French cinema has somewhat unfairly acquired a reputation for polished decorum – and yet excess, of one kind or another, has always been one of its prime assets. It was France, after all, that contributed heavily to the concept of ‘extreme cinema’ at the turn of this century – and while the so-called ‘New French Extremity’ has perhaps had its historical moment, the phenomenon is arguably entering a new phase.
Witness the success of Julia Ducournau’s second film Titane, the winner of 2021’s Palme d’Or in Cannes. The excess of Titane lies not just in its imagery – a neon-steeped, electrically lurid brew of violence, genre mixing, gender liquidity and hardcore futurist weirdness – but also in the fact that it offers the viewer more genres and narrative frames than can normally be accommodated by a single film. Serial-killer drama, black comedy, mechanical/human science fiction love story, Bildungsroman, father-daughter/son romance, even dance musical… Titane is a head-spinningly lawless fantasia.
But no less lawless, and just as head-spinning in its way, is Earwig, the third feature – and the first English-language venture – by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, whose collaborations with Gaspar Noé make her, after all, a founder figure of ‘New French Extremity’. But her work has always been more introverted and eerily subtle than this connection might suggest – as witness her eerily subversive depiction of female childhood in Innocence (2004) and her musing on gender, biology and the aquatic in Evolution (2015).
Earwig vaults into a world possibly more mysterious than either of these films. Based on Brian Catling’s novel, it depicts a nearly wordless, hermetic universe, an imaginary parallel version of old Europe, seemingly modelled on 1930s Belgium (as in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, by Hadzihalilovic’s kindred spirits Cattet and Forzani, old Belgium is the dark dream world par excellence).
Albert Scellinc is a man entrusted with the care of a young girl, whose strange dental prosthesis of ice he is required to fit and maintain. They live in a bare, silent house. The girl spends her days playing with toys of scrunched-up paper; the man contemplates a collection of glassware and muses on his (real or imagined) past. As in the films of the Quay brothers, one of the most tangible elements in Earwig’s world is the element of light passing through glass – which cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg manipulates to masterly effect.
What is excessive, then, about this enclosed, muted film? On one hand, the occasional abrupt eruptions of shocking violence. On another, the excess of darkness, silence, intensity – the film forms a sort of reverse image of Titane, as outrageous in its eerie, seemingly hermetic introversion as Ducournau’s film is in its explosiveness.
But there are other forms of excess in this year’s French cinema, some of them necessary devices to get a purchase on the excessive nature of contemporary reality. The English title of Catherine Corsini’s The Divide doesn’t quite capture the implicit violence of the original – La Fracture. Corsini’s film directly confronts political realities – the schisms in French society epitomised by the anti-authority ‘gilets jaunes’ demonstrations, which have paradoxically aired the discontent of the right as well as the left.
Corsini dramatises these tensions and contradictions in openly – indeed, aggressively satirical mode – as a hospital emergency room is caught up in the stresses of a demonstration and the police’s reaction to it. As the A&E department fills up and effectively comes under siege, and as hospital staff try to keep the peace, tensions are exemplified by the face-off and mutual misunderstandings between two characters. One is an angry truck driver, played by an omnipresent stalwart of today’s French cinema, Pio Marmai; the other is a volatile, self-absorbed bourgeoise, played by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi.
The Divide is unafraid to mobilise an excess of comedy to convey the fervour of social conflict, even using the resources of outright farce (coincidence, misunderstanding, comic pratfalls). And above all, it uses the talents of Bruni-Tedeschi, a performer who has never been afraid to push neurotic characterisation to its comic limits to infuse a film with manic energy, or in this case, an edge of the socially confrontational – an excess of performance, an excess of comedy, to convey the stresses of an age of excessive social uncertainty.
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