Words By Owen Trewartha
Edgy, flash-in-the-pan, or cinema’s most intriguing genre?
The state of western cinema has become generally stale and shows signs of regressing into the more cookie cutter and heavily profit-driven style of ‘golden age’ Hollywood. A conveyor belt of the same film being reproduced over and over with identical codes, conventions, and clichés which are consumed by the masses but leave the film fan writhing in pain. Mainstream cinema is becoming stagnant, and new genres are on the horizon to revitalise your decaying movie taste buds.
Enter ‘New French Extremity’ aka ‘New French Extremism’. A controversial and deeply polarising recent development in cinema which has been both revered and refuted as cinemas newest and most artistically intriguing genre. The genre is home to hyper violence and disturbing graphic imagery in conjunction with experimental camera techniques and story lines.
Director Gaspar Noé is the poster child for the genre, most known for his insanely unnerving and visually nauseating feature Irreversible. In addition, he has released a handful of other films in recent years including Enter the Void, a psychedelic POV voyeuristic journey through the world of the afterlife.
The debate rages that these films are of low taste and use shock tactics to gain their audience. Noé’s films are undeniably graphic and describing them as uncomfortable is an understatement. The first 20 minutes of Irreversible had audience members booing and walking out of screenings, even as far as being physically sick in the seats from the disgusting images and motion sickness-inducing camera work. Noé doesn’t shy away from making socially unacceptable and taboo subjects a major part of his artistic process. Resulting in a tidal wave of criticism following a brutal and relentless rape scene which had people denouncing Irreversible as nothing but a “snuff movie”.
Parallels must be drawn to the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Previously slammed by critics similarly to Irreversible, but in the following years, widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. Noe is treading new ground and creating a secondary artistic film movement which rightly so polarises its audience. His films although seem extreme, perfectly illustrate the vulgarity of the acts on screen and immerses the viewer into the narrative like never before.
A horror film is designed to create fear in the audience member, so by Noé’s logic, murders, and sexual assaults should be made to represent the deplorable act as just that. This reaction from audiences is exactly what Noé is striving for. A dialogue and more importantly, scenes so realistic and unbearable to watch as the real events themselves. The masses have become so non-chalent about violence on screen that it takes an extreme genre such as New French Extremism to evoke powerful emotion about these subjects, once they appear on the screen.
There is a clear distinction in terms of typical ‘shock value’ features and the works of Gaspar Noé. His films show a great level of craftsmanship, excruciating detail, and impressive raw talent. This rawness is exactly what makes the Extremism movement respectable compared to releases such as Human Centipede and the Hostel/Saw series. If we acknowledge cinema as an always evolving art form as every other, directors are obliged to constantly challenge boundaries set for them by the previous status quo to make sure the art progresses. Gaspar Noé and the French Extremism genre is polarising and quite understandably repulsive to large amounts of viewers, but that doesn’t intrinsically make Noé’s work any less valuable.
The rebels and innovators are at the forefronts of any area in our culture, which bring with them both genius and idiotic ideas. They push buttons which infuriate and equally delight, meaning they are the life blood to a prestigious media form which has weaned considerably the last 10-15 years.
Gaspar Noé is one of these rebellious innovators which will continue to create provoking and progressive works in the years to come and needs to be embraced if cinema is to ever strive onward and not fall into irrelevancy. This isn’t an argument for French Extremism cinema specifically, but to any art form which is controversial. Not only directors, but audiences must attempt to challenge themselves and their cinematic pallet, whether it be developed or in infancy with interesting new content. Love him or loathe him, Gaspar Noé is exactly what cinema needs to shake the formulaic mainstream conveyor belt and begin a dialogue.
Everyone likes a good film, but a great film has both fanatical support and opposition. Only with controversy and debate does the industry adapt and evolve to ever growing heights. So even if Noé isn’t for you, he’s helping make cinema a better place than he found it.