It may be 2019, but one of my favorite parts of hosting a podcast and speaking to people about horror is when I get dead eyes or silence in response to the question, "Do you like any French horror?" I usually take a deep breath and prepare my verbal pitch. Buckle in, friend. You're about to get a lesson.
We all have our favorite niches, styles and sub-genres. For me, I absolutely worship at the altar of the New French Extremity (an unfair and incorrect moniker, in my opinion). As a self-professed Francophile, I love most things French, especially when it comes to cinema. The "New French Extremity" films are my absolute favorite.
Here are my must-see films for you curious viewers:
HONORABLE MENTION: Raw (2016) by Julia Ducournau
This is one of my absolute favorite horror films. The only reason it doesn't rank higher in this particular list is because it was released in 2016, and for this article, I am trying to stick more with the "classics" from this genre. Ya dig?
RAW is a beautiful coming-of-age story, with strong arthouse roots, wrapped up in a story of cannibalism. It follows lifelong vegetarian Justine in her first week at veterinary school. Both of her parents met at the school, and her older sister, Alexia, currently attends. After a hazing ritual leaves Justine with a taste for flesh, her animal instincts prevail, and horrible consequences ensue.
This is Ducournau's debut film, and an absolute triumph. With a budget of $4.2 million, it's truly surprising that this level artistic freedom remained intact. It certainly isn't one that will appeal to mainstream audiences. Also, the influence from DANS MA PEAU, a film also on this list, is undeniable.
In RAW, Cannibalism meets Feminism, and it is everything that I have been missing.
10. Soudain le Vide (Enter the Void) by Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé. People typically love him and respect his work, or hope that he is eternally condemned to walking a trail lined with razorblade-embedded Legos.
ENTER THE VOID is about a dead junkie’s soul drifting through a Tokyo night, visiting the past, present and future. It is film on acid, and not for the faint of heart.
The idea for ENTER THE VOID came when Noé took too many psychedelic mushrooms one night with friends. He went home, turned on the tv, and the film noir Lady in the Lake was playing. After playing with his breathing and thinking about all of the different feelings/effects of psychedelics, the basis of this movie came into fruition.
Every second of this film plays on all of your senses. It uses the "camera-as-character" perspective POV that some may find incredibly annoying. The fluorescent, sexual labyrinth of Tokyo is a visual delight, but don't worry. There is a LOT here to potentially offend you.
9. BAISE-MOI (Rape Me) by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi
This is the only film on this list that I just recently saw for the first time, and holy moly! That was a lot to process. BAISE-MOI, which literally translates to, "Rape Me," is based on the 1993 French novel of the same name, written by Virginie Despentes. One of the most controversial French novels of recent years, the film absolutely does not shy away from controversy, being banned in its own native country. It stars Karen Lancaume and Raffaëla Anderson, two actual adult film stars. Why are porn stars the lead protagonists, you may ask? Because the on-screen sex is 100% genuinely real. Yes, folks! The erect penises, penetrative sex and fellatio are all real and the acts are indeed being performed by the actresses.
After a brutal gang rape scene in the beginning of the film, Manu and Madine (Raffaëla and Lancaume, respectively) meet and then decide to go on a sort of Bonnie and Bonnie sort of adventure. They are both angry, jaded, and ready to exact revenge on men by utilizing their sexuality as their power. They fuck and kill on their own whims. Think that instead of Thelma and Louise, it's Thelma and Thelma with a lot of actual hardcore sex.
It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. The acting is at times truly awful. There is absolutely a social commentary to be made here, but I feel as though it's lost by the end.
Regardless, this is 100% worth the watch.
8. Calvaire (The Ordeal) by Fabrice Du Welz
The first film from Fabrice Du Welz's Ardennes trilogy, it centers on Marc, a freelance singer who sings at weddings, nursing homes and community centers. On the way to his next job, his car breaks down in a remote Belgian mountain village. What ensues is a brutal dark comedy filled with a bizarre cast of characters.
The film's English title is "The Ordeal," whereas the word calvaire is literally translated to "cavalry." Both translations and meanings will make sense by the end of the movie. The cinematographer for CALVAIRE was Benoît Debie, Gaspar Noé's cinematographer for Irréversible. There are many style choices throughout the film that are reminiscent of some from Irréversible, and they very much do work.
This is the darkest of dark comedies, and it goes to places that American viewers have seen before in works such as DELIVERANCE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. This film is considered a classic in the NFE class of films.
7. Dans Ma Peau (In My Skin) Written, Directed by and Starring Marina de Van
Esther seems to have everything one could ever want. She has a great job in Marketing, a doting boyfriend, and lots of friends with whom she regualarly visits. One day, at a party, she has an accident and badly cuts her leg on industrial sheet metal. The cut is really severe, but she isn't aware of it until others notice the blood that she's tracked into the bathroom. When she goes to the doctor, he asks how she didn't feel pain with a wound that severe. She doesn't know. As he sutures up the wound (and also recommends a skin graft), she watches in silent fascination. And so begins Esther's obsession with her own flesh.
She experiences complete disembodiment. A splitting of soul and body. In between business meetings and other happenings, she has to find a way to mutilate her skin. Door hinges and steak knives are used to inflict damage and constantly open new wounds.
This is Marina de Van's debut film, and it is IMPRESSIVE. Certainly not one for the squeamish, it has been called one of the "hardest films to watch." The cinematography is gorgeous and the editing is perfect. The viewer is left with the job of deciphering the reasoning behind Esther's near-masturbatory self-mutilation and self-vampirism.
