend would do well to get a taste of the New French Extreme's poster boy given that movement helped reclaim extreme violence as a viable subject matter for French cinema (unlike America, where sex is the big taboo, French films have traditionally been more comfortable shedding clothes instead of blood).

The critic then goes on to ask just what the heck is going on in France to fuel this new bloodlust:

Similarly, even though news reports do not show France going through a crisis tougher than any other country nowadays, can we use their cinematic output to conclude that the European country is going through a tough cultural crisis? That is, if the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes were a reaction to the social ills of the era, can we make a similar assertion regarding Frontier(s) and Martyrs?

If you think about it, such questions are not trivial at all. On one hand, the past 30 years have witnessed volumes of academic papers attempting to explain how horror films accurately reflect the cultural climate of the era. On the other hand, we can observe a clear trend of gruesome French films that do not appear to correspond to a troubled social landscape as predicted by modern film theories. Thus, we can ask, is film theory inaccurate on this specific instance? Or better yet, are we failing to see a deep sentiment of anguish and fear in the French consciousness outside their cinematic productions?

In this regard, the problem with film theory in particular, and cultural studies in general, is that they suffer from perfect hindsight and zero foresight. That is, in this field, all the theories and conjectures are based on correlations that have been deduced from observations of past events. Every time a new trend surfaces, cultural theories are modified accordingly to take these social changes into account. As such, to date, their predictive power has been close to nil. But then again, social and cultural effects form complex networks of interactions that are extremely difficult to model and simulate outside the scope of very general trends.

While Lanzagorta is certainly right that France is not bogged down in the protracted, disastrous military misadventures that marked the American horror booms of the late 1960s or the modern era, I think the idea that "news reports do not show France going through a crisis tougher than any other country nowadays" is a bit off. France is currently undergoing the greatest re-evaluation of it identity as a people in nearly 40 years. And the traces of this profoundly painful transformation can been seen throughout many of the flicks the critic lists. Martyrs hinges on a surreally brutal inversion of France's official secularism. Frontier(s) and Inside both explicitly touch on the issue France's uneasy and frequently violent relationship with its Arab and Muslim minorities. The former also evokes France's recent political turn to the right. I Stand Alone deals with, among other things, the difficult problem of economic disenfranchisement in an allegedly socialist nation. This in not to say that all these films are particularly insightful on these topics. I personally find that the intelligence of France's new horror flicks is profoundly overstated. Still, the presence of the themes is overt.

I think it is worth noting as well that, even if you add a few more flicks to the list of French horror highlights, we're talking about a relatively tiny numbers of films. Even at it height, the "boom" amounted to no more than two notable horror flicks a year. Though this certainly reflects an increase in the bandwidth French flicks take up in the attention of the average horror hound, it still represents a very tiny segment of the overall horror world.


Richard Doyle said...

I think the reason anyone speaks of a "boom" in French horror is that prior to the last few years, one would be hard to think of ANY French horror films on note. You'd have to go as far back as Roger Vadim's "Blood & Roses" I think.

Aren't most of Jean Rollin's films made outside of France? If not, then there are at least quite a few notable French horror flicks from the 70's, but that's still a long time ago.

Given that track record, 2 or 3 films a year for several years is a flood.

CRwM said...


Good point.

Anonymous said...

I don't really see a trend or boom here:

The ordeal is a Belgian movie, stuff like Noe's films has always been around in France (e.g. Zulawski in the 80s), The Crimson Rivers (I+II) are thrillers and might at best be described as modern Gialli, but hardly horror and the Brotherhood of the Wolf is basically just an Martial Arts/Action movie hybrid and shouldn't count either (unless we also include Indiana Jones and similar stuff).
That leaves just a couple of very recent movies and of these Sheitan is also dubious (more of a comedy / arthouse horror kind of flick, although I guess it can be labelled under horror) and all the rest are pretty much just part of your typcial exploitation cycle with one movie being successful enough to inspire several imitators (and quite a few of the directors have already acknowledged that they only dabbled in horror to attract Hollywood once they saw how well it worked for Aja).