Recently, on Cinescare Horror Podcast, we reviewed the horror genre known as French Extreme. If you are interested in these films, check out our episode at the Cinescare website.
New French Extreme, New French Extremity, French Extreme–whatever you want to call it–is one of the most vibrant and controversial subgenres in all of horror. Its name alone promises revolutionary art house narrative, combined with visceral violence, and something unsettling, maybe disturbing, that feels at once exhilarating and dangerous. These are films that stick with you like bad memories, conjured up every-so-often when we talk to fellow horror-philes who, like you, have walked a little too close to the precipice of what’s acceptable, and sometimes, what’s allowed.
Helmed by some of the great young French directors of our time–Alexandre Aja, Julia Ducournau, Gaspar Noe, among many others, French Extreme is not for the faint of heart. These films deal with abuse, rape, revenge, body horror, and murder–topics which are hardly new to horror. But in French Extreme, they’re addressed with a raw energy and belligerence that make them impossible to ignore. Whether it’s deconstructing the rape revenge film by running the story and all its tropes in reverse–as with Noe’s Irreversible–or leaning into those tropes with a modern feminist rage–as in Revenge–one trademark of this movement is forcing the audience to experience the trauma along with its characters, never letting us off the hook until the end credits roll. In fact, at their most successful, these films make us feel like accomplices. You’ll see no ghosts or supernatural antagonists here—no, the evils lurking in French Extreme are perhaps the scariest kind. The human kind.
If you are new to this subgenre, here’s a handful of the biggest entries. But I will warn you repeatedly in this article—many of these movies are difficult to watch, and can be extremely disturbing. Google the trigger warnings, and if you are at all sensitive to certain imagery, think before hitting that play button.
Let’s get this one out of the way first. Gaspar Noe is notorious for delivering challenging films, and nowhere is that more apparent than in his early 2000s classic, Irreversible, starring the sublime Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. Like many films in the French Extremity movement, this one centers on rape revenge, though it does so in a decidedly unusual way. Like the play Betrayal by Harold Pinter, which inspired Noe to make this film, instead of following a linear narrative, Irreversible begins at the end and moves backwards. This robs us of the usual catharsis associated with the rape revenge genre and forces the audience to live through the violent act with no hope of reward. And what a violent act it is. The pivotal rape scene goes on for an interminable 10 minutes of unspeakable horror, the camera set down and fixed on the act, unwavering. It’s a vicious scene unlike anything else you will witness. This is not a film for the faint of heart and I don’t think I can actually bring myself to recommend it. But if you have the will to sit through the upsetting imagery, you won’t help but appreciate the tremendous skill of this important filmmaker.
A year after Irreversible, came another challenging but masterful work, 2003’s High Tension directed by Alexandre Aja, a home invasion horror with a unique and somewhat divisive twist. When Alexia brings her friend Marie to her family’s country home, their holiday is viciously interrupted by a mad killer in dirty coveralls, driving a rickety old truck. This may sound like the beginning of every B-Movie slasher from the 80s, but Aja has more up his sleeve than meets the eye. I won’t say too much about it, except that High Tension delivers visceral scares, graphic violence, and nearly impossible-to-stand tension throughout most of its run time. Though it certainly packs a potent punch, this one is far easier to stomach than most of the films on this list.
The online description of this film simply states, “A scissor-wielding psychopath (Béatrice Dalle) terrorizes a pregnant widow (Alysson Paradis) on Christmas Eve.” A rather succinct description for a film that terrorizes its audience to the extremes found in this 2007 home invasion classic. If you dare to delve into French Extremity, you’ll discover one tenant that holds sway over most of the genre—nothing is sacred. Rarely do you see a film subject a pregnant woman to any kind of danger, let alone the extreme violence inherent in these kinds of films, which makes Inside a thoroughly harrowing experience. However, it’s not only about the violence. This single-location setup methodically builds suspense as characters arrive, only to find themselves caught in a web of chaos spun by one of the most terrifying female antagonists in film history. It’s a simple setup, twisted by layers upon layers of unforeseen complications which culminate in one of the bloodiest endings in all of film. It almost felt like something Tarantino would make if he did a straight horror movie. If you can take it, I highly recommend checking this one out.
Martyrs (2008), on the other hand, is not one I can actually recommend—not because I find nothing worthwhile in it, but because it’s so brutal, I don’t know many people who could handle it. But I assume you’re here to learn about French Extremity, so no list worth its salt can exclude Martyrs. It’s difficult to say much about this film without spoiling its various twists, but a concise overview shouldn’t do too much to take away from the experience. The film begins with a young girl escaping from an abandoned warehouse. Someone has obviously subjected her to horrors, though we don’t see exactly what. Cut to several years later and we find the girl, now a young woman named Anna, fully grown and ready to exact vengeance on the people who tortured her all those years ago. Recruiting her best friend Lucie to assist her, Anna finds the kidnappers and breaks into their home to kill them. What happens next, I will not spoil for you, except to say it leads to a third act filled with a level of brutality that most healthy people will find impossible to endure. I’m still not sure the ending is worth what it takes to get there—in fact, I’m certain it’s not—but at least it offers some reason for the horror we just witnessed. At its core, Martyrs might be the sickest film on this list, as well as the most nihilistic.
And finally, we come to Revenge, a more recent entry in French Extremity (released in 2017), and one that most horror fans should be able to get through with little problem. Yes, it is rape revenge, but what sets Revenge apart is its female protagonist, Jennifer, played by the superb Matilda Lutz. Jennifer is a seriously kick-ass woman, providing the most satisfying catharsis in any of these movies. You may have noticed that all the films on this list have female leads at their center, which is one of the greatest aspects of the genre. Revenge goes further in that regard, turning almost every trope on its head and ending in a bloody and exquisitely tense finale for the ages. If you’re interested in dipping your toes in to this genre, I suggest beginning here, as it’s without a doubt the easiest one of these to get through.
Of course, there are many more to choose from—this is just a sample of the biggest names. So, if you’re brave enough to handle the various horrors in French Extremity, give it a shot. Just don’t blame me if you discover you’ve taken on more than you can handle. After all, I warned you!