One of my favorite classes that I took as an undergraduate at college focused entirely on horror movies. We started with a double feature of Nosferatu (1922) and Nosferatu (1979) and ended with my professors story about the creepy encounter she had at an almost-empty screening of The Cabin in the Woods (2012) at the local AMC earlier that weekend. It was there that I discovered giallo with Deep Red (1975), reaffirmed my love of zombies with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and even developed a begrudging new respect for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (a film that I still find interesting, even if I don’t find it especially exciting). And then of course, there was the New French Extremity.
Midway through the semester, our professor came in and told us that “something interesting is happening in horror right now.” She couldn’t quite name what it was, but it was plainly evident that some kind of paradigm shift was happening within the genre, especially outside of the usual American fare showing at the multiplexes. Adamant of its importance – whatever “it” actually was – she showed us two movies: Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), a bizarre horror-comedy-musical that I’ll show off to anybody I can at the drop of a hat, and today’s film, Xavier Gens’s Frontier(s), which is hands down my favorite film of the New French Extremity.
Set during the pandemonic riots raging in response to the ascent of a far-right candidate to the French presidency, five Muslim Parisians – Alex (Aurèlien Wiik), Tom (David Saracino), Farid (Chems Dahmani), Sami (Adel Bencherif) and the pregnant Yasmine (Karina Testa) – hastily commit a robbery in order to escape from the chaotic upheaval of the city. When things go South, Sami is killed – his dying wish that his sister Yasmine not have the abortion she is contemplating – and the surviving five friends flee into the countryside, eventually finding their way to a rustic inn in the countryside. But when that inn is revealed to be run by a sadistic family of inbred Nazis, Yasmine and her friends will need to again fight for their very survival in a world turned upside down.
While there is some genuinely jaw-dropping scholarship out there detailing the ins and outs of the New French Extremity (my personal favorite being Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity by Faculty of Horror host Alex West), the broad strokes of the movement is that there’s something rotten in the state of France. Contrary to its image as the fashionable City of Lights cultivated throughout the twentieth century, deep psychic wounds have festered unabated since the end of the second world war, when the country was occupied by Nazis and its citizenry turned violently against one another. By the turn of the century, the incongruities between France’s cultural and historical identities – as well as the growing strain of far-right extremism that later revealed itself in the U.K. and United States in particular – culminated in a series of violent extremism within the nation’s horror films starting in the late 1990s and petering out around the start of the last decade. Some of the most viscerally horrific and skin-crawlingly unnerving additions to the horror genre – pretty much ever – have sprung out of this concentrated wellspring of trauma and unease.
The comparisons to American director Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are both obvious and numerous throughout the film, so much so that my recommendations for this film typically begin and end with simply calling it The Parisian Chainsaw Massacre. From its extreme physical brutality, targeted psychological brutality against its female protagonist, close-knit family of deranged killers left behind by a forwardly progressing society, it is clear that its forebearer’s DNA is deeply rooted in this newer film. Gens’s film similarly plays off the juxtaposition of the idyllic French countryside with the horrific monstrosities that occupy it (both within the family-run inn and deeper still in the adjoining mines). The resulting film is a blunt-force weapon that shatters any semblance of the accepted image of a utopic, cultured France: a primal scream howling desperately into the void. And that makes more-than-passing similarities to we Americans (first in 2016 and now again at the cusp of a dire presidential election in 2020) all the more gutting.
What Frontier(s) lacks for in subtly and nuance it more than makes up for in its directness. Indeed, the sheer amount of carnage unleashed over the course of its lean, 108 minute runtime is absolutely staggering. Awash in gore pretty much from the start, the Gens’s boundless penchant for human misery is peppered with some of the grisliest and most horrific spectacles ever committed to screen. Among its most nightmarishly memorable are one in a makeshift prison cell, one set against a carcass dangling from the ceiling and one near the end in a freight elevator, any one of which would have been the sanguine centerpiece that a similar American horror movie would have spent its entire story simply building up to. Here, they are hit upon and moved away from rank rapidity, which merely serves to emphasize the baseline horror that is this new France.
Contrary to what it might at first appear to be, Frontier(s) does not belong to the then-recent trend in American-produced “torture porn.” In fact, despite the fervency of the gore shared by so-called “torture porn” and the New French Extremity, they couldn’t be further in tone, theme or style from one another. “Torture porn” was, by and large, a xenophobic reaction by Americans against a world that they assumed hated and was aligned against them, whereas the New French Extremity was an introspective expression of the ugliness that already existed in France (albeit, underneath the showy veneer of respectability that the country had cultivated for itself over the course of the preceding century). While the horror set pieces of “torture porn” existed seemingly for their own sake – a showy splash of gore to titillate an audience that had long since grown numb to Hollywood’s usual bag of tricks – the films of the New French Extremity showed these scenes for what they really were: repulsive violations of the human body – something to turn away from, not lean in closer to for a better look. And when viewed in context, the effect is so much more powerful than the most simplistic American offerings of the same decade.
To me, Frontier(s) will forever be the platonic ideal of the New French Extremity (indeed, of that entire moment in “extreme” European horror cinema that also included Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In). Visceral, violent and thoroughly nasty, the film is certainly a tough one to get through, and not one for most audiences (even most horror audiences). But those who can stomach what it is this film has to offer will discover a dark lens through which we can view the then and present moments of our rapidly regressing world, one that makes something like Green Room (2015) seem puerile and cheap by comparison.