The Review/Feature/

12 Years Later, The New French Extremity is Still Pissing People Off

TIFF Senior Programmer James Quandt is not sorry

by James Quandt
Nov 4, 2016

Header photo from The Pack, 2010

In the latest episode of TIFF's Yo Adrian podcast, Alex West, author of Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, explains that the term "the New French Extremity" was coined by TIFF's Senior Programmer James Quandt in a 2004 ArtForum piece titled "Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema." In the piece, Quandt applies the term to a then-recent group of French films (Baise-moi, Pola X) including ones made by François Ozon, Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé, which featured graphic sex and violence. He suggests that the films themselves may represent "a narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude, perhaps."

On the podcast, West objects to Quandt's interpretation, saying he is "so derisive of this whole movement" in a way that "really made me sad, and it really pissed me off in a lot of ways that a really talented film writer and film programmer was completely ignoring these films."

12 years on from the publication of his now-notorious article, we asked Quandt for his thoughts on the term he coined, the response it generated and the state of these films and filmmakers looked at from the perspective of 2016.

Still from Baise-moi, 2000

TIFF CRITIC JAMES QUANDT RESPONDS:

Note: This is an updated and revised version of the afterword published in the anthology The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe (University of Edinburgh Press, 2011) which also includes the original essay "Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema.

“Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema” began as a brief review of Bruno Dumont’s then latest film, Twentynine Palms. Shocked by Palms in all the wrong ways, and feeling betrayed by a director whose early work I had taken considerable stock in, even the largely disparaged L’Humanité, I intended to puzzle out the reasons for Dumont’s descent into gore and hard-core, whether it was a mere exaggeration of the brute corporeality of his previous cinema, or something more disturbing: a submission to fashion.

With its stilted, unconvincing performances, delivered largely in a language (English) Dumont avoided in interviews because he lacked mastery, and set in a landscape at once alien and unoriginal, Twentynine Palms felt like a forced anomaly, a freakish excursion into the unknown. But to what end? Was it sheer coincidence that Palms followed a spate of self-styled transgressive French films by Jean-Jacques Beineix, Catherine Breillat, François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, and, most unlikely of all, Claire Denis, whose vampire nocturne Trouble Every Day seemed a radical departure from her earlier films, even those dealing with such “extreme” subjects as cockfighting and serial killers? This most distant of observers – I do not follow French intellectual life with any assiduity – frustrated by the vague responses of Gallic film critics about the emergent trend (something about a crisis of the relationship between the image and the body was the generally nebulous response to questions I posed by email) felt a primitive need to “explain” this development, or at least to question its cause and intention. Encouraged by my editor at Artforum to expand the review into a full-scale essay to explore this “certain tendency,” I was initially concerned about the spoiler fetishists who would take objection to my revealing all the violent surprises of Twentynine Palms in the article’s opening paragraph, then quickly realized they were the least of my worries.

Parking “new” in front of any purported development in cinema, thematic, national, or otherwise, is a venerable tack, and by naming this development the New French Extremity, the article appeared to give form to an apparent but hitherto unspecified affinity. (To mistake it for a movement would be a step too far, as that term implies a communal consciousness and coherency that the disparate NFE obviously lacked.) Published just before the world premiere of Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, the film that would mark the apotheosis and nadir of the trend in its ludicrous combination of the Holy Trinity, Home Hardware and assorted orifices – though Jean-Claude Brisseau’s self-exculpatory Les Anges exterminateurs would soon offer close competition – the article seemed both premature and instantly outdated. But it quickly traveled the internet, inciting mockery, outrage, abuse, beleaguered accord, and, sometimes, a degree of relief that the forbidden had finally been broached. Derided by The Guardian, attacked in all manner of blogs and listserves as prudish or moralistic, quoted in The New York Times and invoked by The New Yorker, and finally assigned its own Wikipedia page, the article took on a life never intended. It has prompted countless contrary articles, theses, and books with often uncomfortable results. (Perhaps more unnerving than the inevitable abuse from online trolls was the contention of the great film scholar Thomas Elsaesser: “Quandt wants this to be understood as a lament and a cinephile’s cry of despair, asking in vain for a return to the civilized sophistication of a French cinema that was all talk and little action, all foreplay with little consummation, and associated with Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, François Truffaut and André Téchiné.” Not only does this turn my thesis into its exact opposite, it ascribes to me an admiration of some directors I cannot abide.)

