[This article is about a film movement trading in sex, violence, and general viciousness. Suffice to say that the images and videos below are mostly NSFW]
Two men descend into a cavernous sex club. Sadomasochistic acts swirl around them as they journey down, dungeon to dungeon, techno beat shrieking abrasively. They do not stop except momentarily to fend off a tweaked-out patron propositioning them. Eventually they find their target, and they commence beating him to death with a fire extinguisher. The beating goes on forever, until the man’s face is gone, his head a smashed pumpkin.
A depressed woman has paid a gay man she met at a club to join her back at her seaside home. In the midst of their pained, mutually abusive interchange, he removes her tampon and places it in a glass of water. Once the used napkin has steeped, the man drinks her diluted menses.
A family – father, mother, daughter – casually and wordlessly barricade themselves inside their home and proceed to destroy everything with. They smash the furniture, flush their money, even shatter the aquarium and watch their fish suffocate. They spare only the television, which drones on as the parents feed poison to their child, then consume it themselves.
The passages above describe scenes from three European films, distributed internationally in the last twenty-five years. The first two were directed by French directors, the last by an Austrian. All three films are notorious for pitiless, meaningless violence – physical and emotional. All three were massively divisive with critics.
Each of these films falls within the parameters of a movement on the ascent, particularly in Europe. It is the movement of extreme film. What it means to be an extreme film I will discuss in due course. You have likely not seen any of the three films described above, though they are massively influential. American filmmakers from William Friedkin to Rob Zombie have spoken of the influence of this movement. And last year, one of these French extremists was nominated for a Best Director Oscar.
In short, the wave of extreme filmmaking may be the most influential and vibrant film movement of the last quarter century. And it exists well beyond the notice of even many serious film-lovers.
Extreme cinema is a broad term. Content-wise, it encompasses graphic violence, realistic – often un-simulated – sex, and frank dissection of divisive themes: sexual fetishism, consumerism, political subjugation, gender roles, etc. The filmmaking techniques associated with extreme cinema are estranging: shots that hold still for unblinkingly clinical observation or tremble violently with rage, jarring smash cuts, cacophonous sound design, and stark imagery.
Extreme cinema dares the audience to reject it, to dismiss its sensationalism. Some films are deliberately vacuous; others delve into grand philosophical questions, but there is invariably a sense of giddiness to the project, a not-concealable joy to portray the inconceivable. The movement has existed since the silent era, when Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel giddily slashed an eyeball in close-up and draped a piano with decomposing donkeys. Extreme film movements have sprung up in America, Europe, and throughout Asia. Hyperviolent faire from Japan (Ichi the Killer, Audition, Battle Royale) and South Korea (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil) has proved remarkably resilient across the globe, inspiring fanboy devotion and American remakes. Since the 1960’s extreme film has ingested the grammar of video-art provocateurs like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Carolee Schneeman, and applied it to narrative movie-making.
 If there is a legitimate reason to detest these films, it is this joy. It is one thing to show a head smashed in or a man forced to consume menstrual blood. It’s another to have your storyteller smirking from behind the camera. Worse yet is the veneer of solemnity that barely conceals this self-satisfaction.
Still, the European prototype for the modern extreme film is probably 1975’s Salo: 120 Days of Sodom. Based on the half-lost work of the Marquis de Sade, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film may be the most unrelenting work of cinema ever produced. He made it as a deliberate rejection of the sexy, prelapsarian, humanist – and commercially successful – works from the early seventies. He also sought to transpose the Marquis’ depraved epic of aristocratic excess to the waning days of Mussolini’s reign and by doing so draw a connection between the vile abuses of the Fascists and the marginalization of poor Italians during Italy’s “economic miracle.” Salo was Pasolini’s gob of spit in the face of the economic winners. In this elegantly staged fable, 18 helpless children of the poor are raped by 4 rich libertines and their collaborationist toadies. They are literally forced to eat shit before being tortured to death. Pasolini pitilessly places us not in the surrogate position of the victims but of the libertines. His shots are composed like Renaissance panoramas, with each nubile young actor positioned just so. The whole enterprise is beautiful in manner that ironically underscores the terrifying acts taking place. We simultaneously appreciate the craft and recoil at the content. In the final passage, one of the powerful fascists watches the rape and execution of a young girl in a courtyard. He is on an upper floor viewing through binoculars, and on a whim he turns them around, creating a visual distance between viewer and act. It's a nifty perspective trick that separates the audience from horror but does nothing to relieve its complicity. The view is just as pitiless, even from a distance.
 Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life is a cycle of adaptations of literary anthologies: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights. All three are glorious works, joyful and assured. Diametric opposites to Salo. See them before you see Pasolini’s last film.
 Postwar Italy transitioned quickly from impoverishment to plenty as a manufacturing base that supplied western demand during the Cold War. GDP exploded, but rural and poor urban communities were left behind. The result was a reactionary Italian ruling class that ran the gamut from merely anti-Communist to outright neo-Fascist. As Pasolini made his name as an essayist, artist, and filmmaker, his base of operations became the slums of Rome.
 Salo was Pasolini’s final film because he was murdered by a young hustler in Ostia before it was released. The killer has since stated that he was forced into a false confession, leading to renewed speculation that the crime was a political hit perpetrated by Pasolini’s right wing enemies.
Pasolini's mannered formalism makes him the progenitor of today’s foremost ambassador of the extreme: Michael Haneke. Haneke’s subjects are linked only by their hopelessness, their combined assertion that the world devours its own:
Two polite young men take a family hostage and force them to play games for their lives.
Following an environmental disaster, a woman and her children wait in a train station for a train that will never come.
A wealthy French couple begins receiving insidious videotapes of themselves, sent anonymously to their home.
A former music teacher must nurse his wife as her health rapidly deteriorates.
These narratives are punishing, to the point that want of hope torpedoes the viewing experience. Yet he exploded onto the scene in 1989 with The Seventh Continent. I've already related the final passage of this film, with the family barricading itself and committing group suicide. A rumination on the soul-death inherent in our consumer society, this work seems like the epitome of European post-existential puffery. So it would be were it not so viscerally arresting. The demolition of the house is portrayed in unadorned documentary detail: furniture is smashed, currency flushed, actual fish killed. You would roll your eyes is they were locked on the catastrophe.
much as I can appreciate the artistry, for example, of Haneke’s Time of the
Wolf (the second example listed above, about the environmental disaster) I
cannot imagine what mood I’d have to be in to watch it again. There is no
pleasure – lurid, intellectual, ironic – to be derived from it. Conversely, his
Hitchcockian thriller Caché (example four, with the videotapes) satisfies at
every level, marrying suspense, social commentary, and family drama. The night I saw it in Gainesville, Florida, the whole audience sat outside with beers afterward debating its meaning.
Haneke has always been the most assured, innovative, and curious of the extreme directors. The 2009 profile of him in The New Yorker reveals a reasonably contented man – polite, at-ease, subdued, utterly at odds with his films. Indeed, the last few years for Haneke has been harrowingly successful. Ignore the pointless 2007 remake of Funny Games, and you have three of the finest films in recent years: Caché, The White Ribbon, and Amour.
Nonetheless, I was amazed when Amour was nominated for Best
Picture. Haneke’s aesthetic is incompatible with American awards fare,
being resolutely clinical, hopeless, European. And not European in the charming Chocolat way. He trains his camera on Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva and allows the inextricable to play out.
 If we’re talking awards hardware, these three films garnered 1 Best Foreign Film Oscar, 2 Best Foreign Film Golden Globes, 1 Best Director at Cannes, and 2 Palmes d’Or.
 I was even more astonished that he was given a Best Director nomination. His cold, observational photography has influenced countless filmmakers (see recent examples: Compliance, Afterschool, Dogtooth), but it’s designed specifically to offend the sensibilities of bourgeois filmgoers.
What makes Amour so incomparable a depiction of love and aging is his willingness to stare into the abyss. For once Haneke’s pitiless eye is not on some school-marmish theme of racial/class conflict (Code Unknown) or media violence (Funny Games) but rather on the universal and universally terrifying experience of human loss. We all, I expect, fear we will not die well, or that we will not let our loved ones die well. The pairing of artist and theme in Amour produces the sense that once is watching an unknown artifact, a work of brutality that nonetheless draws you in and makes you truly grateful to have experienced it. It is one of the films Roger Ebert claimed made the viewer a better person.
No other extreme filmmaker has achieved the kind of artistic heights Haneke has, though many have swung for them. As the French extreme movement kicked into high gear in the nineties, its vanguard was led by Catherine Breillat, the essayist, playwright, and all-around feminist intellectual. In the years that followed, no extreme director’s star has faded from a critical standpoint as significantly as hers.
 Actually, the sadistic Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has produced three genuinely profound films with Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Melancholia. Still, he’s harder to classify as part of the extreme wave of filmmakers. He sort of made his own movement with the Dogme 95 manifesto and his work is infused with a Bergmanesque detachment.
