Frontier(s) (2007)

Frontier(s) (2007) movie poster

director Xavier Gens
viewed: 09/25/2014

Frontier(s), a French horror/thriller from the school of New Extremism is another one that makes lists of most shocking or disgusting.  My recent little dip into the genre/style/aesthetic has included Martyrs (2008) and Them (2006), but has in the past also included High Tension (2004), Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) and the films of Gaspar Noé.

Conclusions?  I’m not there yet.  But I’d put Noé’s films on a different level from the others.

Frontier(s) starts out in what seems like a slightly futuristic Paris, beset by extremist politics and mass riots, in which a group of young people of varied immigrant background pull off a robbery and hightail it to the countryside to re-group.  At first, this seems like the main direction of the film, a heist story maybe.  That is until the hostel that they arrive at turns out to be inhabited by a white supremacist “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” kind of clan.

Gruesomeness ensues.

The casting is quite good, I would say.  The characters that people the film seem well-selected for their menace.  And the convoluted, not sure where all this ends aspect of the plot, leaves you never really certain when the film has hit its lowest of lows or has let its final shoe drop.

But in execution, some of the film is better-shot than others.  Some of the sequences are heavy with hand-held, quick-cut visual nonsense.  Other part of the film settle down into more coherent visuals.

Overall, I’d rate this film higher on ideas than execution, but not necessarily super high on any one thing.  It has a political critique, of course, very much about the right-wing extremists and where anybody of any outside community has no place in this crazy version of France.  But the frontiers it refers to don’t come through as strongly as it could have.

It is gory.

Them (2006)

Them (2006) movie poster

directors David Moreau, Xavier Palud
viewed: 09/19/2014

I’m your total “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of film viewer.  When I open one trope of film viewing (most disturbing films) and uncover another trope of film viewing (New French Extremism), I quickly add to my list the films that I haven’t seen and see what’s readily available.  Them is available on Hulu Plus at the moment.

Home invasion movies have become quite proliferate in recent times.  It’s not because the crime is new, but maybe because it is more proliferate than it once was?  Is it because we think that this is a realistic fear in our modern lives?  I don’t have an answer here.

But Them, which came out in 2006, was ahead of the curve on this, a little bit at least.  And actually, honestly, it’s one of the better films of this style and genre.

Based roughly on a real event, Them tells the tale of a young couple trapped in their rented chateau in Romania, tormented by shadowy figures at utter random.  Only there is a sort of twist here, the twist based on the reality of the story that inspired the film, apparently.  It isn’t such an “aha” but has an insidious and awing alienation and creepiness.

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud actually shoot the film in a refreshingly cinematic style.  It’s not hand-held camera gone wild nor is it the “faux found footage” style.  It’s a more classic thriller and all the more thrilling for it.

It’s interesting because we’ve had so many antecedents since 2006.  The ones that immediately jump to mind are The Strangers (2008), Trespass (2011), and You’re Next (2011).  At least You’re Next is sort of an evolution of the genre.

Them is a very solid thriller.  A lot more easy to appreciate if you haven’t seen too many films in its genre before.

Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs (2008) movie poster

director Pascal Laugier
viewed: 09/19/2014

So, I’ve opened another line of movie-watching (as if I needed another) and that trope is “most disturbing/disgusting movies”.  Typically, there is no definitive list of such things, but there are interestingly some movies that seem to make most every list.  I’ll offer linkage here to a TotalFilm.com list as a reasonable sample, just in case you think I’m off on some branch utterly by myself here.

Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs makes most lists.  It’s considered a part of the New French Extremism genre, a modern exploitation meets social criticism meets (occasionally) high art.  Actually a couple of those New French Extremist films make a lot of those disturbing/disgusting lists, too, oddly enough.

Martyrs is not a great film.  It’s gory, quite gory.  It’s about ritual abuse of young women and veers somewhat into torture porn as well (arguably).  One young girl escapes her torturers, but grows up a deeply disturbed and vengeful being.  Her one good friend, who really is deeply in love with her, is her only enabler and helper as they grow up and vengeance is sought out first-hand.

