Confronting Rape in the New French Extremity

At times, how we go about interpreting films has little to do with story arc or character development, and more to do with the pattern of images, and the intensity with which those images are presented to us. Visual stimulus can be an incredibly powerful tool for inciting visceral reactions, and thus speaking to viewers on a level that goes beyond dialogue or nuanced storytelling. This kind of visceral imagery became a staple of a French film movement beginning in the late 1990’s and continuing into the 21st century, collectively known as the New French Extremity, or the cinema du corps (“cinema of the body”). Film critic James Quandt first coined the term “New French Extremity,” which he defines as “the growing vogue for shock tactics in French Cinema.” Quandt bemoans the movement as “a narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude…the authentic, liberating outrage–political, social, sexual–that fueled such apocalyptic visions as Salo and Weekend now seems impossible, replaced by an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity” (Quandt). These films predate, and to some extent led to the popularity of “torture porn” films of the early and mid 2000’s, however there is generally a difference of intent between these two movements. Though Quandt saw the NFE as a decline in the quality of film art in France, many saw it as a movement with much higher aspirations than mere shock value. Timothy Nicodemo theorizes that the NFE is part of an “aesthetic of the fragment” that reflects “swelling fragmentation among people, relations and communication disjointed and repressed, and an air of malaise having turned into one of transgression, artistically and socio-politically” (Nicodemo). While films of the NFE are certainly intended to shock and disturb, it is not generally the intention of the filmmakers to provide salacious material purely for audience enjoyment, as is the case with torture porn films like James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005). In fact, the material is not intended to be enjoyed, in the traditional sense, but absorbed and evaluated, the way one might observe a tragic car accident: first, with shock and horror, and later, with careful evaluation of the details. What actually happened? What caused it? What could have been done to prevent it? Of course, the thought process when evaluating a real-life incident and those events occurring in a film are different, to be sure. When evaluating a film, viewers often reflect on the material in a way that addresses those particular elements that make it an artistic endeavor. What is the filmmaker’s intent? What is he or she trying to tell me? How does this film make me feel? Why do I feel this way? What does this say about me, or society as a whole? Surely, not everyone will evaluate films in the same way, particularly when there is shocking or disturbing content. Some might refuse to even address it, as the material is too repulsive to contemplate any further, or too horrible to even be viewed in the first place. Others might find some kind of perverse pleasure from it, but still others will evaluate its artistic merit, as well as the underlying message. For what purpose am I subjected to such repulsive material? What makes it repulsive? What message does this material send to its viewers? There are many films that shock merely for the sake of shocking, and even with films that purportedly do so, there is still meaning to be extracted from the shock value. Perhaps a filmmaker wishes to push the limits of what can be shown in film, to shirk the more traditional, conservative priggishness of mainstream society. Or perhaps the filmmaker wishes to shine a light on some oft overlooked injustice, incident or subject matter that many find too disturbing or upsetting to deal with directly. Looking at French films specifically, there is a tradition (starting with the onset of the New French Extremity) of using sex as the central ingredient when composing disturbing material intended to shock. More specifically, the act of rape is utilized, often so much so as to be a crucial element of the plot, to repulse and offend the senses. Films of the New French Extremity feature graphic depictions of rape with the specific intention of disturbing and eliciting disgust in the audience, thus simultaneously condemning the act and providing audiences with a means to evaluate this condemnation directly.

The “proper” way of depicting rape (if there is one), or whether or not to depict rape at all in film has been a debate among film theorists for decades, particularly feminist film theorists whose focus is generally on depictions of the female body and the degradation of women in film. In 1960, Ingmar Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring, was decried for its handling of rape, with Bosley Crowther describing scenes of “brutality that, for sheer unrestrained realism, may leave one sickened and stunned…as much as they may contribute to the forcefulness of the theme, they tend to disturb the senses out of proportion to the dramatic good they do.” (Crowther). The film inspired a plethora of rape-revenge films, often far more graphic than their predecessors, including such exploitation films as The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978). This subgenre’s popularity peaked in the 1970’s, but found a resurgence with the rise of torture porn in the 2000’s (both of the aforementioned films were remade in 2009 and 2010, respectively). And though there has been a steady trend of increasingly graphic exploitation films with the passage of time, extreme depictions of violence and sadism increased dramatically at the onset of the 21st century with the evolution of the rape-revenge and torture porn subgenres. Films such as Chaos (2005) were described as “an exercise in heartless cruelty” (Ebert) and Straightheads (2007) as “a shallow study of the intoxicating allure of violence” (Davies).

