Thursday, 31 October 2013

Fear of Loss of Identity in French Horror Cinema

(First published in New Empress magazine)

Euro horror has always offered an interesting counterpart to a genre which arguably gained most prominence over in the US in its early years. The Italian Giallo series of films (which now straddles six decades) is loved and defended with an unwavering ferocity by its many fans, despite the ever-diminishing return of godfather of the movement, Dario Argento. The Spanish have their taut, classy Hitchcockian hits (The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes) but another underappreciated mimi-movement in France represents something of a hybrid of all those, whilst managing to forge its own unique voice. These films sit outside of the New French Extremism label of work by the likes of Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-moi, and offer something which is perhaps a clearer take on the genre, yet pulling in topical and socially-relevant themes which the filmmakers have acquired from the world around them.

Horror masquerading as social commentary is hardly a new phenomenon. Genre legend George A. Romero made his name by incorporating themes of racial tension, siege mentality and consumer inertia into his classic ‘Dead’ trilogy, proving that such issues can be woven into works of genre, whilst still keeping the gorehound contingent satisfied.

In recent years France has seen a prolonged period of social unrest as extremists have proved to be a very real threat in treading that political path to power. Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s far right-wing, nationalist politician (and founder of the country’s version of the National Front party) was in the running for the French presidency an unprecedented five times, coming second in the polls during the 2002 election. The hijab controversy (where social rules would appear to underpin the argument for some) continues to draw interest from the rest of the world, with accusations of Islamophobia being frequently bandied around for those who oppose. When a nation’s identity is forced into question, what could be a better way of channelling those fears (and ultimately allying them) than through the medium of cinema.

A thinly-veiled riff on those political events which transpired a decade back can be found in 2007’s Frontier(s) from director Xavier Gens. In the film, a gang of young, mixed-race crooks flee Paris during the violent aftermath of a political election, eventually seeking rest and respite in a backwater inn, which happens to be run by a sadistic neo-Nazis clan (a truly real-world manifestation of horror). The proprietors in question would give the Texas Chainsaw family a run for their money in the grotesque, palpably evil stakes, and ironically, the youths would have been far safer riding things out amongst the turmoil in the city they initial escaped from to avoid any vicious repercussions.

It’s a fatal error for the majority of these characters, and to make matter worse, the film’s pregnant heroine Yasmine (Karina Testa) is violently coerced by the family’s brutal matriarch (a former SS officer and Nazi war criminal in hiding) into becoming some kind of conduit to breed a new Aryan master race. The darkest fears of a progressive, multi-national country couldn’t be more obviously underscored than that.

The similar mix of ethnicities makes up the characters in Kim Chapiron’s 2006 gothic oddball horror, Sheitan. They’re a burly and combustible mix of youngsters, first seen causing trouble in an inner-city nightclub. A barmaid from said establishment and her friend latch on to the boys and invite them to a house in the country which is supposedly owned by one of the girl’s parents. The wired, testosterone-heavy group are under the misapprehension that a weekend of ‘Porky’s’-type escapades awaits them, when in reality, all manner of weird and bizarre incidents are to follow, in yet another backwards environment. All this is overseen by the disturbing farmhand/housekeeper and his profoundly queasy (and seemingly permanent) rictus-like grin (played by a near-unrecognisable Vincent Cassel).

Chapiron’s debut may lack the political undercurrent of Frontier(s), yet by thoughtfully casting a similar mix of actors, these protagonists inhibit that same mould of that of the outsider. This helps to create an authenticity and believability which makes them eminently more watchable lambs to the slaughter than your average, feckless all-America teen victims. The leads here look like they could have easily started their drug/alcohol-fuelled evening by sharing a spliff and bumping fists on some defaced concrete Parisian rooftop with Vinz, Hubert and Saïd, the three leads characters from Mathieu Kassovitz’s provocative social drama from 1995, La Haine (a film which also featured Cassel in the headlining role).

In the case of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s 2006 home invasion tale Them, the themes of isolation and disaffection are flipped, and the ‘heroes’ from the previous films now occupy the role of antagonist when a gang of faceless, feral hoodies terrorise a young middle-class couple in their palatial country home. Inspired by a true story, the film is a clever and effective exercise in sustained tension and terror, and the ultimate reveal of those behind the suffering is even more shocking. Thematically, the film occupies that same space as UK horrors like The Chidren and Eden Lake, where parental apathy and abandonment is the root cause of alienation and social conflict.

Perhaps one of the purest (and pulpiest) forms of fractured identity in recent French cinema is 2003’s High Tension. The film (perplexingly renamed Switchblade Romance for the UK market) pays homage to the 70’s cycle of slasher cinema from the US, but at its core, it reveals itself to be story of a split personality which arrives in a violent and shocking fashion.

With these films making a significant splash on their home turf, there is always that inevitability of Hollywood showing interest at some point. Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension, has perhaps made the biggest leap so far, (with remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D doing decent business) and is associated with the new wave of international genre filmmakers who have affectionately been labelled 'The Splatpack'. Gens switched genres for his English language debut, tackling the adaptation of popular video game actioner, Hitman. The film wasn’t the intended success it should have been and he was recently back working within the realms of horror with The Divide, which once again channels those themes of isolation and discord, this time amongst a group of post-apocalyptic survivor in a claustrophobic bunker setting. Chapiron changed gears slightly a couple of years back with his powerful and restrained remake of Scum in the Canadian co-produced Dog Pound – a perfect, evolutionary step for the young filmmaker, it would appear.

Chapiron’s collaborator in the creative collective Kourtrajmé and latest enfant terrible on the scene, 30 year-old Romain Gavras (son of celebrated Greek-born polemicist Costa-Gavras) has gained prominence and notoriety by channelling many of the same themes used by his peers, but outside of the horror genre. Its arguable however, that the simmering nightmarish sense of isolation and fear found in Stress (2008), his controversial promo for electro duo Justice, represents an even greater sense of horror, with its vérité-style glimpse at a group of staggeringly violent and nihilistic youths rampaging through their decaying, urban surroundings. It’s no surprise that his debut feature takes that outcast theme (this time using two bullied, red-headed males), but ultimately takes a stranger and unconventional u-turns than anticipated.

It’s somewhat inevitable that the filmmakers in question find their ideas become diluted and compromised as they struggle to retain what made their early work resonate, all whilst working within the studio system. Still, it should be acknowledged that, in many ways, they are every bit as relevant in contemporary cinema as their New Wave filmic forefathers were when they rose to prominence during the counterculture clashes of the late 60’s. Although a different kind of political upheaval gripped France back then, this short-lived wave of socially-conscious horror titles offer a timely and welcomed treatise of a modern nation in flux, and should be celebrated for interweaving these issues into a genre which is still underappreciated by some.