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.
Well, dear reader, we've made it. After journeying over halfway through the book, in Chapter 9 we've landed on a movie that 1. I've seen and 2. I enjoy (sorry not sorry, Vincent Gallo). Of course, because I'm pretty lame it's also one of the movies from the New French Extremity that pretty much everyone has seen: Alexander Aja's 2003 Haute Tension (High Tension).
In her introduction to the chapter devoted just to this film, Alexandra West explains that the Asian horror boom in the U.S. during the early aughts left the public looking for the next foreign wave, priming us for an introduction to the extreme horror coming out of France at the time. Enter Alexander Aja, who, consciously or not, coated the brutality of NFE in a framework more familiar to American audiences. And of course, what's more American than the slasher?
West explains that the slasher takes a simple framework and mixes it up into endless variations. Two aspects that are integral to the slasher are the Monster and the Final Girl, with the Monster disrupting the status quo and forcing the oft chaste, sensible Final Girl to defeat the Monster and return to "normalcy" (more on that later). While slashers of the '80s tended to focus on the Monster, West asserts that Scream ushered in an era where the Final Girl took on a much more prominent and important role.
In Haute Tension that prominence takes on new meaning when we learn (SPOILERS FOR THE REMAINDER OF THE ARTICLE) the supposed Final Girl turns out to be the Monster all along. When friends Marie and Alex go to visit Alex's family in a remote house, everything goes to hell when a man known only as The Killer abducts Alex and slaughters her family while Marie attempts to save her. The thing is there is no man, and The Killer is a manifestation of Marie's dissociative personality disorder triggered by her homosexual feelings for Alex.
A lot of critics derided this twist for the narrative holes identified in subsequent viewings but as someone who saw the movie knowing the twist I have to say, I could not give a damn. Aside from the fact that, as West explains, we're seeing this story as told by a very unreliable narrator, my ability to enjoy a movie is based more on the emotions it can elicit and the themes it discusses rather than adherence to real world logic. For a more recent example take The Last Jedi, when a character sacrifices themselves by launching their ship into light speed directly into the enemy fleet. Could I quibble over why this tactic hadn't been done before? Sure. Or, I could just enjoy a beautifully shot, emotionally resonant scene.
Such resonance is also seen in Haute Tension, as Marie's reveal at the end is a gut punch both for Alex as well as for an audience who had been rooting for Marie through most of the film. Plus, while we feel for Marie, we can't really wish for a return to normalcy. West explains that according to writer Robin Wood, "normal" is often conflated with healthy, when in most cases it really just means accepted social constructs. For Marie, these social constructs are the heteronormative dogma that created the conflict within Marie in the first place.
I commend Aja's ability to blend the slasher and NFE into something compelling and not wholly bleak. Not to say that anyone came out of this thing unscathed, but considering how most characters wind up in films of NFE, the final shot of Marie reaching for Alex through the two-way mirror of a psychiatric unit is probably the closest we'll get to having a character ride off into the sunset.
Do any characters get any such mercy in our next chapter as we explore travel in rural France? I can't say, but I will say that we'll get to review perhaps my favorite film of NFE to date. Stay tuned.
Check out the Chapter 10 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)
- Ma Mere