This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Bonjour! Let’s talk about French Extremity!
More properly known as “New French Extremity,” the term was inadvertently coined in 2004 by ArtForum critic James Quandt to describe a body of transgressive films by French directors at the turn of the 21st century. The delightfully unholy confluence between arthouse, body horror, slashers, and exploitation cinema, French Extremity is a collection of films that includes work from the likes of Marina de Van, Leos Carax, Claude Brissseau, Christophe Honoré, and countless other Frenchies that share a brutal gaze and a… well… extreme approach to depicting sex and violence.
The genre has its roots in all manner of media, within French culture (Le weekend, La maman et la putain, A Nos Amours) and outside of it (Deliverance, Possession, Un Chien Andalou). One of the primary avenues through which French Extremity transgresses is its interest in bodies; in their fragility, their limits, and their weak spots. While French Extremity is certainly interested in sexual and violent ugliness, in truth, it is a wide-ranging moniker that encompasses everyone from arthouse heavy hitters like Clarie Denis to shlocky genre boys like Alexandre Aja and Gaspar Noé. All to say: there are plenty of routes into the genre and we’ve assembled ten of the best for those looking to see what all the fuss is about.
Barf bags have been provided and you may peek through your fingers if you must — but please, don’t touch that dial! Keep reading for a look at the top ten French Extremity films for beginners as voted on by Anna “fingernail removal scene” Swanson, Brad “eye in the keyhole” Gullickson, Chris “the line’s dead” Coffel, Jacob “kitchen scissors” Trussell, Kieran “femoral artery” Fisher, Rob “is it over?” Hunter, Valerie “secret basement” Ettenhofer, and myself.
10. Sheitan (2006)
Sheitan boasts a premise that horror buffs have seen a thousand times. A group of friends ends up in the countryside thinking that nothing could possibly go wrong, and before they know it, they’re being tormented by the locals. In this case, the tormentor is a Satanic farmer with a mustache (played by Vincent Cassel, the farmer not the mustache) who has something sinister planned for the visitors. The movie is loaded with offbeat humor, biblical references, some homoerotic flavor, and plenty of ominous weirdness that sets it apart from your average wrong turn movie. While not as gory as other French Extremity movies, Sheitan is still very unnerving, and it’s also really freaking funny. (Kieran Fisher)
9. High Tension (2003)
Alexandre Aja didn’t start the New French Extremity movement, but his unflinching 2003 slasher about a bucolic weekend turned grisly nightmare is responsible for introducing many to this subset of films, myself included. The film initial caught my eye because it originally boasted an NC-17 rating, and as a newly turned 17-year-old I found this to be quite enticing. My first viewing was unlike anything I had ever seen. Buckets of blood abound courtesy of legendary make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi with enough decapitations and slashings to satisfy the serial killer in all of us. Sure, the ending is controversial and impacts future viewings to a degree, but without this slice of French horror I would have never see any of the others, and that alone makes it the perfect starting point for this bloodsoaked sub-genre. (Chris Coffel)
8. Trouble Every Day (2001)
There is perhaps no director currently working who is able to capture a blend of tenderness and brutality quite like Claire Denis. While her filmmaking resists any singular genre classification, Trouble Every Day is certainly her most outwardly horrific film. Starring Vincent Gallo as Vincent Gallo — sorry, as Dr. Shane Brown, the film follows Shane and his new wife, June (Tricia Vessey) as they journey to Paris for their honeymoon. Unbeknownst to June, Shane has developed a disease that makes him want to nosh on human flesh and he’s taken her to Paris hoping to find a cure from some of his former colleagues. The film’s vampiric narrative is utilized to examine Denis’ signature themes of corporeality, violence, and intimacy. Outside of Trouble Every Day, Denis is rarely lumped in with other horror film directors, which makes this movie one of the best to watch to understand how the genre can be shaped and manipulated by filmmakers with incredibly distinct styles. (Anna Swanson)
7. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Before I knew what French Extremity was, I knew Man Bites Dog. While I lump it into a different sub-genre of films – the “let’s follow a serial killer around with a camera and see what happens!” movie like Behind the Mask and The Last Horror Movie – there’s no denying that Man Bites Dog is the most viscerally unnerving and arguably funniest of the bunch. Starring Benoît Poelvoorde as charismatic killer Ben (who also serves as co-director along with André Bonzel and Rémy Belvaux), the brutality of what the directors allow you to see can only be counterbalanced by the black comedy of watching a man scream an old woman to death. The gore is almost used as a way to shame the audience for falling under Ben’s spell, as to say “If you were laughing before, then why aren’t you laughing now?” It’s a grisly indictment of our culture of making celebrities out of monsters, all while still – perhaps in spite of itself – being deliriously entertaining. (Jacob Trussell)