Her 1999 film Romance follows a young woman (Caroline Ducey) who – having been rejected by her aloof boyfriend – strikes out into the streets in search of sexual satisfaction. The film caused a bit of international furor because of its liberal use of un-simulated sex. Indeed, it is a fantastic example of a work in which such a directorial choice assists in the story rather than distracts from it. The early scene in which the woman attempts to perform oral sex on her boyfriend is all the more unbearable for its being photographed in a single static medium shot under flat lighting. Equally affecting is the the scene pairing Ms. Ducey and real-life adult film actor Rocco Siffredi; their acrobatic coupling is more lushly lit and shot with a voyeuristic moving camera and incisive. All during this vivid sex, we hear Breillat’s unadorned dialogue concerning the feminine response to pornography.
Breillat matched the veracity of sexual coupling in Romance with the emotionally searing Fat Girl (2001). This is her unequivocal masterpiece. The narrative focuses on the overweight preteen Anais (Anais Reboux) and her ravishing older sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida). Told over the course of a weekend in a French beach community, Fat Girl revolves around a series of painful sexual encounters Elena endures and Anais endures watching. These encounters include anal and oral sex, but the most painful part of these scenes is the emotional violence Elena’s paramour Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) inflicts to convince her to surrender her virginity. Like Romance, Fat Girl ends with death, but here the violence seems to emerge from a different film. It sunders the fabric of the narrative, kills off multiple characters and yet is thematically of a piece with the preceding 90 minutes.
Catherine Breillat’s streak of maddening effective feminist parables ended with a resounding thud in 2004 with Anatomy of Hell. Once again featuring Rocco Siffredi, it is based on Breillat’s own novel and portrays a terrible series of day during which a suicidal woman (Amira Casar) pays a gay man (Siffredi) to her seaside home to “watch her where I'm unwatchable,” whatever that means. Over four nights, Siffredi drinks her menstrual blood, penetrates her with a garden tool, plays hide and seek with her vagina, and engages in meaningless dribble. Anatomy of Hell was savaged, and rightly so. It is graphic in a dull, distracting way, and its narrative arc is laughable. Nothing but French pseudo-intellectual clap. Suddenly discussion of male revulsion at female genitalia is smirk-inducing, as it never was in Romance. The glibly bleak ending seems lazy instead of stark as it did in Fat Girl. International filmgoers and distributors seemed collectively to abandon the director. Her last film to screen in the US grossed just shy of $29,000.
 Breillat’s brutal aesthetic and her recurring theme of the alternately regenerating and destructive power of sex has informed a whole style of sexually honest social filmmaking focused on the subjugated female perspective, ranging from the detestable (Baise-moi) to the compellingly problematic (Sleeping Beauty) to the sublime (House of Pleasures).
But at least Breillat is striving towards profundity. Much of the European extreme work would seem closer to what has come to be known popularly in the US as “torture porn” (more on this connection later). Indeed, works like Martyrs, A Serbian Film, Inside, and Trouble Every Day resemble slasher-films on steroids more than serious works of art.
French visionary Gaspar Noé toes the line between exploitation horror and trenchant drama most effectively. What you generally experience in a Noé film is a work that touches on profound themes with elegant, even revelatory style but nonetheless leaves you feeling annoyed and often disgusted. No one working today alienates an audience quite like him.
This is most apparent in his 2002 watershed Irreversible, that’s opening passage is described in the first paragraph of this essay. What I could not impart in prose is the camerawork and audio of the scene. Noé’s camera swirls and shudders like a tweaking observer chasing after our two protagonists (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) on their quest. The soundtrack pulses with tremulous bass that feels like it shudders in your intestines. The sequence is constructed with the express purpose of making you nauseous. It continues in a seemingly unbroken take, as the camera drops to the floor next to the felled victim, rotating and jerking with each blow. Close up, you witness his face breaking apart as he weeps and pleads.
The film progresses in reverse chronological order, and so midway through the narrative we witness another brutal act that precipitated the murder. It is the film’s most infamous scene. In an unending unbroken shot (this time still and clinical) we witness Cassel’s girlfriend (Monica Bellucci) as she is raped and beaten unconscious. The ten minute sequence (which reportedly sent multiple Cannes audience members fleeing the auditorium) makes clear two unbearable truths about the earlier scene: if anything deserved such brutal retribution it is this violation, and the rapist is not the same man who was murdered in the gay club. It is heartrending (and made more so by further revelations from earlier in the night) but I doubt there is any enlightenment to be gleaned from Irreversible. It is merely punishing, and essentially without meaning.