If this was all the film had going for it, it wouldn’t be nearly so notable, but the film twists right where you think it’s reached its limit and pushes on into its far more far out reaches.

If it sounds interesting to you at this point and you don’t know what happens, stop reading and queue the movie up.  I have a bit more to say that could certainly spoil surprises if you were unsuspecting.

The film is called Martyrs, which Laugier defines through its Greek root as a term not of suffering but of observance.  It turns out that the delusional escapee was both delusional and correct.  These people were her persecutors.  Only they were part of a much larger organization that abducts and tortures young girls to see if they can reach some beatific epiphany, like Joan of Arc.  They reference images of others suffering up until death, who seem, on their faces, to have achieved this state.

So then they flay the girl alive and drive her to beatification.

Really, this core idea is absurd.  But it’s interesting.  And the structured convention that safe and sane society has for tormenting its children…is weird and creepy.

Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure how successful the film is at what it tries for, but I do give it credit for transgression with intent, an idea of social criticism perhaps less puerile than some.

Enter the Void

Enter the Void (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Gaspar Noé
viewed: 02/01/11

Mind-altering drugs?  How about a mind-altering film?

Gaspar Noé’s psychedelic fever dream of a film, Enter the Void, is a harrowing 2 and a half hour death trip.  Shot entirely from the first person perspective (the camera’s view is through the eyes of a young American drug dealer) in Tokyo.  If the effect wasn’t disorienting enough, he takes drugs, trips out, and then gets shot to death.  When he dies, his spirit, the camera view, becomes a drifting omniscience, following his friend and his younger sister in the wake of his demise.

It’s really unlike anything I’ve seen.  Noé claims inspiration from a viewing Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film noir The Lady in the Lake, which Noé watched while tripping on acid.  The Lady in the Lake also employed this unusual first person camera approach.  I guess the LSD did the rest.

Enter the Void is something far more experiential than gimmicky.  It’s epic in its breadth, flitting back through the young man’s childhood and his relationship with his sister, the beautiful Paz de la Huerta.   Orphaned at a young age, he feels that he is her protector, but he’s a drug-taking drug dealer and she works as a stripper in the luminous neon Tokyo.  And then there is that weird incestuousness angle.

The film is amazing, really.  It’s a visual masterpiece, and the strange interior perspective, the disembodied semi-consciousness, the helplessness in death of detachment from the world, it’s a dark and often disturbing flight.  As much as the film takes inspiration from The Lady in the Lake, it also channels a spiritual psychedelia akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and I’ll bet my bottom dollar that this film finds its place among the cult films of the world, with college students and bong hits and lots of other additives enhancing an experience, perhaps steps further on from Noé’s with Montgomery’s noir film.

I regret not having seen this one on the big screen, but as intense as it was, I don’t know if I’m too keen to sit through it again.  It was an endurance test of sorts, as beautifully rendered and amazingly hallucinogenic as it was, it’s not really a pleasure trip.  But it’s a really wild, amazing film.  Heavy, trippy, epic.

Demonlover

Demonlover (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Olivier Assayas
viewed: 04/06/08

I had rented this movie a few years back and never got around to seeing it.  Director Olivier Assayas came to my attention back in 1996 with his film Irma Vep, an unusual self-reflexive film about the re-making of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires (1915) with Maggie Cheung running around the rooftops of Paris in a catsuit (Me-yow!).  And Assayas has a new film that just came out that I am interested in called Boarding Gate (2007).  This was the second of four movies that I rented, hoping to gorge myself on a variety of sci fi.

This film is not science fiction.  It’s a thriller, about corporate espionage, Japanese Anime, the internet and sex slavery.  The film starts out in the coporate arena, with the gorgeous Connie Nielsen drugging a co-worker and initiating her kidnap and the theft of corporate secrets.  Even with this event, Demonlover begins in the more traditional world of corporate battles, boardrooms, pampered trips to Japan, and then begins a quick descent into the madness and extremity of murder, sex slavery, and bondage.

