Thursday, 12 November 2009

Bleeding For Freedom

You've got to hand it to the French - when it comes to cinematic extremism, they pretty much own the copyright. However, it is not the so-called 'New French Extremism' that I'm talking about. I want to look beyond the films of Francois Ozon, Gaspar Noe, Catherine Breillat, Phillippe Grandrieux and Bruno Dumont whose films have been, most purportedly to date, set upon breaking down cinematic taboos and bringing confrontation to the big screen. These filmmakers have had their work pitted against the proverbial 'cinematic greats' who came before (not all of them French) such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard, Guy Debord and Luis Bunuel, and measured against those previous models of taboo breaking their work has been slated for lacking either political, philosophical or artistic merit. I'd venture to say it is because of these criticisms and not in spite of them that the movement has turned a new, critically interesting, corner. For all their commentary upon their own origins, the works I am about to discuss demand the now corroded category 'New French Extremism' be dramatically re-defined. With Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's Inside (A l'interieur) (2007) and Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008) comes a mode of extremist cinema that is once again political, philosophical and artistic in merit.

I'd like to make it clear that I'm not saying New French Extremism didn't achieve anything or say anything at all, certainly Romance (1999) posited some questioning of the definition by which we classify pornography, though its questioning offered little in the way of its contextual significance (i.e. the reception of or attitudes towards cinematic pornography as experienced in contemporary cultural viewing practices), ultimately revealing its motivations to be superficial also. And whilst some critical literature would claim the opposite, suggesting this wave of cinema was specifically intent upon breaking down the French tradition of artful, political, philosophical film to produce 'cinema for cinema's sake', that would of course ironically in itself still constitute a political act. Undeniably the French have a great tradition of creating and innovating modes of cinema and certainly they act as a beacon for both cinematic inspiration and education for filmmakers the world over. However, for all that these French 'extremists' may have achieved in altering the traditional tropes of French cinema, undermining the bourgeoisie and removing the visual representation of "Frenchness", they are still incredibly self-indulgent and self-consumed. What this supposed 'New New Wave' of French cinema forgot was that to truly get outside of the confines of Frenchness they would need to focus on a more universalising specificity such as genre. In essence, these films have merely replaced the politically challenging and artistically complex films that came before with, as James Quandt writes, "an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity."

Now Inside and Martyrs are a lot of things, but passive they are not. If Inside were analogously the literary review then Martyrs would be the first chapter in what would constitute a most fascinating dissertation on the changing modes and motivations of contemporary French cinema. The title, Inside, already indicates that the film is 'about' everything interior; from the origin of life as representative of the birth of cinema, to the inherent dangers in finding too much comfort in one's own home as reflective of the Frenchness that French cinema can't seem to escape, to the interiority and subjectivity that resides in most accredited French philosophy and to the origins of cinematic spectatorship which also began with subjectivity and the 'I' as formative as with Lacanian psychoanalysis. Everything 'inside' in this film poses a threat and is something to survive. The film's culmination in a type of traumatic re-birth comes at the expense of two traditionally filmic femmes who were the object of the male gaze, now literally disfigured. This traumatic re-birth marks a movement in French cinema - outside of the traditions of Frenchness, psychoanalysis, philosophy, male-centric spectatorship theory and outdated preoccupation with cinematic identification and artifice in the first instance. The final scene of the film is far more significant than a tortured, bleeding woman exposed for her horror onscreen: the act of removing the child in such a brutal manner is representative of a re-birth in French cinema and a far more confrontational one at that.

Having assessed its position and now figuratively broken free from its traditional confines, new French extremist cinema is free to take its first steps. And I think Martyrs is the first step. Beginning with an attack on the heteronormative, nuclear, bourgeois family and replacing them with two strong, albeit damaged, female lovers, Martyrs proves its interest in looking for new answers to tired paradigms. Moving on to an almighty bloodbath and certainly a provocative questioning of spectatorial enjoyment of 'torture porn' amongst other things, Martyrs repeatedly asks what's next - what are the consequences of confrontational cinema and what does it hope to achieve? What happens next is a fascinating rupture within the screen world where the narrative splits and a new direction is taken both plot-wise and also concerning its existential emphasis: our protagonist dies and a new protagonist takes over. The first was weak and suffering the repercussions of her early affectations (just as this form of extremist cinema bears the burden of earlier models of French cinematic extremism) and her replacement is stronger, stoic. Our new protagonist is exposed to the same forms of torture as her predecessor (something I read as the filmmakers' commentary upon their own struggle to deal with the prejudice of preconception that they undoubtedly face in producing new modes of extremist cinema) but her response, her actions, they're different, and ultimately she transcends the earlier model, survives it and consequently reaches a higher level of philosophical and existential contemplation. Finally, she reveals all that she knows to the woman responsible for exposing her to such horrific torment and who is ultimately responsible for the deaths of many and the philosophical 'saving' of few. This I read as a commentary on the expected failure of many to move beyond the empty bounds of extremism, in both filmmaking and viewing practices. After learning the secrets of her subject's epiphany, the old woman kills herself; leaving now a baron new landscape for new beginnings.

Aside from the ways in which Inside and Martyrs are able to rethink and regenerate an otherwise quite pointless mode of cinema concerned primarily with the act of breaking taboo; the films also offer a deeper questioning of why we view what we do. By moving the extremist model into the secure boundaries of the Horror genre, these films are also commenting upon the climate of a more universalising and non Euro-centric movement within contemporary cinema. Horror is the chameleon genre; constantly changing to suit the appropriate contemporary and contextual climate amongst which it resides. Continually reinventing and rebooting paradigms, tropes and conventions it is the most self-reflexive and referentially ridden of the bunch; it is also the most counter-cultural, generic platform available for social commentary and subversive content. So, it is hardly surprising that filmmakers concerned with extremism as a communicative content would look to Horror as a platform for expression.

As I have already suggested, these films question the merits and motives associated with viewing 'torture porn', they invert the concept of both Final Girl and male-dominated killers/viewers as well as challenging the idea of the monstrous feminine by pitting females against one another, making the bleeding woman a character with whom to identify rather than one to abhor, and in suggesting that the significance is not in the survival of the ordeal, but rather in the process of enduring it. Enduring and embracing the process of change is not only the marker of a greater change yet to come, it's also the hard part. For things to get better, they have first to get worse, so keep watching, the French are serious about cinema and if what we've seen so far is anything to go by, then it's gonna be a hell of a journey to endure.

1 comment:

  1. "For things to get better, they have to get worse." Damn right, sister! Love you blog, keep up the good work.