Still from Anatomy of Hell, 2004

Superficially read and frequently misconstrued, “Flesh and Blood” became a lesson in the dangers of online apprehension, with the distressing effect of relegating complex artists to a false or constricting taxonomy: “Claire Denis is also considered to be one the representatives of the New French Extremity, a term coined by James Quandt to designate transgressive films made by French directors at the turn of the 21st century,” reads Denis’ faculty biography on the website for The European Graduate School. That my article discussed only one of Denis’ films, citing it as something of an aberration in her career, seems a subtlety lost on anyone intent on making her an agent of a movement. Similarly Ozon, whose work had departed from the shock tactics of See the Sea before the article even appeared. Indeed, the coastal title of his emphatically “mature” Sous le sable seemed something of a deliberate acknowledgement that See the Sea was long behind him. No matter: that same EGS faculty list blithely includes Ozon among the prime purveyors of the “style” (never my characterization): “Gaspar Noé’s films are associated with the New French Extremity, a style of filmmaking featuring violence and perversion which questions the boundary separating the psychotic and the socially acceptable. Other directors who are part of the New French Extremity include François Ozon, Bruno Dumont, and Catherine Breillat.”

Critical distance allowed by over a decade – an eternity in contemporary culture – reveals some of the article’s obvious faults, including its confusion of the specific genre of French horror, which quickly established its own distinctive sanguinary terroir, with its art-house confraternity, an understandable imprecision further complicated by the release of such films as Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s À l’intérieur. The trans-global nature of extreme cinema also could have been cited, particularly its origins in the cinema of Michael Haneke, although he seems less an antecedent of New French Extremity than a manifestly Austrian case, inheritor of a tradition that extends from the Calvary carnage of early Tyrolean art to the bodily abasement of Viennese Actionism and the traumatics of Ingeborg Bachmann and Elfriede Jelinek. Matters of degree, style, and tone also differentiate such avatars of extreme cinema, largely subsequent to the appearance of the article, as Swedish Lukas Moodysson (A Hole in the Heart), Greek Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), Austrian Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days; Import Export), Filipino Brillante Mendoza (Serbis; Kinatay), and, most famously, the depressive Dane Lars von Trier (The Idiots; Antichrist), from the NFE. Avoiding the philosophical affectations of the French extremists, some of these directors, particularly Mendoza, employ shock cinema, like Fassbinder and Pasolini before them, to confront audiences with grim societal facts. (His latest film, Ma’ Rosa, returns to the fervent social realism of his early work, Slingshot.)

Still from The Exterminating Angels, 2006

Two frequently repeated criticisms of the article were predictable in their “circle the wagons” way: for its deliberate avoidance of theory – no mention of Kristeva’s “abject,” obligatory references to Deleuze, or forging of neologisms ending in “ivity” or “ality” – and its nostalgia for the transgressors of the cinematic past (Fassbinder et al.). Why a preference for artists who truly risked all with their impassioned critiques of society, even putting their lives in danger to do so, automatically qualifies as conservative remains a mystery to me: Our times, perhaps even more than Pasolini’s, cry out for the voice of the heretic who declared, “The first duty of an artist is not to fear unpopularity.” As backward-looking as a desire for the authentically subversive appears, to choose the incisive, committed visions of genuine rebels over the miasmic, apolitical and posturing ones of the largely bourgeois artists of the New French Extremity seems to me the very opposite of reactionary. Can one really claim Irreversible marks any kind of advance – aesthetic, political, social, sexual – on In a Year of 13 Moons?

