Photo courtesy of Climax (2019)

The Brutal and the Beautiful: What’s Next for French Horror

Around the turn of the century a new body of films was growing in French cinema. This body was aggressively transgressive, gory, and heavily aestheticized.  

It pushed the limits of what had been shown in horror films until that point in cinema and created many films that one may find on ‘the most disturbing movies ever’ lists made by media analysts and film enthusiasts alike.  

There are different names for the movements that these films came from, like “New Wave French Horror”, “French Extremity”, or “Cinema of the Body”, however, all these films have been pushing the envelope of what constitutes as film horror for decades. 

It’s difficult to concretely establish what makes an extremity film, but these movies consistently find a point between arthouse and slasher. They collide horrific gore and violence with beautiful and unique cinematography with striking visuals. 

It’s a fascinating pursuit to interjoin style and beauty with carnage and blood-soaked violence, and many of these French filmmakers push further and further into both the arthouse and taboo with each film. 

Another common characteristic of French extremism is the visceral fascination with the human body. Body horror is at its most intense and experimental here, as these filmmakers explore it in ways that are both shocking and existential. 

As one might assume, these films are not always the most palatable to general audiences, so extremity films began to die away in French horror cinema the 2010s.  

However, there have been a few recent releases that hint at the return of extreme films, and it is safe to assume that more will be produced by arthouse filmmakers or prominent indie production companies like A24 in the 2020s. 

Here are some amazing ‘extreme’ French horror films that have come out in the past couple of years. This will give you something to chew on if you’re brave enough.

Photo courtesy of Climax (2019)

First up, Gaspar Noé’s 2019 film, Climax.  

Simply put, this movie is about a group of dancers enjoying a post-rehearsal after party in a remote school building until they realize that someone has spiked their sangria with LSD —  a lot of LSD.  

The party becomes a neon-colored nightmare full of paranoia as the dance troupe members try to survive the night and discover who spiked the drinks. 

Climax is a film I will probably never stop talking or thinking about. The style in this film is unreal and absolutely hypnotizing.  

Cool showcases of street and ballroom styles set to the sounds of late disco and 90s electronic music introduce us to our eclectic ensemble of characters. 

There is a long shot (a shot that’s filmed without cutting or the noticeable presence of cuts) that spans for 42 minutes as the camera twists and turns around the school building. There’s even a good ten minutes of the film where it is shot entirely upside down.  

Plus, the dance sequences and soundtrack are to die for.  

Gaspar Noé is a director with very controversial films in the French extremity subgenre, and he is known for his unconventional and, frankly, insane movies.  

However, Climax is an easy-ish gateway into the crazy world of debauchery and exploration of life and death. While it is certainly not for everybody, you won’t be able to get it out of your head after watching it. 

Photo courtesy of Raw (2017)

Next up, is Julia Ducournau’s 2017 film, Raw. 

This film is about a lifelong vegetarian, Justine, beginning her first year at a prolific French veterinary school.  

The hazing there is wild and merciless, and when the girl is forced to eat raw meat for the first time, it awakens a craving for a new kind of meat: human flesh. 

This movie is absolutely wild, with so many twists that caught me off guard. I never knew what to expect from the characters, making for a very exhilaratingly tense journey as Justine struggles to fight against her cravings. 

Director Ducournau also has an incredible style that pairs cloudy days with neon-colored nights accompanying a deep synth soundtrack that’s genuinely unsettling. 

This film is a good example of body horror in French extremity, as its graphic violence really pushes the boundaries of what we see in film, while also contemplating subjects such as: our most primal nature as humans and the possibilities that lie there.  

It’s best to say as little as I can about the content of this film for the sake of spoilers, but it is certainly worth a watch if you’re a horror fan. 

Ducournau is a director to look out for in horror right now, and if you enjoy watching Raw you should check out her recently released 2021 film, Titane. It’s said to be even bolder and crazier than the last, and I have a feeling it is going to set the stage for more extreme films to make a comeback. 

While the future is unclear for the transgressive and unique subgenre of film that is French extremity, I don’t think it will ever truly leave France’s cinema, and films like these prove that.  

There is always going to be ground to cover when exploring the possibilities of human existence, and great filmmakers like Ducournau make it feel like we’re only at the beginning of the next French horror movement. 

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