The objectification of women, particularly under the banners of sex and violence, is nothing new in cinema. We have long watched women suffer, sob and scream, turned to ciphers for quivering victimhood through the reductive force of the male gaze. But women as the perpetrators of violence, to others or themselves? Women driven to the extremes of behaviour by desire, madness, revenge – hell, even unadulterated kicks? That’s still so uncommon as to be exhilarating.
Of course, we’ve seen powerful women on screen for years, particularly in the horror genre. But their exploits are generally reactive; both Jennifer Kent’s exquisite feminist horror The Babadook (2014) and her follow-up The Nightingale (2018), for example, witness mothers pushed to their limits by the psychological trauma of grief. And countless genre films hang on bruised and bloodied final girls fighting tooth and nail for their own survival: aggression as defiance and defence.
Crucially, there is usually a catharsis, a resolution, a return to some form of recognisable, comfortable normalcy. Vengeance is served. Lives are saved. That final girl lays down her weapons and gives herself up to the authoritative, patriarchal care of late-on-the-scene emergency services who facilitate her return, it’s suggested, to the recognisable domestic safety of her previous life.
Not so in modern French horror, which dares to do something different. While it must be acknowledged that some films of this so-called New French Extremity – a term coined by Artforum critic James Quandt to describe certain boundary-pushing films being made by French directors at the turn of the 21st century –still speak the traditional language of submissive female victim succumbing to the dominant masculine aggressor, there are plenty that offer their female characters something more.
We see them fight, fuck and embrace all manner of so-called taboos unshackled by typical cinematic narrative constraints: apparent victims take ownership of their fate; women are unencumbered by back stories of disease or mental illness that attempt to graft sympathetic morality on to their behaviour; happy endings and neat resolutions are almost entirely absent.
“I think it’s right to say that many of the women in these films take control of their own bodies and desires, in some cases after a long time of not having control,” says Catherine Wheatley, senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College London. “There are differences from one film to the next: in Baise-moi (2000), which is effectively a rape-revenge movie, the two protagonists rise up against a culture of misogyny and male violence, whereas the heroines of Catherine Breillat films are interested in investigating their own desires, working out what they want in a much more cerebral manner. Female directors in particular are really interested in the relationships between women’s minds and their bodies.”
Consider, for example, elements of Claire Denis’ surprising, challenging Trouble Every Day (2001), which split the opinion of critics who seemed blindsided by the fact that the feted director would follow-up drama Beau Travail (1999) with this visceral foray into genre. It stars Béatrice Dalle, who also takes centre stage as the murderous intruder in Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s French horror Inside (2007), in which she is hell-bent on removing an unborn child from its mother. Here, though, she is Coré, the beautiful wife of a Parisian doctor, who feeds her overwhelming desire for human flesh by seducing random men and ripping them apart with her teeth.
While sex and death have long been horror bedfellows, there’s nothing heterotypical about this particular brand of sadoeroticism. It’s particularly notable that when Denis shows us one of Coré’s gory conquests in full, it’s the unfortunate young man’s body on which cinematographer Agnès Godard’s camera lingers, intimately devouring his torso in a way that forces us to identify with the insatiable hunger that Coré is desperate to sate.
And sate it she does, time and again, despite the fact that she’s consumed by guilt after each orgy of violence. As her husband once again cleans up the mess, buries the bodies and sponges the blood from her skin, she begs him for the release of death; in response, he locks her back in the basement. Yet neither shackles nor shame are enough to prevent her from indulging in her particular pleasures of the flesh, of embracing her carnal desires.
True, there are some troubling contradictions in the film – the film enables fellow American male cannibal Shane (Vincent Gallo) to be free of any such psychological troubles, living and functioning in society while also committing similarly heinous acts. There are also some allusions to potential experimental and medical reasons for Coré’s behaviour. Nevertheless, she remains utterly compelling in her moments of wild abandon.
“Coré is a caged beast made spectacular by the full bloom of her savage desire,” writes critic Sophie Monks Kaufman in her essay ‘From Female Subservience to Eating Men Alive’, published in She Found It at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema (Red Press, 2020). “She is governed by the supernova intensity of each passing moment. She is out of range of moral teachings, but still connected to her conscience. To me, she is extremity itself; a symbol for our most antisocial sexual tendencies, whatever they may be… Coré is irretrievably lost in the present; more vivid than anyone else, and more dangerous.”
In My Skin (2002) takes this concept of physical autonomy to its limits, turning the idea of cannibalistic desire inwards and exploring one woman’s increasingly extreme obsession with her own body. Writer-director Marina de Van takes the central role of Esther, a put-together Parisian woman who accidentally cuts her leg while at a party, becomes infatuated by the wound and embarks on a disturbing voyage of discovering just how much she can mutilate her own flesh.
It may be extremely difficult to watch Esther’s bloody manipulations but, even if most of us would never consider copying such acts, it’s a cathartic experience nonetheless. There’s something tremendously empowering in Esther’s total ownership of self; de Van gives no reason for her behaviour besides her own fascination, no psychological or environmental framing. Like Coré, Esther simply lives in the moment; there’s no happy resolution, higher learning, spiritual awakening. She simply does what she does, because she wants to do it. “This isn’t a psychological study of self-harm as a cry for help,” notes Wheatley, “rather a celebration of self-love.”
A non-traditional kind of self love also fuels Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film Romance. Schoolteacher Marie (Caroline Ducey) is in a newish relationship with Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), and is frustrated by the lack of sex. Marie simply wants to be fucked, and so takes it upon herself to explore her desires though a series of – unsimulated, filmed-in-pornographic-close-up – altercations with other men: one ties her up, another pays her for the privilege of going down on her. While nothing ultimately seems to satisfy her, she’s firmly in control of this journey; she’s finding out who she is sexually, and she’s prepared to go to any lengths to do so.
Unlike the sharp savagery of In My Skin, it’s the sexual and moral ambiguity of Romance that gives its protagonist her power. Marie has an idea of what she wants, but isn’t sure and is unafraid to experiment, to try things out, to be a willing participant in an experience which may turn out to be her sexual awakening – or an abject disappointment. She is given the freedom to exhibit and indulge her sexuality for her own ends, and without the promise of a satisfactory climax in either a physical or narrative sense. She is neither sinful whore nor vestal virgin; she is female sexuality, desire, confusion, vulnerability and hope made recognisable flesh.
And, despite the graphic extremes of behaviour that so fascinate the directors of these films, it’s this willingness to allow female characters to indulge in behaviours outside of social norms, to take authorship of their bodies however they see fit, that makes them such powerful cinematic propositions.
“All the ambiguities that make the New French Extremity so compelling are ironed out in a franchise like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey,” observes Wheatley. “These appear to be provocative, flirting with S&M and domination, but that always takes place within the framework of a heterosexual relationship and almost always ends in marriage and children. It’s the messiness of the New French Extremity that’s so important; that sense that between yes and no there’s a landscape of complex and contradictory responses.”
Cruel Flesh: Films of the New French Extremity runs at BFI Southbank throughout May.