To celebrate the release of Julia Ducournau’s superb French horror Raw and ahead of a screening of Alexandre Aja’s cult classic Switchblade Romance (2003) at Picturehouse Central, Elena Lazic takes a look back at the film and the New French Extremism explosion of the early noughties.
France at the turn of the millennium. A wave of particularly nasty, hard-to-watch, transgressive and gory films swept over a unsuspecting French cinema to the shock, awe and disgust of audiences, both locally and abroad. Coined the ‘New French Extremity’ by Artforum film critic James Quandt, this wave of films were characterised by an obsession with body horror and an undeniable exploitation streak. Films as diverse as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) and Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002) all present violent attacks on the conventional, nuclear family unit. All feature gruesome acts of mutilation.
Openly designed to be unpleasant, these films are often accused of being sadistic, worthless ‘torture porn.’ But what distinguishes New French Extremity from titles like the Saw films (2004-2010) or the Final Destination franchise is the profound sadness that so often lies behind their onscreen violence.
Behind the gruesome thesis enacted by the characters in Martyrs – where physical pain is tested as a pathway to transcendence and into paradise – is a poignant story of unreciprocated love. Claire Denis’ masterpiece Trouble Every Day (2001) tells the tragic story of a cannibal forced to kill strangers in order not to devour his loving wife. The violence in Irreversible meanwhile is the cause and consequence of the absolute misery of the characters.
In this respect, Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (translated as both High Tension and Switchblade Romance in English) stands as a marked exception. The film comes much closer to the American tradition of the slasher film than to the intellectual body horror and realism of other New French Extremity titles, swapping the profound melancholy of the latter for the more conventional thrills of the former, while retaining a uniquely French sensibility.
Young twenty-somethings Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) travel out to the countryside, staying at the picturesque home of Alex’s parents. The secluded house is of course a common trope of the American slasher, the ideal setting for a crazed killer to safely massacre a handful of unsuspecting teenagers too busy trying to get laid to notice anything out of the ordinary. Sure enough, all that Marie and Alex talk about are boys and their sexual experiences.
The psychotic truck driver (Philippe Nahon) who soon rocks up to the remote house and starts killing its inhabitants one by one is occasion for a beautiful homage to slasher classic Halloween (1978). Wearing the same work overalls as Michael Myers, and like him moving calmly from room to room, the truck driver is also framed in the same faceless, quietly threatening close-ups seen in John Carpenter’s masterpiece.
Yet Switchblade Romance moves beyond mere reference and homage to continually strive to update the genre. In a refreshing spin on classic slasher tropes, Marie proves brilliantly quick on the uptake and immediately makes a series of intelligent decisions to avoid the killer and save Alex. As for her friend’s family, she remains a helpless witness to their gruesome deaths at the hands of the maniac truck driver. Their annihilation is tonally troubling – in keeping with the more ‘serious’ manifestations of the New French Extremity – proving as much a grim realisation of the powerlessness of the family unit in the face of a principle of absolute destruction as it is a gleeful display of inventive murder.
The film delays the usual game of cat and mouse of the Slasher with Marie realising that the killer does not even know she is there. This incredibly tense set-up – the film is very aptly titled – is the prompt for inventive, edge-of-your-seat moments as Marie tries to remain hidden and to overpower the killer before he even notices her presence.
When he eventually catches up with her, a brilliant series of gruesome set-pieces in the truck, in a gas station, and in an eerily abandoned greenhouse are the backdrop to a glorious homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). But the cherry on the cake is the blood-curling, very entertaining final twist, a sick joke that definitely ranks the film among the more fun and more palatable of the New French Extremity titles.
In an emerging genre characterised by misery and introspection, Aja’s film represents the perfect bridge between Gallic existentialism and the more extrovert, pleasure-seeking impulses of the American horror film. An expression which finds its renewal and continuation in the multiple pleasures of Julia Ducournau’s Raw.