There is a lot here to sink your teeth into.
6. Haute Tension (High Tension) by Alexandre Aja
Perhaps the most mainstream and heavily-watched entry on this list, High Tension is considered one of the main films from this movement. Admittedly, it's not my favorite.
This is Alexandre Aja's attempt at making an American-style slasher film. You know the kind. Two girls are chased by a madman, and along the way, the body count rises. It's a simple script, but in typical French fashion, there's a massive twist in the third act. For me, it doesn't work. I'm definitely in the minority, as this film is definitely loved by most.
Marie (Cecile de France) and Alexia (Maiwenn Le Besco), two college students, are driving to Alexia's parents' house to study for final exams. They live on an isolated farmhouse on the French countryside, seemingly the perfect venue for studying in silence. In between scenes of the girls driving and arriving, we see a "Killer madman" in a run-down truck getting blowjobs from decapitated heads and killing people.
When she girls turn in for the night, the rust-bucket of a truck pulls up outside, and all Hell breaks loose.
The film definitely has high amounts of tension, well-placed gore, and solid acting. My issue isn't with any of those pieces.
This is one that you will have to see for yourself to judge.
5. Irréversible by Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé yet again makes the list. To be honest, I wasn't sure whether to pick this one or Seul contre tous (I STAND ALONE). I STAND ALONE is considered by some to be the very first film from the New French Extremity movement, and is the second film in Noé's "Despair Trilogy," which includes the short film Carne (1991), I Stand Alone (1998), and Irreversible (2002). Because Irréversible is my personal favorite, and due to the more mainstream acceptance and literal bucket of accolades this film has received, it has made this list.
Irréversible is extreme cinema at its most extreme, in every sense of the word. With a rape/revenge plot, the story is told in reverse. First comes the revenge, then comes the rape...and I'm sure the rape is what you've likely already heard about. Yes. The viewer is subjected to a TEN MINUTE rape scene that is indeed one of the most brutal and gut-wrenching things ever committed to screen. I could write an absolute novel of a review of this film and its beauty and intricacies, but it is a journey that you must make on your own.
Fun fact: Noé uses a 27 hertz bass frequency during the first 30 minutes of the film. This frequency has been known to cause panic, unease, fear and nausea. Enjoy!
4. Trouble Every Day by Claire Denis
The second film on this list starring Béatrice Dalle, TROUBLE EVERY DAY is a hyper-tactile, blood-soaked feast for your senses. Director Claire Denis is the best living director, hands down, at exploring the politics of touch.
TROUBLE EVERY DAY is a very slow burn, to put it mildly. It is very arthouse, very slow, and intensely deliberate in its delivery.
Scientist Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) neglects his new bride (Tricia Vessey), instead spending their honeymoon searching for an old colleague who disappeared after a research paper he had written was discredited by the medical community. It turns out that his colleague is living in obscurity in order to protect his wife (Béatrice Dalle), whom he keeps prisoner in a room with boards nailed across the doorway. (Google Movies)
TROUBLE EVERY DAY explores the desire for more. Whether it's money, possessions, or love, we are a society of more, and more is never enough. For Dalle's character, Coré, sexual infidelity isn't enough, either. She desires a primal connection with another person and cannot stop until she gets it.
Dalle is exquisite, and my favorite French actress of all time. If you can handle slow burns, this is one of the most incredible films on this list.
3. À l'intérieur (Inside) by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Beatrice Dalle strikes again! À l'intérieur (INSIDE), at its heart, is a no-holds-barred slasher flick, and one of the greatest ever made, at that.
A scissor-wielding psychopath (Béatrice Dalle) terrorizes a pregnant widow (Alysson Paradis) on Christmas Eve. That's the plot. There isn't anything deeper here. It is a bloodbath of epic proportions, with IMPECCABLE acting from the entire cast.
Whereas other entries on this list explore deeper themes and are metaphors for life's trials, this is one to take at face value.
Do you like blood? Violence? Pregnant women being chased with scissors? Well, then come on down to this little French gem.
**Side note. The film received a terrible abortion of a remake in 2016. Save yourself and pretend it doesn't exist and never happened.
2. Frontière(s) by Xavier Gens
This is perhaps one of the more controversial entries on the list. So many critics have written it off as a French rip-off of the American film TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but ignore them. Sure, it draws heavily from elements within that film.
The plot is pretty straightforward: On a night of extreme protests and violence across Paris due to the far-right taking political power, a gang of young criminals flee Paris in a bid for freedom after committing a hold-up and murder of a police officer. They go to the French countryside and decide to spend the night at an inn, only to find themselves ensnared by a family of Neo-Nazis who have been hiding there since the end of World War 2.
This film is insane, gory, suspenseful and energetic from start to finish.
Lead actress Karina Testa is the breakout star here. I will forever follow her body of work.
1. Martyrs by Pascal Laugier
My favorite film of all time, and dare I say, the best horror film of the 21st century thus far. I refuse to give away any plot points, as it is best to go in completely blind. This, to me, is what a perfect movie looks like, and it's my all-time favorite. It is emotional, political, sentimental, brutal and devastating. Two young women (Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï), who were both victims of abuse as children, embark on a bloody quest for revenge only to find themselves plunged into a living hell of depravity. (Google Movies).