Like any attempt to periodize an artistic movement in its contemporary, the phrase “New French Extremity” is only about half useful. It’s possible to consider what the transportation of a Sade- or Artaud- or Bataille-inspired ethic to the big screen might look like, possible even to name one or two films that would seem to understand themselves as part of such an ethic and nod soberly. But the question of which bodies of work and which directors are to be admitted, which are to be excluded, which to be considered disanalogy, and which are to be considered limit cases is still left unresolved. To what movies should we be extending this novelty, extremity, and French-ness?
The term, invented by critic James Quandt, refers to turn of the century films that find equal antecedent in both art house and horror. It is a hybrid genre that does not forefront the fact of its dual-heritage—it looks instead as though horror has learned to take itself seriously and art film to have fun. Notable directors include Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, and Leos Carax, who was described by Roger Ebert as a “raving lunatic” for his Pola X (1999). Pola X features violence, unsimulated sex, and the disaffected rich, which is to say that its New French Extreme status is uncontested. But is it possible for a style to grow up alongside its stylists? Carax’s first feature-length film in thirteen years, Holy Motors, was released in 2012. It ran for a short time at Cable Car in November, and is currently showing there again as part of the Providence French Film Festival. My cool roommate Rob and I caught a showing. The movie is French, new, and has its extreme moments, but it is a hard film to fit within the trajectory of a career, let alone a genre. As is the case with any critic-coined expression, the words “New French Extremity” only have staying power so far as viewers and directors allow them to. I, however, happen to like the characterization and am still wondering— four months after my first viewing—whether it’s possible to fit Holy Motors neatly into the category. The phrase has fallen largely out of current use, but in watching Carax’s latest work, I wonder what else we should be calling a contemporary French work that features such explicit imagery. Can we revise the phrase for our use? Does the film submit to such treatment and, more importantly, is the work required to do so worthwhile?
Holy Motors defies plot description, and not because the plot is absent or overly thick. It instead feels secondary. What matters more is the succession of images the viewer is submitted to. One memorable scene features the main character, Mr. Oscar, dry humping a nameless and red-latex clad woman while wearing motion-capture markers. We pan and they are CGI lizards having sex in a tree. This is a more visually polished film than Pola. That said, the New French Extreme themes of strange sexual practice, unexpected and just as often unexplained violence, and anxiety towards the body are all present. Thematically, it would seem to easily fit inside the moniker. But it’s also bigger. Holy Motors features musical numbers, laugh lines, and visuals of an altogether different variety than those in Carax’s early work. The director, since his going away, has grown up: the moniker enfant terrible no longer seems to pertain—and for reasons other than age. The object of Carax’s imagination no longer seems to be taboo proper, so much as something more properly imaginative. The operative question then becomes, in his artistic growth, what has the director outgrown? Holy Motors is self-contained, selfsame, and self-reflexive. It no longer makes sense to say that one sees Truffaut in the young Carax (as Vincent Canby said of 1984’s Boy Meets Girl). At a certain point, influences become interlocutors. At such a point, is a body of work to be considered too singular to be swept away under a neat phrase? It no longer makes sense to consider Martin Scorsese part of a New Hollywood. Is it then productive to use the phrase New French Extreme in conjunction with Holy Motors? The tentative and tautological answer seems to be yes, but only so far as it is productive.—DD
Holy Motors will be playing Friday March 1 at Cable Car Cinema.
Good Cop, French Cop
I had been given to understand that Polisse was something like The Wire, with a comparable crimebusting:drinking ratio, but in Paris (hence the French) and with kids, so a little bit of SVU thrown in for good measure. It’s not like that—none of The Wire’s meticulous scrutiny or SVU’s soothing moral code. Polisse is jumpy and unsettling and exploitative. I liked it.
The film follows mousy photojournalist Melissa (played by writer and director Maïwenn) as she trails members of the Parisian Child Protection Unit through some vignettey days in their fragmented, vignettey lives. Their jobs focus on sex, and they like to talk about sex in their work cafeterias, but they also explode when their wives bring up work in bed. These people have to compartmentalize. They are the joke of the department. Their marriages are falling apart. They are sleeping on each other’s couches and throwing back shots after busting a ring of Romani child prostitutes and pickpockets, taking children from their families in the process. They are bulimic and cold on the inside. They are French rappers taking a stab at acting in the role of Fred, the dedicated but headstrong young gunner who just won’t play by the rules. He reams Melissa out in front of a falafel restaurant after a long day of searching for a junkie and her abducted baby. You choose the wrong moments, he says, click-click-click when it’s gritty or ruinous. You exploit our victims and you exploit us. Note taken, Maïwenn—early in the production process she trailed the real police, thinking of maybe making a documentary.
Polisse is not a documentary, though—it's a simulation of one, with the appearance of reality and the gruesome gratification of drama. By its closing scenes Fred and Melissa lie in bed in his apartment. They are probably not in love. From his balcony she looks down on the victims she’s photographed as they walk through the streets of a neighborhood that isn't hers. Too much, yes, but purposefully so: in Polisse symbols take on human form. Its characters are Perps and Victims, but they are also Neighbors and Humans. By overdrawing its symbols, the film captures how the cops come to blur that line—and the psychological costs of such a conflation.
Polisse is named for the police, except spelled how a naïve little mignon would spell it—in this film, the cops mean something different to everyone. There are the real police, and then there is the way the people think about the real police. There are pigs and there are public servants. Who is inscribing the names of these damaged public servants onto the ledger of history? It is the kids, and they are spelling it wrong because they are giving blowjobs for cell phones instead of going to school. The cops think this is a laugh riot—it was a smartphone, the girl sputters—so what would she do for a laptop? They're howling, and she's bewildered, and we're disgusted. Who are these people?
Everybody hates the cops: this is something the film’s cops like to think about. Considering the blowjob incident, the viewer sort of hates the cops, too—can they be so blind to their insensitivity? But then we watch the smug family friend of the police commissioner as he brags about the sexual liberties he’s taken with his daughter. He’s shameless and he’ll get away with it. We watch a victim land the handspring his gymnastics coach had worked him through, molesting him along the way. The neatness is unsettling. —MD