New French Extremity: An Exigency for Reality

Coined by critic James Quandt in 2004[i], the term New French Extremity refers to a selection of directors whose films embody a new aesthetic of naturalistic violence and symbolic transgression. France is the den of this movement, and the directors associated with it are François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, Claire Denis, Patrice Chereau, Bertrand Bonello, Marina de Van, Leos Carax, Philippe Grandrieux, Jean-Claude Brisseau, Jacques Nolot, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, and Alexandre Aja. A similar tendency towards the aesthetic exploration of violence is discernible in other European authors, such as Lars Von Trier and Fatih Akin, but only in France do we have something comparable to a movement. However, I do not intend to analyze NFE as an aesthetic movement, which would imply paying attention to all the authors associated with it, and generally picking the wheat from the chaff. My interest lies in the work of a selection of authors – Bonello, Noé, Carax, Grandrieux – who, as much as they can be defined by their association with the NFE (an association which has not been confirmed by any of them), have created bodies of work whose coherency speaks of a new vision of reality.

The generation of NFE is contemporary with the rise of the Internet. Filmmakers, of all artists, grasped the significance of virtual reality because of the proximity of film reality with reality. We can say that cinema has been a layer parallel to that of reality, and the Internet is another layer parallel to reality, but one which is based on a code more totalizing than that of cinema (montage). This code is mathematic, but more importantly it is a language code. It is a language in the sense of Wittgenstein: it is a function whose significance is its utility.

Filmmakers of the NFE understood this radical change by reflecting on the new function of cinema. The Internet showed continuously how cinema was to be overcome in the same way as photography was overcome by cinema. However, both in the case of photography and in the case of cinema, something in the medium itself continued to bear relevance. The decomposition of reality performed by photography is what kept it alive. As far as cinema is concerned, it is its proximity with reality, its almost complete equivalence with reality that has kept it alive. Cinema is reality at 24 frames per second. There is nothing of this equivalence that the Internet has erased. In fact, the cinematic image has its place within the Internet. However, the code structuring the Internet is different from the cinematic code. It is a structural code and not a protocol. It goes beyond the decomposition-recomposition system. It is a code based on equivalences (as said before, an idea we find in cinema as well), on function and relation. It is a translation of reality into a parallel structure. When cinema looks at this code, as in the case of the NFE artists, it necessarily alters its own principle. Cinematic reality is no longer thought of as a transposition of reality, but as an encoding which leads from picture to image – that is, from composition to structure.

It is essential to note that the encounter with the Internet takes place within – and from the point of view of – the very conservative, nostalgic and blasé contemporary French society. French postmodernism has left a general feeling of self-sufficiency that has put an end to all transgressive initiatives. In connection to this, a feeling of guilt towards the French colonial past has not ceased to develop since the 1990s. In this context, the rise of a tool for social unification, and one that at the same time sets out to redefine culture and knowledge, has been perceived as a violent event. A tendency to tame, to ‘classicize’ this tool has ensued. A filmmaker like Bonello exemplifies this tendency by his blasé look at history; his movies propose try-outs of various historical models – the revolutionary model in Le Pornographe (2001), the Greek model in Tiresia (2003), and the escapist model in De la Guerre (2008) –, models which seem to have been taken from this external memory that is now the Internet. The easy access one has to these models in the contemporary situation is what makes them lose any kind of existential value. On the other hand, the Internet as database, as external memory, is the key notion that helps us understand the discourse upon structure and history provided by his movies, in which a unifying narrative functions as the ‘classicizing’ tool. This particular configuration of history and structure, although not shared point by point by the other filmmakers grouped under the name NFE, is relevant to all of them. It accounts for the naturalistic image, the interest in the close future as setting, and the disruptive narrative that eventually becomes a comment upon ‘normality’.

A second important parameter of NFE is the experience of the world according to hallucinatory drugs. We can say that only in the last decade have we been able to properly understand – and use – these drugs, which have been around since the 1960s. LSD, mushrooms, Ketamine, DMT are available to anyone, and many people use them in order to alter their reality, to “open the doors of perception”, to create a parallel reality – which, of course, is reminiscent of the experience created by the Internet. However, as all those who have had repeated hallucinatory experiences know, the problem arises when one tries to bring the named experience into awakened reality. There seems to be an irreducible difference between the two realities, and even though the objects and beings that people both realities are more or less the same, the relations between them and one’s experience of these relations are incompatible. One might call the reality of drugs a distorted reality, another might call it a lucid one. It is nevertheless separated from awakened reality by a mere degree; a degree which has no equivalent in awakened reality. Therefore, if one wants to use their experiences on drugs to a poetic end, they must find equivalence there where there is none. And it is precisely this quest that becomes the poetic activity.

Noé, Bonello, Carax, Grandrieux have all made this attempt. The very powerful notion of a parallel reality, which defines the cinematic work, is reworked with the insertion of a layer where the relations between the two realities are constantly distorted and/or made obviously artificial. One of the main results of hallucinatory experience – the confusion between the philosophical categories of objectivity and subjectivity – is staged within this layer.

