Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema and The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Henry K. Miller
Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema
by Tim Palmer. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 304 pp., illus. Hardcover: $80.00, Paperback: $28.95, and E-Book: $22.99.
The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe
Edited by Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (Distributed in the U.S. by Columbia University Press), 2011. 252 pp. Hardcover: $110.00.
Frequently disclosing affinities between the discourses of marketing and contemporary academia, Tim Palmer’s Brutal Intimacy, a survey of French cinema since 2000, is almost faultlessly slick. Instead of focusing on a narrow group of auteurs or genres, Palmer’s definition of “contemporary French cinema” encompasses everything from popular hits such as Laurent Baffie’s Car Keys (2003) to some of the most disturbing examples of what James Quandt christened “the New French Extremity”—films such as Gaspar Noé’sIrréversible (2002), a shock fest that features a brutal rape and a relentlessly cacophonous soundtrack, and Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), which condemns its unsuspecting protagonists to a horrifically violent demise.
Setting out to “broaden the canon,” Palmer does not limit his scope to any specific tendency, nor to films in isolation; his stated “intention is to offer any critical methods as defined by the actual range of films encountered,” these being, in theory, “unfiltered.” In practice there are chapters on the five César Best First Film award nominees of 2008; on women directors; on box-office hits like Mesrine (2008) and the OSS 117 films; and on the work of filmmakers such as Dumont that comprise a supposed cinéma du corps, a group of directors whose forays into graphic sex, graphic violence, and graphic sexual violence provoked and continue to provoke controversy. This supposedly egalitarian juxtaposition of pop culture and auteurist exercises in provocation represents an attempt to encompass the whole of French “film culture,” understood as a highly successful “ecosystem.”
Annual production in France doubled between 1994 and 2009 from a starting point of eighty-nine films, and in 2008, French productions narrowly outperformed U.S. productions in the home market. In sometimes dispiritingly appropriate prose, the chief merit of the book is its clear-eyed account of a business in boom time, and the French state’s role in supporting it.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), in a typical passage, gained “privileged access to the prestigious North American market” after being “chosen for the 2006–7 and 2007–8 Tournées Festival, a package of films made available via $180,000 worth of competitive grants to American schools and universities by the French American Cultural Exchange (FACE), partnered with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, the CNC [Centre National de la Cinématographie], and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” The goal of the DGA-hosted City of Lights, City of Angels “festival” in Los Angeles is “to put the diversity of French cinema in the shop window: from the upper echelons of the arthouse, to the broader fare of the popular mainstream, to the pop-art facets of both.”
The chapter on what Palmer calls “pop-art cinema” suggests a more fruitful form for the book, based less on analyses of often undeserving movies than on providing a useful contextual framework for understanding a disparate group of films. Yet the chapter often raises compelling questions without entirely answering them. Learning, for example, that Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover (2002) “came from writing that was critiqued, then encouraged, by Assayas’s reading group, perhaps the most illustrious such gathering in France, consisting of Claire Denis, Jacques Fieschi, and Emmanuèlle Bernheim,” one wants to know what writing, rather than see the film dragged into another academic game of “breaking down the binaries,” of which there’s altogether too much. In the chapter on “feminine cinema,” we wait a long time for a definition of the “stylistic vocabulary of feminine cinematic design” that turns out to be “a fundamentally open system, with multifaceted options encompassing radical impulses alongside reconfigured features from the commercial mainstream,” a construction that leaves a lot of leeway.
Given this flexibility, it is surprising that the stable identity of “French cinema,” in an era of accelerated globalization, and in particular of political and economic integration in Europe, goes unquestioned. Both Demonlover and the productions of EuropaCorp (The Transporter series, etc.), also discussed in the “pop-art” chapter, open a boarding gate to a flight Palmer is reluctant to take, and their implications for the “Frenchness” of French cinema are not deeply probed. Conversely, the expanded role of the French industry abroad—perhaps most significantly in the Maghreb, but also including backing for directors from Mike Leigh to Tsai Ming-liang, which might complicate the matter yet further—doesn’t come up.
