Le sex and violence

Brutality, lust, cannibalism and ripped undergarments are everywhere in French cinema - and the limits of extremity are extended as each new film strives to out-shock the last. As yet another beast-fest opens to gagging audiences, Jonathan Romney explores that peculiarly Gallic place where sex and death meet
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The Independent Culture

In the 1920s, the French actor, director and poet Antonin Artaud elaborated his vision of the Theatre of Cruelty, a form of spectacle designed to rattle audiences' sensibilities with a force he compared to that of the bubonic plague: "I propose a theatre whose violent physical images pulverise, mesmerise the audience's sensibilities, caught in the drama as if in a vortex of higher forces." Substitute the word "cinema" for "theatre", and you have a fair description of a prominent strain of contemporary French cinema, one which Toronto-based critic James Quandt, writing in Artforum, has dubbed the "New French Extremity".

In the 1920s, the French actor, director and poet Antonin Artaud elaborated his vision of the Theatre of Cruelty, a form of spectacle designed to rattle audiences' sensibilities with a force he compared to that of the bubonic plague: "I propose a theatre whose violent physical images pulverise, mesmerise the audience's sensibilities, caught in the drama as if in a vortex of higher forces." Substitute the word "cinema" for "theatre", and you have a fair description of a prominent strain of contemporary French cinema, one which Toronto-based critic James Quandt, writing in Artforum, has dubbed the "New French Extremity".

Through the Eighties and Nineties, English-speaking audiences have tended to entertain a stereotype of French cinema as embodying an unthreatening upmarket heritage. This was the world parodied in Stella Artois ads, of bucolic provençal dramas such as Jean de Florette; the world in which arch-gamine Amélie flutters around a digitally prettified Montmartre; or, at its more exalted auteur pole, the world of Eric Rohmer's befuddled Parisians, agonising over where to spend their summer holidays.

Increasingly, however, the most urgent new French cinema has been dominated by graphic sexuality, violence and a sense of social apocalypse. Among the defining images of the past decade, we have seen the embittered butcher of Gaspar Noé's Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone, 1998) on a spree of hate-filled nihilism; the sudden eruption of violent death that ends Catherine Breillat's study of teenage sexuality A Ma Soeur! (2001); the inserts of internet torture in Olivier Assayas's cyber-thriller Demonlover (2002). Many recent films either contain or primarily address explicit sex: among them, Bertrand Bonello's 2001 Le Pornographe, with its no-frills ejaculation shot, which uses the porn world to examine changes in French sexual and social politics since the Sixties; while Jean-Claude Brisseau's Secret Things (2002) - two young women plot to overthrow the social order by old-fashioned pussy power - is Marxism filtered through Penthouse.

But such films are exceptions. More characteristically, sex and violence go together, embroiled in a brutal, not to say febrile, dialectic of death, transgression and even spirituality. In Bruno Dumont's road movie Twentynine Palms (2003), a couple drive round the bleaker parts of California, stopping only for bouts of raw and extremely noisy sex. The payoff is brutal: male rape followed by murder in a strident slasher-pic register. Philippe Grandrieux's La Vie Nouvelle (2002) explores an earthly hell of human trafficking and brutish sex, culminating in a man being torn apart by dogs.

The sex-and-death nexus has even attracted film-makers not usually thought of as extremist. Claire Denis followed Beau Travail, an elliptical and dream-like Foreign Legion story, with the sanguinary gross-out of Trouble Every Day (2001), a story of vampiric sex starring Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle, French cinema's poster girl for bruising neurosis. Demonlover, about Japanese S&M anime and torture websites, was Olivier Assayas's follow-up to a costume drama about Limoges porcelain.

Among the New French Extremity's most graphic and confrontational texts is Baise-Moi (2000), a self-consciously trashy exercise that is closer to the mode of triple-X porn - le hard - than to art cinema. Co-directed by novelist Virginie Despentes (adapting her own bestseller) and former porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi, the film follows two angry women on a revenge spree of sex and murder: often described by critics as a hardcore Thelma and Louise, it could also be seen as a female rewrite of Les Valseuses, Bertrand Blier's scandalous-at-the-time 1974 picaresque about two jovially macho thugs.

The other key texts of the new school come from the notorious Argentinian-born prodigy Gaspar Noé, who has established himself as French cinema's Prince of Darkness. Given his Tarantino-like enthusiasm for the grand guignol gore tradition, his own work occupies a strange bridging position between French high-art cinéma d'auteur and Euro-pulp horror. If any film could be regarded as a "hymn of hate", it's Noé's Seul Contre Tous, which shows an astonishingly squalid, irredeemable world through the eyes of an embittered butcher. The film brilliantly pinpointed a very real French cultural mood, with the butcher's rancorous worldview pushing the mindset of the Le Pen constituency to its intolerable extreme. But Noé also set out to brutalise and goad his viewers, taunting us by flashing up a 60-second warning to the faint-hearted before an explosively unsavoury ending.