6. Irreversible (2002)
Off all the films on this list, Irreversible is the one that should most be described as “not for everyone.” Gaspar Noé’s film plays out in reverse chronological order, beginning with Vincent Cassel’s Marcus enacting revenge against a man who, earlier in the night, raped Marcus’ girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci). The film follows the narrative through the attack, ending with what is ostensibly the start of the story, Alex beginning her day, unaware of the violence that will soon befall her. The controversial rape scene plays out in a ten-minute long single take and even for seasoned horror veterans, it’s uncomfortable, verging on unwatchable. Irreversible is both admirable and detestable in equal measure and it wouldn’t be fair to fault someone for wanting to avoid it. But it’s a hugely important entry in the French Extremity canon and for those who are comfortable with watching, it’s a viewing experience like no other. (Anna Swanson)
5. Raw (2016)
Julia Ducournau’s breakout film — known as Grave in France — is sleekly cool, deeply unsettling, and stomach-turning in its portrait of a young vegetarian who catches a craving for flesh while attending veterinary school. Scene after scene is expressly designed for maximum discomfort, and actress Garance Marillier is game for everything. Uncooked chicken, skin-clawed rashes, severed bits of human bodies: Raw builds itself around the queasiest possible images and follows each carnal setup beyond the point of audience expectation. By the end, Raw is also a kick-ass metaphor for, among other things, addiction. The film’s cloudy color palette complements the protagonist’s psychic unrest during a seemingly endless lost semester spent searching for the next fix, while the final scene divulges a frightening family history. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
4. Inside (2007)
The phrase “scissors” and “c section” really shouldn’t live in the same space but nothing is sacred when French Extremity is on the menu. The film (a bold-ass debut from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo), concerns a young pregnant woman whose home is invaded by a mysterious stranger with one thing on her mind: getting that baby, baby. Inside is one of the most audacious and visceral films ever made, and is, for my money, a shining star in the constellation of the genre. Going for the jugular in more ways than one, Inside is not for the faint of heart and will keep you hooked and your palms sweaty. Inside is definitely not a date movie, but definitely a must-watch for anyone looking to get a taste of the genre’s more disturbing annals. Indeed, of the top five on this list, Inside is far and away the most likely to give you a butt-cletch-caused hernia. Enjoy. (Meg Shields)
3. Them (2006)
Clementine and Lucas relocate from France to a beautiful remote country house in Romania. What should mark the joyous start of their new life together, is quickly upended when an intruder breaks in late one night. One intruder soon becomes multiple intruders and this relaxing homestead becomes a brutal fight for survival. The intruders as it turns out are shitty pre-teens that just want to “play,” and there’s nothing more horrifying than pre-teens. David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s 2006 home invasion thriller isn’t nearly as graphic as that of their French counterparts, but it’s arguably the most pétrifiant making it the perfect introduction for the squeamish looking to get a taste of that sweet, sweet new wave French horror. (Chris Coffel)
2. Revenge (2017)
Raped and left for dead, Jen (Matilda Lutz) crawls from oblivion to stand against the wretched fools who happily feasted on her flesh. The film is right there in the title. Revenge is all rage, sorrow, and hate squished into a taut 108 minutes of pulse-pounding pursuit. Armed only with a rifle and a desire to complete the mission, Jen cuts through the narrative in a straight line. The end is desirable, unavoidable, and even enjoyable. Director Coralie Fargeat lets Lutz tell the story, soaking her in a stunning style of light, and never letting the camera drift from the emotions caked on her face. The acts of revenge do not disappoint, but the satisfaction comes from how they’re translated on Lutz’s visage. That’s where the movie truly plays out its purpose. (Brad Gullickson)
1. Martyrs (2008)
The French Extreme Wave of horror films delivered more than a few good-to-great horror movies, but while the majority focused on the expected culprits — slashers! killers! diddlers! — Pascal Laugier‘s unforgettable Martyrs paired those terrors with ideas far more philosophical. The film asks questions about pain, suffering, and the effect of being made a witness to depravity. Childhood trauma, survivor’s guilt, and more come into play too making for a grim, gory, and highly thought-provoking descent into a very human hell. This isn’t so-called “torture porn,” and anyone who claims it is is a simpleton. Give it your full attention and an open mind, and it might just become one of your favorites too. (Rob Hunter)