These graphic depictions of rape and violence were the offspring of the New French Extremity, a film movement that began in the late 1990’s with Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone (1998) and Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999). Many, but not all of the films of this movement are classified as horror, with their disturbing material generally stemming from excessive gore and violence. However, many of these films are simply dramatic stories that happen to contain extreme, even frightening material, like Catherine Breillat’s erotic drama, Anatomy of Hell (2004). And, while most of these films deal directly with sex, often in grotesque or perverse ways, not all of them depict or even address instances of rape. For example, in Ma Mere (2004), from director Christophe Honoré, Isabelle Huppert plays a mother who provokes an incestuous relationship with her son. While the story itself is rather shocking, and much of the sex is graphic, growing more extreme as the story reaches its climactic moments, rape never occurs, nor is it ever mentioned or alluded to in any way. Similarly, in Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic drama, Enter the Void (2009), we often see sex in various settings (and in one instance, we observe sex from inside a character’s vagina as it is being penetrated), but again, there is never any mention of rape. In yet another NFE film, Ils (2006), a woman and her husband are terrorized by a group of hooded teenage boys. The extremity in Ils lies in the (occasional) graphic violence and the apparent lack of morality on the part of the intruders, but there is never any indication that rape or sexual assault is involved in their crimes. In these three films, sex and/or violence are taken to extremes for the viewer, but we are never forced to contemplate or witness rape in any direct or indirect way.

A horrifying gang-rape leads the women on a path of graphic sexuality and violence (Baise-Moi, 2000).

However, many films of the French New Extremity feature rape, often as a crucial element to the plot. In Baise-Moi (2000), one of the earliest films of the NFE movement, two women, Nadine and Manu, set out on a cross-country crime spree after being gang-raped. Much of the sex in the film is not simulated, with the actors actually engaging in penetrative intercourse on screen. The filmmakers capture the sex from varying angles, frequently cutting in to close ups of the genitals. With very little, if any, aesthetic distinction between the consensual and nonconsensual sex that takes place on screen, the viewer is made to feel intensely uncomfortable by all forms of sex. Aside from a brief scene involving a character watching pornography, the first sexual encounter shown in the film is the gang-rape, which is both violent and graphic. The film in its entirety is pornographic, but it never really allows itself to be titillating. By first showing the audience violent rape, followed by instances of consensual sex, it forces the viewers to think about every sexual image in relation to the initial rape. Even the consensual sex cannot be titillating, as it is intrinsically linked with rape. Since the filmmakers refuse to draw a marked divide between the two kinds of sex, they make the rape scenes that much more repulsive and emphatic.

The most notable example of rape in the NFE comes from Gaspar Noe’s controversial film, Irreversible (2002). In this film, we see a violent, shocking rape scene that goes on for almost 10 minutes, with minimal editing. The audience is subjected to a scene in which Alex (played by Monica Bellucci) is returning home from a party late at night. She goes through an enclosed underpass, where she encounters a pimp berating a transsexual prostitute. When he sees her approaching, he releases the prostitute and threatens Alex with a knife. Once he has her on the ground, he rapes her for several minutes, before beating her mercilessly, leaving her body bruised and bloody on the ground. Though Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, he described Irreversible as “a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable” (Ebert). Audience reactions were often dramatic, and several countries even considered banning the film outright (“Film Faces Ban,” 2004). While many saw the rape scene as incredibly excessive and unnecessary, it is a definitive element of the film, anchoring the entire plot. Irreversible is shot in reverse chronological order, however (in chronological order) the story begins with Alex telling her boyfriend, Marcus (played by Vincent Cassel), that she might be pregnant. He is happy about this new revelation, and they prepare to go to a party later that night with their mutual friend and Alex’s ex-boyfriend, Pierre (played by Albert Dupontel). Once at the party, Marcus’s unbridled drug-use and lecherous behavior bother Alex, and she decides to leave the party alone. On her way home, she encounters the pimp who rapes her. The remainder of the film follows Marcus and Pierre as they attempt to track down her rapist and exact revenge. This leads them into the dark underworld of prostitution and sex clubs, where we are witness to bizarre sex scenes and extreme violence. In addition to the unsettling narrative, Gaspar Noe uses the camera and sound to cause further disquiet in the audience. Though the rape scene is viewed as one long take, with both perpetrator and victim centered in the frame, the majority of the film is shown through swirling, unfocused shots. The camera swings around in every direction, only affording us glimpses of sexual depravity, before plunging the audience into darkness or swirling around to something else. Often the action is at the periphery of the frame, or just out of sight. This style is meant to be unsettling, and Noe even includes low-frequency sound to induce nausea and anxiety in the audience (Wilson). These elements combine to make the film, and specifically the rape at the center of the film, incredibly upsetting for the audience.

