2018 Film Essays

How the New French Extremity Is Redefining the Final Girl

Women have routinely received the short end of the stick in horror films. They are stalked, chased and murdered simply for being women. However, there are exceptions, with some women surviving these horrors and outsmarting the killer. Two such examples are Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from Alien (1979) and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween (1978). The term for these characters, coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws is the Final Girl. The Final Girl is the shy, nonsexual girl who survives all the way to the film’s end, endures immense suffering as she watches those around her die and eventually defeats whatever evil has plagued her. Clover initially established this term to apply to 1980s slasher films, but it is still applicable in today’s horror films. Since the 80s, the concept of the Final Girl has been molded to fit an ever-changing cultural context. A prime example is how the New French Extremity movement has used the trope to create something much more violent, yet empowering.

The New French Extremity is a transgressive film movement where French directors create intensely gory, boundary-pushing horror films. In his piece “Flesh & Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema,” critic James Quandt describes the movement as a “cinema suddenly determined 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.”

Many of these films — such as Revenge, High Tension and Martyrs — create female characters that are twisted versions of the Final Girl. These women are not the virginal Laurie Strodes and Nancy Thompsons, but ferocious beings who fight tooth and nail to survive horrendous circumstances. These films also don’t have happy endings. Most slasher films of the 1980s end on a happier note, with the killer being defeated and the world returning back to normal. However, the New French Extremity is much more nihilistic. As Alexandra West says in her piece “Fille Finale: The Final Girl in New French Extremity,” “the good are punished and the monster is a part of their lives.”

Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017) is a re-envisioned rape-revenge story that contains the most recent example of this new Final Girl. The film takes place in a stark desert, following Jen (Matilda Lutz) and her boyfriend, Richard (Kevin Janssens) while they’re on vacation. However, his friends show up and take a special liking to Jen, who walks around in bathing suits and sucks suggestively on lollipops, the image of a typical Lolita. One friend eventually rapes Jen, and instead of defending her, Richard makes excuses for his actions. Jen threatens to tell the boyfriend’s wife about their affair, and he pushes her off a cliff. While gravely injured, this does not kill Jen, and a revenge-seeking Final Girl is born.

At first, Jen may not seem to fall into this role — she is hypersexualized in every way. While the Final Girl is virginal, Jen is painted as a sex object as soon as the film begins. The camera moves up and down her body, viewing her in pieces, lingering on her legs, butt, stomach and chest. In slasher films, these sexualized women are punished for their transgressions. As Clover says, “Boys die, in short, not because they are boys but because they make mistakes. Some girls die for the same mistakes. Others, however, and always the main one [victim] — plot after plot develops the motive — because they are female.” Jen is punished for flaunting her body when she is raped and pushed off of the cliff. However, instead of succumbing to her wounds, Jen survives to hunt her attempted murderers.

Jen defeats the men who want to murder her, but she is forever changed, both mentally and physically. The perfect body showcased at the film’s beginning has been pierced, mutilated and destroyed. Her blonde hair is caked with dirt and blood. Jen’s flat stomach has been branded in an act of self surgery. Her legs are bloodied and bruised. Instead of suggestively sucking a lollipop, Jen is brandishing a gun. In destroying this “ideal” female body, Fargaet interrogates the way the female body is perceived by the male gaze. This destruction still rings true for Clover’s Final Girl, as she must be pushed to the brink in trying to defeat the killer. Jen is pushed, literally, over the edge and must endure intense physical suffering to achieve victory. While she destroys the men who tried to kill her, Jen is still left alone, scarred, and unsure of what to do next. With Revenge, Fargeat shows that a Final Girl figure does not have to be virginal to survive — she can be sexual and still outsmart the killers.

While Jen battles three men in Revenge, there is only one killer in Alexandre Aja’s 2003 film, High Tension. However, it subverts expectations of who is actually the film’s Final Girl. In High Tension, Marie (Cécile de France) joins her best friend Alex (Maïwenn) at her family’s farmhouse in the French countryside for a quiet weekend of studying. However, a deranged killer breaks in, murders Alex’s whole family and kidnaps Alex. Marie must help save her friend and defeat this psychopath with whatever grotesque means necessary. However there’s a small twist: Marie has constructed this killer in her head and she is the one who murdered Alex’s family. Why? Because she never wants to be separated from Alex.

Marie is initially coded as what one would expect from a Final Girl, particularly in her androgynous appearance, from her short hair to her baggy clothes. Besides her looks, she is shown suffering to save her friend by outsmarting the killer and intentionally putting herself in danger. However, in the film’s third act, as the audience discovers that Marie was the killer all along, Alex becomes the true Final Girl. She must endure the most pain, from watching her family die to realizing her friend has committed the murders in the name of love. While Alex suffers, she also survives the trauma and defeats Marie.

High Tension shocks the audience because it tricks them in seeing the narrative from the monster’s point of view. Instead of cheering on the real Final Girl, viewers are made to cheer for the monster until the truth emerges. Audiences trust the Final Girl and see her as a reliable hero. Aja uses that trust to create a gut-wrenching twist. While High Tension makes a questionable statement about the manifestation of queer sexuality, it undoubtedly uses a well-known trope to create a memorable addition to the horror genre.

Martyrs, the most twisted and brutal of these three films (and arguably the most vicious of the whole New French Extremity), plays on the idea of the Final Girl’s innocence, and as well as subverting expectations of the real Final Girl’s identity. Released in 2008 and directed by Pascal Laugier, Martyrs follows Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), a young woman who seeks revenge against the family who tortured her 15 years prior. Joining Lucie’s journey, and assuming the role of her protector, is Anna (Morjana Alaoui). However, even after Lucie is able to kill her captors, this journey isn’t over. In a nasty turn, Lucie is attacked by a disfigured woman that only she can see. Lucie realizes that she cannot escape and kills herself. Anna, who has witnessed this horrifying chain of events, then discovers a torture chamber in the now-deceased family’s basement. She learns a secret society is capturing and torturing women, led by the Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin), to discover what exists after death.

Lucie is initially seen as Martyrs’ protagonist and Final Girl figure. She has survived extreme trauma, and must punish those who inflicted it upon her. However, she is killed by her own traumatic visions, leaving Anna behind to discover the truth. Anna becomes the film’s actual Final Girl, watching her friend suffer while falling victim to the organization. She makes the ultimate sacrifice. But this sacrifice isn’t for herself, but for the secret organization seeking answers. While Anna continuously suffers through Martyrs, it is not for her own gain or victory against a killer.

Sexually-transgressive female characters are generally punished in horror films, while purity is preserved. However, this concept is reversed in Martyrs. The Mademoiselle tells Anna that they have experienced the best success with young women since they are much responsive to the “treatment.” Innocent, young women are the ones punished for their lack of transgressions, while others are left unscathed.

These subversions of a 1980s trope show a morphing cultural context where virginal women are no longer the only horror heroes and reestablishing patriarchal norms is no longer the horror film’s sole conclusion. In the New French Extremity, sexuality is not punished with death and the Final Girl is not always what she seems. Through buckets of blood, ruined flesh and screams, the New French Extremity is creating a cultural commentary about perceptions of gender and nihilism through the adaptation, and ultimate destruction, of an established horror trope.

Mary Beth McAndrews (@mbmcandrews) is a freelance film writer with a love of all things horror based in Washington, D.C. She’s a contributor for Much Ado About Cinema and Nightmare on Film Street. Her hobbies include trying to get her friends to watch horror movies and annoying her cat. 

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