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.
Following a pretty significant hiatus to allow for a vacation (and then some time to catch up with my pesky day job after said vacation) I return to Films of the New French Extremity ready for romance. After all, France is, as Alexandra West points out, the land that's "perceived to have a monopoly on love." It evokes the classic romantic imagery like the Eiffel Tower, candlelit dinners, and soft music in idyllic country landscapes.
But of course in the New French Extremity, love comes with some extremely sharp edges that cut into domestic violence, rape, murder, and even a wee bit of cannibalism. The movies in this chapter, 1999's Criminal Lovers and 2003's Twentynine Palms, focus on two couples who serve as microcosms for humanity in general. And, since this is NFE, we know that humans can be pretty fucking awful to one another.
As seems to be the trend with this book, I find myself drawn much more to one movie than the other. In this case I'm intrigued by Francois Ozon's Criminal Lovers, which West describes as a Bonnie and Clyde story blended with fairy tale elements. The main characters, Luc and Alice, have fled into the woods after killing fellow classmate, Said, and when they seek safe haven at the home of a man simply called The Hermit.
West describes a lot of complexity in a fairly simple premise, but what caught my eye was the struggle of the characters to come to terms with their identity in the face of homophobia (Luc) and xenophobia (Alice). Their tragic ends remind me of one of my favorite books, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, in which identity struggles similarly create a ripple effect that leads to bad ends for most of the characters.
Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms trades the fairy tale elements for a road trip narrative, with couple David and Katia exploring the American desert landscape before a random act of sexual violence against David triggers the toxic masculinity hinted at throughout the film and culminates in a tragic end for Katia. From what I gather of West's analysis, most of the movie is spent simply following the protagonists in their travels, with little happening to push the narrative other than to sow the seeds of the impending tragedy and hint at David's barely suppressed misogyny that would explode in the film's climax.
I'll be honest, this one would probably be one of the more difficult for me to sit through, as it seems to be actively daring the audience to watch a movie that where little will happen for most of the running time and then, when things do happen, they're all soul-crushing. I disagree with critic James Quandt, however, who West explains used Twentynine Palms to define and simultaneously dismiss New French Extremity. While I'd guess that this movie wouldn't be for me, I'm not arrogant enough to say that it's inherently unworthy as a piece of art, especially in light of West's thoughtful analysis. So, Mr. Quandt, as they say in France, le bite me.
So we are again trucking right along with out next installment putting us just past the halfway point. So I ask, dear readers, what are your thoughts so far? This is a pilot project for me, so I'm interested to hear from you about what's working with the format, what I can leave out, and what might be missing. Shoot me a note in the comments below, and come back next week for Chapter 8!
Check out the Chapter 8 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
- Baise-Moi (Can be translated as either Rape Me or Fuck Me)
- Sombre (Dark)
- In My Skin
- Criminal Lovers
- Suel Contre Tout (I Stand Alone)