It’s hard to say exactly what Assayas is getting at.  His gaze at sexualized anime is one of titilation but also criticism.  The naked girls who have no pubic hair getting raped by monsters and mayhem, what does it signify?  And then, the American business side, who seems tied in with everyone in the deepest of depths (there are double crossers and double agents if you will), there is the site itself “demonlover.com” in which, with serious security, a user can virtually torture a real person (kind of like that weird site a few years ago where you could virtually “hunt” with a real gun on the other end).

The commentary seems more clear at the end, when a teenage American boy, with his father’s credit card in hand, is the one coming up with X-men-inspired tortures for the faceless victim.  The separation of the real and the unreal, or the connection between the sexualized fantasies and the fictions, the lies…

Uh, I don’t know.  It’s interesting for the most part.  Toward the end, I was thinking that David Lynch could handle this material much better.  Maybe he has.  The message here is muddled.  Or maybe just muddy.  Or perhaps that is Assayas’s comment on the nature of morality, that it is muddled and muddy.  Who knows?

High Tension

High Tension (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Alexandre Aja
viewed: 12/13/2005

Gory, gritty French psycho killer movie. It’s visceral qualities (the oldest pun in the book, I guess, not intended) certainly take it some distance. Cécile De France, the short-haired blonde lead, is a compelling presence in the film. I get a sense that there is some feminist bent to the narrative, with her tough butch-ness, and perhaps even in the film’s final twists which I won’t detail here. I don’t have more to say about it, but I think it could be interestingly analyzed in the context of the “splatter” genre.

Oui, oui

Trouble Every Day

Trouble Every Day (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Claire Denis
viewed: 06/29/2005

Trouble Every Day is like an “art film” version of an exploitation film, beautifully shot and paced, with some less than clear narrative elements. But it has a horror film’s true gore, in two graphic scenes of sex and cannibalism, added shock value for the art house circuit and even enough to make an impression on those familiar with such violence. It’s a heck of a strange film, in that sense.

I had seen only one of director Claire Denis’s other films, the visually powerful but not so literal adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Beau travail (1999). Her work is quite interesting.

When sexually aroused, the characters of the film lust for blood, feeding on their sexual partners. It is indicated that this is some sort of disease that they are afflicted with due to some scientific experiments in their past. But, as one knows, it’s always metaphorical, even if it wasn’t an art film, but since it’s an art film, there is probably a lot of intention behind it. I guess it’s very Cronenberg-like.

The title of the film strikes me as somewhat funny, like an understatement, but the film isn’t quite so humorous. Maybe that is what it lacks.

All told, a pretty interesting film.

Irréversible

(2002) dir. Gaspar Noé
viewed: 08/30/03

Brutal and harsh, dizzying and disorienting, Gaspar Noé’s film Irreversible is far from pleasurable. Notable for a vicious 10 minute plus rape scene centerpiece, this film would make even the non-squeamish squirm in discomfort.

The narrative of the film rolls out in reverse, a gimmick that could have some significance for the film’s commentary (some issues of fate are clumsily expressed late in the film), but doesn’t feel entirely necessary. The world of this film is bleak and harrowing, one in which worst-case scenarios have already played out. The film opens with the arrest of two characters that the audience does not know and then shows them entering a gay S & M club and brutally attacking and killing a patron. As the backward events unfold, it turns out that they are exacting revenge for the brutal, aforementioned rape.

The second half of the film, which I guess begins after (or before) the rape, seems almost anti-climactic. Perhaps that is the intention. As the audience is given the backstory to the characters that it has watched in traumatic action, there is a seeming lack of profundity to their lives. All of the horrors that befalls them, while potentially “fated”, are clearly otherwise seemingly random. Ultimately, there is something potentially existential being suggested, but I don’t know if the suggestion is made successfully. The brutality of the violence is the film’s signature more than anything, something without a solid context, but utterly palpable and affecting. My reaction to it is hard to quantify.

I did find the film either vaguely or explicitly homophobic. Not only is the gay S & M club shot as a dark and frightening place, but the patrons are sexually aroused and cheering for a harsh, pummeling murder like something clearly from a nightmare. Because they used a genuine gay S & M nightclub as the location for this sequence, there might be some sense that the filmmakers feel that their depiction has some basis in “reality,” but the image of the crowd in a sex-crazed bloodlust was nasty.