Noé's 2002 follow-up, Irréversible, was even more of an assault on audience sensibilities. A story told backwards about rape and revenge, it starts with the revenge - a man battered to death with a fire extinguisher in a gay S&M club - followed by the rape, in an unforgiving nine-minute single take. Irréversible brutally divided critics - understandably, since it arguably embodies an oppressive, dominating form of cinema that allows the viewer no possible reaction other than to submit to its virtuoso brutality or reject it out of hand. Irréversible sealed the reputation of Noé's work as the ne plus ultra of cinematic provocation, and as a sort of macho endurance test designed to test the viewer's mettle. "I'm happy some people walk out during my film," said Noé of Seul Contre Tous. "It makes the ones who stay feel strong."

Other film-makers who might initially appear to be fellow shock-cinéastes have very different attitudes to their audience. Process (2004) by C S Leigh - an American-born director working in France - is an emotionally gruelling experience, with its heroine (Béatrice Dalle again) undergoing divorce, breakdown, mastectomy, a brutish threesome (after which she settles down with a TV documentary about the Holocaust), and a meal of crushed glass. Self-consciously serious and gorgeously mounted with high-fashion trimmings, Process might be dismissed as an example of Bleak Chic, but it undoubtedly assaults the viewer's sensibilities as mercilessly as Noé's films. "A lot of people felt that the film made them feel very lonely and afraid," says Leigh. "I've twice been asked, 'Why did you want to hurt me?'" Leigh's intentions, however, are very different from Noé's: "I definitely want to shake, not to shock, and certainly not to aggress. There's this notion that cinema is a great uniter, but I like the idea that this film would force people to confront what's in themselves."

Similarly touting a more nuanced approach is Marina De Van, whose first feature Dans Ma Peau (In My Skin) is released next week. De Van made her name acting for and co-writing with François Ozon, a prolific enfant terrible whose own early films, such as the John Waters tribute Sitcom, loosely align him with the New Extremists, although he's since moved into more temperate zones. In Dans Ma Peau, De Van plays Esther, who develops an obsession with self-mutilation: her increasingly grisly odyssey sees her grazing on her own flesh and preserving her flayed skin with tanning chemicals (giving a macabre new sense to self-preservation). Although the film is bloodily gruesome, De Van sustains a glacial detachment worthy of David Cronenberg. A prime example of the film's controlled delirium is the scene where Esther, at a business dinner, stares at her severed arm resting on the table: a coolly observed nightmare in the Buñuel tradition.

Not that De Van necessarily is Esther, but the film certainly stems from her own equivocal attitude to pain. Her leg was broken by a car at the age of eight and she felt no pain; thereafter, she was fascinated with testing her physical sensitivity, jabbing needles in her scars as a child. De Van insists she is not out to horrify but to fascinate. "I wanted the viewer to identify with a character who is doing things that are very violent and shocking. I tried to show her sensibility, to show everything that was touching, caressing, desiring." De Van certainly doesn't feel part of any extreme tendency. "There are hard images in my film, but it's not trash cinema, and not violent in that way. It's rather classical in its construction. For me, the film's mood is not extreme at all."

One director who certainly does intend to be confrontational is Catherine Breillat, who has been exploring images of women's sexuality since the mid-Seventies. Breillat's prominence soared with Romance (1998), an interrogation of bedroom politics in which she cast leading European porn stud Rocco Siffredi, with his priapic assets proudly displayed. Ostensibly a meta-porn exercise about an Emmanuelle-like ingénue exploring her desire, Romance culminated in a close-up shot of childbirth - perversely, the most shocking thing in the quasi-porn context.

Breillat's new film, Anatomy of Hell, goes a lot further. A young woman (Amira Casar) pays a gay man (Siffredi again) to visit her over several nights for a private colloquium on the female body, particularly those aspects of it that, according to Breillat, men find repellent. Where Romance, with its ironically sheened images, played with the aesthetics of softcore, Anatomy of Hell is intentionally grimmer, and grimier, its images designed to be unpalatable both to art-house audiences and to seasoned porn consumers: among them, menstrual blood, a stone dildo, a baby bird and small children playing doctors and nurses.

