Titane: The New ‘New French Extremity’
“Determined to break every taboo […], to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement”
So reads the dismissive account of New French Extremity by the man who coined the term. James Quandt’s antipathy to a wave of films (spanning from the mid-90s to 2008) he helped to define illustrates a certain critical wariness of contemporary French horror. While recent years have been kinder to the films of the cycle, Quandt has stuck to his guns. His disappointment is centred around a reluctance to accept that key voices in French cinema seemed to begin a sudden gravitation towards the more ‘extreme’ realm of film. Surely filmmakers like Denis (Trouble Every Day), Dumont (Twentynine Palms) and Ozon (Criminal Lovers) were above transgressive, cheap tricks? Or perhaps the body of films they would be in part responsible for was the product of a particular time. Perhaps the social, political, and cultural conditions that led to acclaimed works like La haine (1995), were also influencing the darlings of the arthouse to take a turn towards something even darker.
In 2016, scholar Alexandra West explored the connection between this wave of films and France’s history of unrest. Indeed, New French Extremity can be seen as the product of a nation’s brutally violent history coinciding with cultural upheaval through the late 20th century: see the rise of the far right and ‘Front national’. The ‘auteurs’ above preceded the more outwardly ‘horror’ branch of New French Extremity, typified by the so-called ‘Fab Five’ of High Tension/Switchblade Romance, Them, Inside, Frontier(s) and Martyrs, films designed to dampen the spirits of any intrepid moviegoer determined to step outside their comfort zone. From comments on France’s colonial history, to vicious interrogations of the dangers of the lurking extreme right, these films had as much to say as they had blood to splatter. They also left French horror in a weird place…
Martyrs was a strong statement, the zenith of the movement, a film so downbeat and upsetting that it brought a kind of finality to New French Extremity. Even its director, who wrote the film in a spiral of depression, rejected its association with the New French Extremity tag. So, what could follow it? Well, the short answer is not much, at least for a while. There were disparate films: The Pack, The Horde, Mutants to name a few, but they lacked something. They didn’t utilise the home invasion storylines that grouped the ‘Fab Five’, they weren’t auteur-led art pieces like the films noted above. They were disparate stabs at the genre, seemingly lacking the cohesion of the wave they followed.
Recent years have seen a revival of New French Extremity, or some of its tenets at the very least. Female-led pieces (both behind and in front of the camera) were integral to the wave, and this tradition is returning, spearheaded by emerging filmmakers like Julia Ducournau (Raw) and Coralie Fargeat (Revenge). Ducournau’s second feature film, Titane, is probably the reason you’re reading this article. A disturbing and, of course, transgressive dissection of our bodies, gender identities and our burgeoning relationship with technology, Titane is getting back to the traditions of Quandt’s description of New French Extremity.
But there is a difference here, the awarding of the Palme d’Or to Ducournau, only the second female director to win the prize, and the nomination of Titane as France’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film, shows an embrace of these aggressive, disturbing films in modern times. Underneath the viscera, the mutilation and the defilement, contemporary French horror has a lot to say, and perhaps we are ready to listen.
Written by Oli Hicks, PhD candidate in French Horror Cinema at Sheffield Hallam University.