Unless you have unlimited time to browse film blogs, websites and fit in a good three or four monthly magazines, then the recent wave of French horror (or the new wave of French extreme) will have probably passed you by, but there are some true gems to be had.
In the past 20 years, some of the most original horror films have come from le Français and this success has allowed some directors to move onto bigger (and arguably better) projects in Hollywood. These films are stylish, gory, intense, psychological and visceral, and none of them are part of a franchise.
This is a list of the very best French horror and extreme films, but beware: none of them are suitable for the weak of stomach or the faint of heart. Vive La France!
This second film from Gaspar Noé shocked audiences in 2002: people walked out of the screening at Cannes; some critics hated it while others hailed it as a masterpiece. The film shows us the brutal rape of Alex (Monica Bellucci) and the revenge her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) seeks on her attacker. The story is told in reverse, the first scene being the end of the narrative and vice versa. In the hands of a lesser director, this might prevent the audience from forming a bond with the characters or events, but in Noé’s hands the narrative journey is astonishing. Vincent Cassel’s performance is intense, but Bellucci’s solemn and engaging turn is the stand-out. Her performance reaches its zenith during a continuous, single shot rape scene that lasts over ten minutes. Without hyperbole, it is one of the most disturbing things ever captured on film, Noé himself was reportedly left feeling feeling very uncomfortable as this was filmed. Irreversible is possibly finest example of extreme French filmmaking both harrowing and brutal.
Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance)
Alexandre Aja might be best known for his remakes of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Joe Dante’s Piranha 3D, but his second full feature away from the glowing lights of Hollywood packs more of a punch than both combined. What starts as a simple trip to the family home for Alex (Le Besco) and her friend Marie (De France) soon descends into a hellish nightmare when a serial killer (Nahon) begins a seemingly unprovoked killing spree. With gore effects by Lucio Fulci favourite Giannetto De Rossi, Haute Tension has some of the most beautiful deaths seen in any horror movie in recent memory: inventive, brutal and real. However, the surprise twist before the climax opens up a huge can of plot holes that threaten to derail the film. Still, there are more than enough original touches amid the cliché to make this a worthy addition to the list.
Eve (Roxane Mesquida) meets three guys at Styxx night club in Paris and takes them back to her house in the country, where she introduces them to her creepy housekeeper, Joseph (Cassel), who has sick plans for the group. This film is a lot more formulaic than others that didn’t make the cut for this list but it’s such a fun time, although it does try too hard to draw religious connotations and metaphor. When you see the amazing Vincent Cassel in full swing, it’s easy to forgive any film for its shortcomings.
Marina De Van directs, writes and stars in one of the more difficult films to watch on the list. Its slow pacing and disturbingly gory moments make it a tough watch, but it’s worth it. Esther (De Van) gashes her leg at a party in a house she is renovating. This sets in motion Esther’s fascination with her body and self-harm. This is a film filled with a Cronenberg-esque horror of the body and flesh, forcing us to see it as a disease. Thought-provoking art house fare for a true horror fan.
Trouble Every Day
Shane (Gallo) and his new wife go on a honeymoon to Paris. The holiday starts to go awry when Shane visits a research lab were he was once involved in experimental research and he begins to feel dangerous urges he’d rather suppress. This is a beautiful film that is a glorious riff on the tired cannibal genre that seemed to die with exploitation. Trouble Every Day definitely had an influence on Dans Ma Peau and is easily mentioned in the same breath as the best film on this list, Irreversible.
Probably the most infamous film on the list, Martyrs (2008) has found a comparatively mainstream audience despite it being full of intense gore and torture. The plot concerns a vengeful Lucie (Jampanoi) and her friend, Anna (Alaoui), on a bloody revenge mission to murder the people who held her captive and tortured her as a child. Featuring excellent performances, solid direction, beautiful cinematography and a graphic depiction of every last horrible moment, this is what French extreme cinema is all about. You’re either going to love it or detest it.
Xavier Gens is another French horror director who has been poached by Hollywood, resulting in the terrible Hitman movie. When a robbery goes awry, two of the criminals bag the loot and head out to the countryside to lay low, where things start to go horribly wrong. Frontier(s) isn’t the first film to use the countryside as a setting to keep the narrative contained, but the overwhelming feeling of isolation sets this film apart. It showcases excellent performances by all the leads, but is sadly let down by some cliché plot tropes. Although, despite this, the film is in-your-face-crazy enough to pull it all off.
Like Martyrs, Inside is a film that has found an audience outside of its extreme roots. The 2007 release is disturbing and only gets more so upon repeat viewings when you know the horrors that await. Pregnant and alone, Sarah (Paradis) is the survivor of a car crash in which her husband died. The night before her labour is due to be induced, a woman (Dalle) knocks at her door asking for help because her car has broken down. When Sarah understandably turns the woman away, her refusal leads to a night of hell as the woman forces her way into Sarah’s house. The two female leads are fantastic and manage to make the extraordinary circumstances seem very real. The final third is a little sloppy and the plot is a bit outrageous, but the film is wrought with so much tension in the first three quarters it can be afforded a slight stumble or two. Reminiscent of Alexandre Aja’s Switchblade Romance and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Inside is one of the best.
This is possibly the most shocking film on the whole list. Love it or hate it, Baise-Moi will definitely stay with you because it features some of the most graphic scenes in any movie ever seen. Nadine (Lancaume) is a part-time prostitute. Manu (Anderson) is a slacker who will do anything to get by in their small town. Raped and abused, the pair embark on a killing spree across France. The reason why this film is so reviled is because every sex scene is unsimulated, even the rape scenes. Lancaume and Anderson are both porn actors adding to the gritty realism of the subject matter, although the film tends to slip into gratuitous territory at times. Shot on a handheld camera, the lighting is terrible and a lot of the gore effects are computer generated. It’s amateur filmmaking at its very best but it definitely isn’t for the easily offended.
By far the newest film on this list, Raw (2016) gives us one of the finest examples of the genre even with a subject matter you may feel like you’ve seen many times before. It follows Justine (Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian, who unrolls in veterinary school. In a hazing ritual she’s forced to eat raw rabbit kidney and what ensues is Justine’s slow decent into an uncontrollable urge for flesh. It’s a fresh take on the cannibal genre and that’s no mean feat in of itself, but the film, unlike many of its contemporaries, also manages to pull off the iconography and metaphor with aplomb. Reminiscent of the Canadian film Ginger Snaps, Raw is as much about what it means to be a teenage girl and dealing with all that entails as it is about cannibalism. The level of acting from the female leads, and the writing and direction from Julia Ducournau, make Raw one of the finer horror films of the past few years from any country.