The film was an attempt to go beyond accepted limits, Breillat says: "It's about watching what is unwatchable. I wanted to make a film about obscenity. There are laws against obscenity, but I wanted to know what it was about from the point of view of an artist - not from the point of view of the law which forbids you to be an artist." In Anatomy, Breillat contends, "I'm trying to present people with something they can't bear, so as to make them see how miserable it is to be able to bear so little. People asked why I filmed the birth face-on in Romance. I say: 'Because you're asking me that question.'"

"French cinema is terribly bourgeois," complains Breillat. "You're either an artist or a conformist - if you're conformist, you show society conforming to the way it likes to see itself. If you're an artist, you show a society that's much more transgressive."

This formula carries echoes of a long French tradition of artistic and social dissent, in cinema, literature and art alike: a continuous thread running through the Enlightenment, the Revolution, Romanticism and Surrealism. In cinema, it was Surrealism that inaugurated the school of extremity, with two Spanish visitors, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, kickstarting the poetic strain of art-horror in the eye-slashing sequence of Un Chien Andalou (1929). They were at the start of a long line of visiting film-makers who found France fertile for transgressive experiment - through Roman Polanski to Austria's Michael Haneke. From Poland came Walerian Borowczyk, whose 1975 fairy-tale La Bête is Perrault reimagined as hard-porn horror farce, with the maddest, most prolific come-shot in film history. His compatriot Andrzej Zulawski specialises in frenetic Freudian nightmares, notably Possession (1981), in which Isabelle Adjani made love with a flailing squid-thing from her Id.

But it was Jean-Luc Godard who made what remains the most merciless satire of modern French living, in Week End (1967), his satiric vision of self-destructive leisure culture. It begins with the explicit sexual confidences of a bourgeois couple, progresses to a holiday-season traffic jam that degenerates into carnage, and ends with apocalypse at the hands of a revolutionary cadre. Here, nerve-shattering and acidly comic, is a complete blueprint for J G Ballard and David Cronenberg's Crash, not to mention for the novels of Michel Houellebecq.

French cinematic extremity is never a matter of celluloid alone, but always refers to a wider artistic context. A key visual reference for both Dumont and Catherine Breillat is Gustave Courbet's 1866 painting The Origin of the World, an anatomically detailed close-up of a woman's crotch - a Hustler centrespread 100 years avant la lettre. Breillat admits she is "obsessed" with it, and Anatomy of Hell could be seen in its entirety as a set of variations on the painting. Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité (1999) alludes to it in an alarming shot showing the body of a murdered 11-year-old girl - which also echoes Marcel Duchamp's own variation on Courbet, the installation Etant donnés, its naked torso suggestive of dismemberment. Duchamp's image was designed to be viewed through a kind of peepshow structure, suggesting not merely voyeurism but an apparatus akin to cinema itself.

But it is especially in a literary heritage that French extreme cinema finds its wellsprings. The dominant figure of French literary extremism is undoubtedly the Marquis de Sade, not only for his still-disturbing content but for the way that generations of commentators - philosophers, structuralists, Surrealists, feminists - have taken his work seriously as a system of thought to be glossed and deconstructed.

Another dark star is Isidore Ducasse, aka the Comte de Lautréamont, regarded as a patron saint by the Surrealists, whose Les Chants de Maldoror remains the most delirious work of French 19th-century literature. Lautréamont's stylistic radicalism and flights of black fantasy make him a direct precursor of William Burroughs. (Episodes include sexual dalliance with a shark, and an apocalyptic vision of the earth engulfed by fleas.) Not surprisingly, Lautréamont is a hero to Breillat, who sees in him "an extremely black violence that is really an incandescent idealism. Better to be a prince of evil than a king of conformity".

A no less influential 20th-century figure is Georges Bataille, philosopher and writer of a deliriously sordid brand of literary pornography - whose most famous work The Story of the Eye (1928) stages fantasies of death, mutilation and rampant sex. For Bataille, transgression is all, a quasi-religious yearning towards transcendence, in which abjection and exaltation go hand in hand. Perhaps it takes a lapsed Catholic to get the most out of Bataille, but even this intractably recondite writer has now reached the screen, with his posthumously published Ma Mère filmed by Christophe Honoré. This exploration of debauchery and the incest taboo stars no less an eminence than Isabelle Huppert, which testifies to the seriousness with which Bataille is taken in France.

The transgressive tradition is thriving in current literature, this time reaching a mainstream readership - subversion as bestseller chic. The most famous succès de scandale is Houellebecq, whose novels - Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte), Atomised and Platform - explore France's conformist work-and-leisure culture and its libidinal outlets in sexual escapism and racial hatred. Marie Darrieussecq has traced various versions of the abject, dissolving self, notably in her Truismes (Pig Tales), an extended female reworking of a Lautréamont episode in which a human mutates into a ravenous, voluptuous pig.