Indeed, my full-bore attack on Noé’s homophobic farrago proved the most contentious of the article’s positions, unsurprisingly, given his status as monstre sacré; if Claire Denis enjoys secular sainthood amongst cinephiles, Noé’s following has a fanboy fervour that views all naysayers as tremulous enemies. “Quandt is a wordy fuck who — on this issue — is hiding his head up his ass for fear of the raw humanity these films illustrate,” declared one online commentator. “Apparently to save himself from the horrors of the worst humanity has to offer he’d like to see all terrible acts illustrated as ‘ideas’ as opposed to the very real and very brutal events.” (That “thwock” you hear is the removal of said head from ass, along with its Tom Wolfe bow tie.)

Until Noé’s Enter the Void, which confirmed the director’s infantile fixation on the womb, and his 3D hard core Love, the New French Extremity had begun to look like an already archaic notion, as if naming it had also educed its death knell, annunciation and surcease in short order. The increasingly global nature of “extreme” cinema seemed to have rendered the Frenchness of the New Extremity passé or partial, until Noé reasserted national dominion with his druggy trawl through a Tokyo in which guns are Texas-prevalent, verisimilitude rendered irrelevant in the director’s spatially and temporally distorted hyper-vision of hell. (Spurious realism and the lack of the actual are central to my critique of the New French Extremity, but for those who take violence for veracity – oh, the raw humanity! – the greater the brutality, the more authentic the director’s vision. It’s the obverse-cohort of the glib slippage from “humane” to “human,” which turns the latter into a signifier of empathy, tolerance, kindness, when the contrary should surely apply.)

Still from Enter The Void, 2009

Enter the Void, whose title’s double entendre on birth-giving vaginal canal and death-dealing nightclub – eros and thanatos, the hole and le néant – and Love, whose close-up cumming indicates that a rain poncho should accompany the obligatory stereoscopic glasses, provide Noé’s latest puerile bid for profundity and should prove the last stand of the NFE. The other directors discussed in “Flesh and Blood” have largely moved on to more refined or mature work, or returned to home ground, though the violent denouement of Claire Denis’ White Material feels like an unconvincing flash of the old extremity, and Bruno Dumont’s Hadjewich culminates in an act of mass killing that the director suggests is a consequence of intense spiritual isolation. (Dumont’s film, essentially Mouchette sauvée des eaux, exhibits a shocking disregard for social reality, more ideational than actual in its description of contemporary Paris.)

Philippe Grandrieux, whose adepts passionately objected to my political and philosophical disdain for his “visionary” cinema and who shares more with Noé than first appears, retreated from the lustmord of Sombre and La Vie nouvelle to the Tarkovskian aura of Un Lac, with its snowy, fairy-tale forest, emblematic horse, and Schubert lied. Though one cannot blame an artist for his followers (least of all the grand Russian master, who spawned countless Tarkclones), the morally stunted tenor of Grandrieux’s initial films can certainly be grasped from this exchange between two of his admirers: “I think his films have amazing cinematography and sound design. But ultimately, I think the guy is a little too obsessed with killing prostitutes,” someone writes on Harmony Korine’s website paying homage to Grandrieux, to which another replies: “You can never be too obsessed with killing prostitutes.” Godard and Fassbinder also dispatched hookers – Mieze’s murder in Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the most traumatizing moments in the latter’s cinema – but it seems unthinkable that their work would elicit such callow, callous reaction. Though the “new extremism” has perforce rejected humanism as false piety, pitilessness should not be mistaken for truth or courage, an error too often made by its reflexive defenders.

What, then, was the New French Extremity: a manifestation of cultural and political impasse, an anxious reaction to fin de siècle and the late capitalist condition the French call précaire; a short-lived resurgence of the violational tradition of French culture, also reflected in contemporaneous literature (e.g., Michel Houellebecq, Catherine Millet, Marie Darrieussecq, Jonathan Littell); the wilful imposition of thematic pattern on a disparate and disconnected group of films? In the waning days of the phenomenon, the answer appears no clearer, but many of its films have quickly come to look like desperate artifacts.