Michele (played by Isabelle Huppert) contemplates exacting revenge on her rapist (Elle, 2016).

Though the New French Extremity is generally confined to films of the late 1990’s up until the mid-2000’s, there have been more recent films that could be considered part of the movement, or at the very least heavily influenced by it. For example, most recently, Paul Verhoeven’s psychological thriller, Elle (2016), is a film that revolves around Michele (played by Isabelle Huppert), who is raped by a masked intruder. Throughout the film, we are made to relive the rape through Michele’s eyes, often with certain details changed based on her reconstructed memories, and her ideas of what she could have done differently. Michele is the head of a video game company, and after the rape occurs, a company-wide email is sent out showing a monster raping a video game character with Michele’s face. As Michele tries to unravel the mystery behind the email and her attack, she is attacked once again by the same masked assailant. This time, she stabs him in the hand with a knife and rips off his mask, only to find that he is her neighbor, Richard, with whom she has flirted on multiple occasions. Michele’s feelings regarding her rape and the revenge that she wants to exact on Richard become muddled, and further complicated by her own sexuality and troubled past. Though Elle offers a rather ambiguous representation of rape (entertaining the idea that rape can indeed be a fantasy for some), it never takes away from the ugliness of the act. Viewers are forced to see rape both as a violent and horrific invasion of the human body, and as a psychologically confusing and traumatic event in a victim’s life. Even though Michele seems, at times, rather indifferent to it, we see the rape as an all-consuming ordeal that her character must overcome.

It is important to note that these are not the only films of the New French Extremity that address rape as something ugly and disturbing. Other films that deal directly with rape include: Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone (1998), Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things (2002), Catherine Breillat’s Romance X and Fat Girl (1999 and 2001), Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) and Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), among others. All of these films use rape to shock and disturb the audience, thus emphasizing the depravity and horrific nature of the act itself. While there is a long history of films that address rape indirectly, from Alfred Hitchock’s Marnie (1964) to Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter (2007), films of the New French Extremity highlight the horror of sexual violence and draw attention to our varied perceptions of the act itself through visceral imagery. Graphic depictions of rape in film did not begin with the NFE, nor did the concept of visualizing rape as a means of portraying it as sickening or horrifying. But the filmmakers of the New French Extremity have incorporated rape as an instrumental part of the shocking and disturbing imagery that defines the movement, and, in turn, shed a bright light on a subject that is most often left in the dark.

 

Sources:

Crowther, Bosley. “The Screen; Ingmar Bergman’s Study in Brutality:’The Virgin Spring’ in Premiere at Beekman Von Sydow Starred in Ulla Isaksson Script.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Nov. 1960. Web. 24 May 2017.

Davies, Rebecca. “Straightheads.” Time Out London. Timeout, 27 Apr. 2007. Web. 24 May 2017. https://www.timeout.com/london/film/straightheads

Ebert, Roger. “Chaos Movie Review & Film Summary (2005) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC, 11 Aug. 2005. Web. 24 May 2017.

Ebert, Roger. “Irreversible Movie Review & Film Summary (2003) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC, 14 Mar. 2003. Web. 24 May 2017.

“Film Faces Ban Over Rape Scene.” The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Digital, 22 Mar. 2004. Web. 24 May 2017.

Nicodemo, Timothy J., “The New French Extremity: Bruno Dumont and Gaspar Noé, France’s Contemporary Zeitgeist” (2013). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 1586. http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/1586

Quandt, James. “Flesh & Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema.” Artforum.com. Artforum, Feb. 2004. Web. 24 May 2017.

Wilson, Laura (2015). Spectatorship, Embodiment and Physicality in the Contemporary Mutilation Film (Illustrated ed.). Springer. pp. 84–85.

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