Virginie Despentes celebrates a sardonic hard-boiled punk nihilism in her novels Baise-Moi and Teen Spirit (a title surely calculated to pitch her as French literature's own Kurt-cum-Courtney). The film-literature crossover is nothing new - leading lights working successfully in both fields have included Jean Cocteau, Bertrand Blier and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. The current generation continues to keep the dual faith: Despentes, Breillat and Christophe Honoré are all established in both fields. In France, it's considered legitimate for film-makers to refer openly to "difficult" literary influences, something which would certainly be regarded with suspicion in Britain or America: Honoré, for example, freely admits to cribbing passages of his Ma Mère script from two English-language extremists: the British playwright Sarah Kane and American novelist Dennis Cooper, sombre chronicler of gay necro-punk fantasies.

As to why extremity is currently flourishing in French cinema, it is clearly in tune with literary trends. The film critic and academic Ginette Vincendeau comments: "I went to a conference last year about literature and film about the body in contemporary France, and self-mutilation seemed to be hugely on the agenda." Vincendeau points out that sexuality is increasingly visible as a mainstream preoccupation in France, with échangiste (swingers') clubs and sexual tourism in general becoming accepted bourgeois pastimes. (Note the bestseller success of art critic Catherine Millet's book of sexual confessions.) Indeed, cinephile bible Cahiers du cinéma startled adherents by running a sex-and-porn issue a couple of years ago, with even its staid rival Positif eventually following suit. Importantly, notes Vincendeau, the new cinematic and literary extremity is partly a female phenomenon: "It allows women to explore sexuality but in a way that's acceptable to the mainstream. In one sense, the gap left by what might have been feminist politics is filled by extreme sex."

Another gap is that vacated by political engagement. In his Artforum article, James Quandt wonders whether cinema's extreme tendency is "a narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude." Some of the new films, it's true, depict a world in which society has fractured into mutually combative, self-mortifying individuals - existential loners suffering a degree of isolation that Camus never dreamed of. Nevertheless, the new films can hardly be accused of lacking a political drive - whether it's in the fiercely engaged sexual politics of Breillat's films, the cultural analysis of corporate-image trafficking in Assayas's Demonlover, or Noé's venomously precise diagnosis of the alienated extreme right in Seul Contre Tous.

It might also be argued that the search for extremes responds to a professional numbness in France, where a regimentation of workplace practices - and a peculiarly overpowering managerial jargon - creates a tightly gridded society that gives rise to violent responses. Many recent films and novels, "Extremist" or otherwise, specifically concern the woes of workplace hell - Houellebecq's novels, and films such as Laurent Cantet's Time Out and Marina De Van's unorthodox depiction of executive stress as self-dismemberment. Also reflected is the commodified escapism of the sexual tourism industry - Houellebecq again - and Honoré's relocation of Bataille to the after-hours fleshpots of the Canaries.

But there is also a professional bottom line for film-makers who want to be noticed: directors who would be cutting-edge must choose cutting-edge topics, and by necessity, the edge gets further out all the time. Certainly, the New Extremity in French cinema sets itself in opposition to the bombastic pastoralism of the Jean de Florette school, and to the empty chic of the briefly glittering cinéma du look (Beineix, Besson et al). Vincendeau notes: "Auteur cinema has difficulties in positioning itself - it has to find a niche in the market. In the auteur niche, innovation has to be found at all costs." This means forever raising the bar, and the next generation of would-be auteurs now dreams of rattling Cannes as violently as Irréversible did in 2002.

But it shouldn't be forgotten that many of the films mentioned above are also stylistically extreme and innovative, whether it's in shades of austere detachment (Breillat, De Van, Honoré), in Noé's lapel-grabbing kineticism, or in the inscrutable experimentalism of Philippe Grandrieux's La Vie Nouvelle, which resorts to such disorienting tactics as heat photography and long silences.

Below the shocking surface, these film-makers have only so much in common. The New French Extremity, like any tendency, has its misfires, indulgences, pomposities and masterpieces - Noé has made one of the best in Seul Contre Tous, arguably the most misguided in Irréversible. But the prevalence and unnerving force of such cinema suggest that the French cultural imagination is drawing its most reviving energies from its darkest, most painful neuroses. James Quandt may decry the New Extremity as "an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity". Antonin Artaud, however, might have relished the similarities with the theatre he dreamed of - one that would "choose themes and subjects corresponding to the agitation and unrest of our times", one with "an impassioned convulsive concept of life".

'Dans Ma Peau' is released on Friday. 'Anatomy of Hell' is released later this year, 'Ma Mère', 'Process' and 'Twentynine Palms' are released next year