Indeed, while the book pays tribute to Parisian screening culture, “still far and away the world’s most advanced,” one has occasional doubts about its commitment to cinephilia. In a list of 156 classics prescribed to students at the elite La Fémis training school, focus of the book’s conclusion, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mikio Naruse, and Maurice Pialat are deemed “wild cards,” and elsewhere Iranian cinema is characterized by “arthouse solemnity” and “cost-efficient location shooting.” Meanwhile, “French cinema is defined, either strategically or ubiquitously, by stylistic virtuosity for its own sake.” Sometimes, as with the middle clause in that sentence, the book’s own virtuosity raises suspicions. I am unconvinced by its three uses of mise-en-abyme and am pretty sure that describing the ending of Innocence as a “temporal malapropism” is itself a malapropism.
All in all, Brutal Intimacy is neither brutal nor intimate enough. There’s nary a word of criticism throughout: though useful, the encomium for La Fémis, complete with graduate testimonials, inevitably leaves one wondering about the rejects and dropouts. And there are few instances, even in discussion of the body of films that gives the book its title, of personal response.
Those films, the likes of Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), Noé’s Irréversible (2002), Philippe Grandrieux’s La Vie nouvelle (2002), and Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, belong more or less to the cinéma du corps tendency or Quandt’s “New French Extremity” rubric—thematically and stylistically miscellaneous but unified, according to Quandt, by the “determination to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.” Expanding the discussion to continental dimensions, a new anthology, The New Extremism in Cinema, begins with Quandt’s polemic, originally published in Artforum, and ends with a new Afterword by the same hand, titled “More Moralism from that ‘Wordy Fuck.’”
The editors—one of whom, to declare an interest, I know—put, unlike Palmer, “personal response” front and center, in acknowledgement of the films’ self-conscious attempts to provoke it. As a result it’s a volume that’s liable to start fights, perhaps even among its own contributors. Beginning, Irréversible-style, at the back, we find Quandt mortified that inclusion of Denis’ atypical cannibal feast Trouble Every Day (2001) in his original article led to her being labeled on her own European Graduate School faculty biography page as “representative” of a movement she only dabbled in, and smacking down critics who objected to his “deliberate avoidance of theory—no mentions of Kristeva’s ‘abject’, obligatory references to Deleuze, or forging of neologisms ending in ‘ivity’ or ‘ality.’”
In between the two Quandt pieces, Trouble Every Day gets fourteen index entries; but the rest of the collection by no means presents a united front against him. Martin Barker’s contribution, notionally based on empirical research, takes aim at the common critical ploy of conjuring “figures of the audience,” the imagined responses of others—but not to encourage a more honestly first-person approach. Instead, Barker crudely filters his sample data—unwitting participants in Internet debates his team has monitored and questionnaire respondents—into capitalized “Embracers” and “Critics,” listening only to the former, in order to contest what he believes to be dubious “common sense” (his scare quotes) assumptions like “under no circumstances should a representation of sexual violence produce sexual arousal.” It’s a chapter short on evidence and long on insinuations.
Fortunately, the other contributors find ways of talking about spectatorship and affectivity that defy Barker’s injunction on such no doubt “Critical” faculties as ethical discrimination, humane sympathy, and imagination. Tina Kendall provides an image of a kind of incredulous “audience figure” who refuses the command to be shocked; Catherine Wheatley describes a “functional sado-masochistic relationship” with the screen; Jenny Chamarette treats Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998) as “a starting point for thinking subjectivity outside the sphere of the human,” with reference both to the abject and to Deleuze; Martine Beugnet construes the films as a radical, nondiscursive response to collaboration, colonialism, and consumerism, arguing their significance “emanates precisely from their resistance to be thus reduced to metaphorical reading in the conventional sense.”
The question whether the new extremism is still a going concern is raised more than once; but ten years is a long time in movies, and both books, rather than “broadening” the canon, serve the more pertinent end of helping to define it, The New Extremism adopting an appropriately quarrelsome form. Moreover, the Europe of this particular ten-year stretch feels, for better and worse, like another epoch already.
Henry K. Miller has written for Cinema Scope and N1BR and blogs occasionally for The Guardian. He lives in Cambridge and has taught at Anglia Ruskin University.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine.