Welcome back to another installment of the Chapter x Chapter series, a column where I take a deep dive into horror reading with a new review for each chapter of the book. The first book of this series is Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity by Alexandra West. If you're looking to start from the beginning, I recommend you check out my introduction from January 14th.
The time has come. We've been given the appropriate primers on French history and cinema, and Alexandra West is ready to take us down the rabbit hole that is the New French Extremity. For those hoping that we'd get to ease our way into the dark subject matter, I've got some bad news: one of the earliest filmmakers attributed to the New French Extremity also appears to be one of its most brutal.
Gaspar Noe, referred to as "the most notorious punk rock auteur in cinema" in a contemporary Vice article, thrived on making his audience uncomfortable by forcing them to look at the uglier corners of their society. West analyzes Noe's style and themes through three films: Carne (1991), Suel Contre Tout (I Stand Alone, 1998), and Irreversible (2002). Admittedly, I've not seen any of these films. While I'm an avid fan of horror, it's hard for me to get through films that are relentlessly bleak. I enjoy dark material as long as there is some small shred of positivity to latch on to, but it seems the whole point of Noe's work is to exaggerate the negative.
This is part of what I find so valuable in West's analysis. She's able to stare down the barrel of Noe's confrontational style in order to pull meaning out of it. She acknowledges the incest, sexual assault, racism, and homophobia present throughout these works, but rather than dismissing them outright as other critics might she instead identifies their artistic value in the proper context.
In the case of Noe's films, West asserts that Noe dares the audience not only to view the depravity in his films, but also to confront their own complicity in them. She also appreciates Noe's technique, particularly in Irreversible where the story is told in reverse, forcing the audience to watch peaceful scenes at the end of the movie with the terrible knowledge of what's in store for the characters as depicted in the beginning of the movie.
Through her reading of Noe's intentions, West makes an important distinction between depiction and endorsement. Critics, particularly of the horror genre, often conflate a character's actions with the writer's intention, and I'll admit that the horror genre has no shortage of filmmakers who glorify violence, particularly towards women. But I think it's important to note that in many cases violence, even the unrelenting sexual violence that West describes in Noe's work, isn't meant to be cheered. It's meant to make the audience question a society from which these acts germinate.
I'll confess that while reading West's review of Noe's work intrigued me, I still don't know if I'll be able to properly brace myself in order to sit through them. This is especially true considering Noe used cinematography and sound design specifically to induce discomfort from the audience. I get seasick on a boat if there's a stiff breeze, so I highly doubt my delicate sensibilities could stand Noe's shenanigans.
And with that, I leave you until next week, when we continue to ride the NFE wave to themes of (looks at the start of Chapter 4) the "correlation between sexuality and destruction." Should be a gas!
Check out the Chapter 4 installment here.
Bryan's To-Watch List:
- Le Manoir du diable (The Haunted Castle)
- Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon)
- Les Diabolique
- Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face)
- Le Viol du vampire (Rape of the Vampire) or really anything from Jean Rollin
- Suel Contre Tout (I Stand Alone)