The French are Coming!
By Desmond Reddick
02 July 2009 — Much has been made recently about the emergence of a new wave of French horror cinema. But six films over six years is far from a wave. The French don't make many horror films, and few of those make it over to the North American market. But their penchant for taking the art to its extreme is one that you would think would fit the horror genre to a T. Let's look at some of the recent films that have taken that artistic principle and spurred this "new wave," as well as the effect it has had on American cinema.
Although neither of the two movies released in 2002 were actually horror films, the year could be considered the time when the emergence of French horror cinema began. Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf) took the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan from the 1700s and applied some horror and kung fu elements to it. It is a beautiful film in its first few reels (what film featuring Monica Bellucci can be anything but beautiful?), but falls apart terribly by the end. It's an ambitious film with beautiful cinematography and wonderful acting, but its plot is the real beast.
The other offering from that year (and also features the future Mrs. Reddick, I mean Ms. Bellucci) was Irréversible. Gaspar Noé's harrowing and gut-wrenching thriller — like its brethren of two years prior, Memento — is told in short cinematic scenes ordered in reverse. Unlike Memento, however, Noé's film goes for the jugular at the very beginning, and the viewer is left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered psyche. If the spinning camerawork and brutal rape don't get you, the most horrendous scene ever filmed will: fire extinguisher, meet face. While there isn't an overarching feeling of dread, the film dares you not to look away by showing some of the most shocking, yet technically amazing footage ever filmed. It is an essential film.
A year later, a young French filmmaker took aspects of brutality and cinematic trickery from Irréversible and applied it to an honest to goodness straight ahead horror film. Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance in the UK and High Tension everywhere else) amped up the blood, gore and, well, tension to create the first great slasher film in ages. Whether you like the ending or not, you have to give the film props for its nonstop intensity.
It wasn't until 2006 that the next great French horror film saw release, but in that extended period of absence, Alexandre Aja had made a name for himself in America. It is entirely due to his popularity from the The Hills Have Eyes remake that I will even be discussing the following films. More about that later.
Ils (Them) pulled back on the blood and gore and used nothing but shadows, sound and outright suspense to create probably the greatest home invasion film of all time. It's been said elsewhere but I'll reiterate: Them is as good as anything Hitchcock ever did. David Moreau and Xavier Palud utilized every second of screen time to develop the terror of someone invading your home and trying to kill you. If you manage to make it through the first 73 minutes of this tight little thriller, the last four minutes of Ils will turn you into pâté.
À l'intérieur (Inside) came only a year later and took all the subtlety offered in Ils, stuffed it into a baguette and beat you about the skull repeatedly. This film, drawing huge influence from Halloween, takes a woman in labor and puts her through the ringer as another woman wants the baby inside her — and she isn't willing to wait for her to give birth. All of this is set against a volatile race riot going on in Paris that's keeping the police busy. It is quite possibly the bloodiest film ever made, and made even this jaded faux-snuff aficionado a little queasy. That was enough to make me overlook the fact that I saw the ending coming from the pre-credit sequence.
That same year, a similarly gory film with much less artful delivery also played up the racial divide in France. Frontière(s) deals with a group of thieves who take advantage of the race riots and hide in the countryside. Cue neo-Nazi family who takes them captive and puts them through undo torture and degradation. The terrible things happening to terrible people trope was already very tired in America by the time this film was conceived, and its reception was as cold as the former SS officer Von Geisler who led the torture in this film.
The most recent release in this new wave has taken the French horror film to its conclusion, and has possibly signaled the end of this little movement. Martyrs is an exercise in pain. What begins as a possible boogeyman tale spins quickly into a revenge plot, and then draws us through a razor-laden cavern of, well, that would be spoiling. There is too much about this film to talk about. It is easily the most divisive film among horror fans in a generation and deservedly so. It treats the viewer with the same disdain it treats its two female leads.
Following the success that Aja had after the American release of High Tension, he has seen a lot of success in the American market. His harrowing remake of The Hills Have Eyes is better than the original. After screenwriting the 2007 thriller P2, he began work on Mirrors, a remake of a 2003 Japanese film. Beyond that, it's been announced that Aja is helming Piranha 3-D, a remake of the 1978 Joe Dante film which was, in effect, a retarded remake of Jaws. How the mighty have fallen.
What is it that makes a young and vibrant artist like Aja be pulled into a cycle of artistically limp remakes? He's not alone. In fact, all of the other filmmakers mentioned in this article, besides Gaspar Noé, have been attached to remakes in America. David Moreau and Xavier Palud from Ils directed the horrendous Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye, which was a remake of a Japanese film. Xavier Gens from Frontiére(s) directed Hitman, a video game movie, but still artistically limp. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury from Á l'intérieur were on deck to direct the remake of Clive Barker's Hellraiser (typing that sent a little spike of ice into my heart), but their screenplay was rejected. One would hope for being too brutal. They were replaced as screenwriters by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (Saw IV, Saw V and Feast), and after going over the script with the new screenwriters and producers, quickly left the project. The corpse had barely stopped quivering when it was picked up by Martyrs director Pascal Laugier, to only drop the remake once again. At least someone in this batch of French filmmakers had some integrity.
In the end, I suppose it is the siren call of Hollywood that gets those remakes going. You can't really blame the filmmakers whose paychecks for helming remakes is often more than what a popular film will gross in France. The blame should be placed on Hollywood. It is well-known that American audiences won't watch a subtitled film in theatres. (Hate mail can be sent to...) So then why would you hire a filmmaker responsible for those subtitled films to remake a film done in another language to be done in English? It's all a bit confusing.
Another interesting little morsel of this movement of French horror films is the clear influence of American cinema. It is impossible to deny the American slasher's influence on Haute Tension and À l'intérieur, or the clear ripping off of Texas Chainsaw Massacre by the minds behind Frontière(s). Laugier himself has pointed out the influence Hostel had on Martyrs, though most would ask why he did such a thing. In this case, the question must be asked: are we seeing the French invasion of American cinema or vice versa?
For that matter, can we call these recent few films a movement? I prefer to think of it as a batch of filmmakers having their creativity stifled, if not snuffed out, by a machine they are unfamiliar with. Not to sound pretentious, but cinema is very much an art in Europe — France in particular — and cinema is a long dead beast in America with the occasional nerve spasm. Maybe the French are just injecting a little life into it?