In 2004, James Quandt dubbed the output of a now familiar set of auteurs (e.g. Breillat, Dumont, Noé, etc.) the “New French Extremity,” in which the acute provocations of “…gang rapes, bashings and slashings and blindings, hard-ons and vulvas, cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest, fucking and fisting, sluices of cum and gore” originate not in their novelty, but in their contextual trespass, from low forms (splatter; porn) and concomitant modes of exhibition to the ostensibly higher, wider province of art cinema. David Edelstein has echoed this view regarding so-called torture porn, claiming that “Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation” have risen from their confines to mainstream venues.
Though the former enjoys an artistic legitimacy not yet available to the latter, the conversations around both extreme cinema and torture porn tend to home in on graphic spectacle and the ordeal of duration–what we see, how we see it, the challenges posed to seeing and the possible value of seeing said challenges through–such that both are conspicuously quiet on narrativity; the consensus seems that gore is the story, even as one critic’s “plotless carnography” is another’s “profoundly empirical cinema.”
What the function of rape in extreme cinema calcifies is that torture, like porn, relies on and reproduces narratives inextricable from the affects they express. Take Xavier Gens’ The Divide (2011), follow-up to 2007’s Frontière(s). Like so many post-apocalypse films, The Divide appears to depict the lengths to which people will go when pushed by a survival imperative: extreme circumstances begetting extreme measures. Yet the logic underlying such films’ disturbance is not that of lengths, but of terrifying nearness–such that characters explicitly acknowledge the inevitability of brutal acts that we spectators must find “shocking” to perceive as extreme. Or can events anticipated obtain extremity in their imaging alone?
In the case of The Divide, mother Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) loses her young daughter and turns from her grief to sex–an initial show of agency gradually extinguished by the group’s unraveling. After witnessing her gang rape, fellow survivor/Final Girl Eva discovers Marilyn in lipstick and duct tape, bound to a bed, essentially fucked to death, and while the image itself–and the earlier scene to which we, via Eva, are voyeuristically captive–is sensationally cruel, it’s not the shock but the confirmation of Marilyn’s destruction, and the radical familiarity of such horrors, that “extremity” as descriptor or heuristic fails to help us understand.