Probably the most straightforward play with drugs in recent cinema comes from shock-lover Gaspar Noé, who took further the experiment with time performed in Irréversible (2002) in the 2009 film Enter the Void, a tale with no beginning and no ending, almost with no memory either, of a brother and a sister experimenting with DMT in psychedelic Tokyo. The figure of the circle, or better yet, the spiral in its never-ending movement, is exploited both in terms of subject-matter and visually, exposing the viewer to a constant turmoil of red and yellow lights, scenes filmed from above or below using a fish-eye lens, and other such technical prouesses that are either staged as, or literally are, beyond control. The aim is obviously to stage the loss of control, the condition of permanent movement and loss of objectivity – precisely the result of a prolonged use of drugs. However, reality is really affirmed this way, reality as it emanates from oneself, reality whose structure is both geometrical and fluid, reality that has lost its postmodern coolness and has become the only concern a human being needs to have. Fragments are no longer mixed as in the collage films of the 1990s, they spill over one another, they alter one another, and the hallucinated spectator is an agent of alteration as much as he is one of reason. If we were to give a name to describe the human condition today, what would it be?

One last important axis that structures NFE movies is the sexual drive and experience. Sex, here, is linked with both subjectivity and consumption; sex is both alteration to reality and conformism at its peak. The NFE artists choose to use sex as a deviant experience, as another layer added in order to create a parallel reality. Very close to Surrealism – and Bataille’s understanding of it – these artists link the erotic experience with spiritual/psychical violence, the carnal with the spiritual, totality with the instant[ii], the unconscious with conscious manifestations.

Deviant, free, altering sex is the catalyzer in Leos Carax’s cinematic stories of social outcasts. Pola X from 1999 best defines this usage of the human body and its drives – on one hand the sexual and, according to Freud, mortal, and on the other hand the conservational – as highly symbolic of humanity’s new fluid condition. Carax loves violence but not the horrifying one of other directors associated with NFE such as Laugier or Dumont. Violence is deeply erotic, and in itself is a layer, comparable to the ones discerned above as emanating from the understanding of drugs or of the Internet, a layer within reality in which the alteration of monolithic structures takes place, a layer governed by subjective rules which are in fact those of the universe perceived as mystical totality. Like in Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), the erotic violence in Pola X requires no explanation, is bound by no limits and has no real scope. Eroticism is a mode of becoming, one which is necessarily violent because it is experienced all the way – in Noé’s and Denis’s movies, the absence of a real beginning and a real ending stands for a permanent becoming, a permanent situation which can be accessed anytime, anywhere, whose permanent character is experienced as oppressing. Characters and spectators are caught in a tale in which memory and meaning are distorted, sometimes even annihilated, one is either born only to forget it the instant after, or will die and thus become something other than human, without being able to give meaning to their life. Sex in a permanent rehearsal of these two gestures.

The consuming dimension of sex discernible both in Carax and Denis  – in their movies, partners devour each other, psychically and physically – is a possible response to the fluid condition of contemporary life, perhaps even more obvious is the capitalist world from which their characters have been evicted or have chosen to abstract themselves. If consumption defines contemporary subjectivity , the product of our consumption, the drive and the violence behind it, is what differentiates one from one another. The characters in Pola X and Trouble Every Day abstract themselves from the world and abstract others from the world by consuming them; what they posit in return is the abstract condition, the condition of absence as the only acceptable reality. If one must live in the contemporary, one needs to experience reality permanently; therefore one needs to stay away from rigid structures and categories, away from burdening memory, away from consumption as a way of losing oneself.

NFE directors whose movies I have discussed above represent a new path towards the exploration of reality in the contemporary world. The general movement behind these movies is the creation of new layers within conventional reality, layers on which the confusion of conditions and operation can be staged. There is a constant experimentation with ideas such as loss of memory, permanence, abstraction (both as absence and essence), inventory and archive, and a general tone of violence, of symbolic transgression from the solid to the fluid. Cinema as a medium is reworked to show not chronology but painful permanence, not setting but losing oneself, not careful and rational categorization but fluid alteration. There is matter here for a reworking of the modernist – and for that matter, postmodernist – notion of the model, that rational structure according to which the world could be classified and understood, and which cinema has not ceased to exhibit with the help of montage. A leading (post)modern notion and its privileged medium confronted with the contemporary condition can only lead to revolutionary experiments; and there is surely more to come from all those directors cited above.


[i] Quandt, J., 2004, Flesh & Blood. Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema. Artforum, Feb. 2004. Online article available at http://www.artforum.com/inprint/id=6199 [accessed 27/07/2012].

[ii] See “The Surrealist Religion” in Bataille, G., 1994. The Absence of Myth. London: Verso Books, p. 93.

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Notes on Metamodernism, 2014