A more ambitious outing was Noé’s follow-up, 2009’s Enter the Void. Set in Tokyo and mostly comprised of English-speaking characters, this phantasmagoric opus seeks nothing short of redefining film’s visual grammar. Every directorial choice in Enter the Void seems without antecedent. It tells the story of a Canadian drug dealer (Nathaniel Brown) living in Tokyo with his beloved sister (Paz de la Huerta). The first 25 minutes – following a strobe effect opening credits – are told in an unbroken POV shot intended to perfectly recreate the first person perspective right down to intermittent blackouts for blinking and a color-morphing as our protagonist lights up a pipe of some mysterious hallucinogenic.
Equally shocking is that the first 25 minutes culminate in the drug-dealer’s murder. For the rest of the film, we soar over the dayglo city with his disembodied soul. We experience his entire life in a series of shots with the back of his head in the foreground. We watch his sister, his best friend, the young associate responsible for his death – all of them coping with his sudden absence. The film plays like a symphony with tiny crescendos: a confrontation, an abortion, a neon fantasy hotel, a very close ejaculation, a birth. Everything resolves like a melody at the end, less with any sort of intellectually-satisfying revelation than with an aesthetically-pleasing concluding note.
Enter the Void is creatively revelatory but ultimately meaningless. It is a 150-minute, $20 million riff on that dorm room bong session about what really happens after we die. It’s infuriating in this regard and makes you wonder what heights Noé could reach if his initial concepts weren’t one step above a freshman philosophy class essay.
As I’ve stated on this site before, anything Europe can produce and America can enjoy will invariably be exploded to its maximalist incarnation. And so, the concurrent American extreme movement in cinema has more often than not veered commercial into the “torture porn” movement mentioned earlier.
Beginning, really, with 2004’s Saw, this sub-movement finds its antecedents in three ur-texts of the seventies and eighties. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) redefined American horror by amping up the violence and draining it of moral significance. It also replaced snarling, moody villains with giggling American heartlanders. These films – in addition to launching the eighties dead-teenager horror movement – were reactions to the horrors of Vietnam, which were broadcast into American living rooms every night. The nightly ritual of consuming unvarnished death over dinner is reflected in Hooper’s family supper scene and Craven’s arrival of the murderers to the Collingwood home.
The third American antecedent for the “torture porn” movement, and perhaps still the most extreme horror film in history, is 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. An Italian production, it tells the story of a documentary crew that heads into the Amazon to find a secluded tribe. As it becomes woefully clear that the crew is unprepared for the expedition, they resort to brutal tactics in asserting control over their surroundings. Depictions of dismemberment, rape, and ritualistic killing ensue; an actual turtle is beheaded on camera. The film was banned in multiple countries due and charges were brought against the filmmakers over rumors that the murders were not staged. Cannibal Holocaust codified the artistic and commercial virtues of directorial excess. Neo-realist Ruggero Deodato wanted to use verité style to implicate the audience in the violence. Like Haneke’s Funny Games, he intended to scold his viewers for enjoying brutality against their fellow man, but he succeeded only in creating an effective splatter flick.
 A film many critics forget is a comparatively subdued potboiler with a pedigreed cast (Danny Glover, Cary Elwes) and a reasonable progression of suspense. It is undone less by excessive gore than by that post-Shyamalan inclination to tack on credulity-straining plot twists at the end. Nonetheless the final image is haunting in a more dread-inducing than stomach-churning way.
 Both films come from repurposed source material, as well. Massacre draws from the same Ed Gein narrative that inspired Psycho, and Last House is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring. Hooper and Craven removed two elements from the narratives that were constant in the sources: God and establishment authority.
The most apparent descendant to these films is the oeuvre of Eli Roth, slasher auteur of Cabin Fever and the Hostel films. All are gratuitous and unseemly bloodbaths, full of exploitative nudity and luridly descriptive body horror. They are not – nor would they pretend to be – high art. He shoots fast and cheap and knows what teenagers want out of their gross-out horror. Still, the Hostel films are compelling commentaries on Bush-era American militarism, like the Christopher Nolan Batman films or Rob Zombie’s Devil’s Rejects. A combination of Europhobic cautionary tales and sly satire on the entitlement of the wealthy classes, they serve as reminders of the simultaneous isolationism and blood-thirst that engulfed the US in the post-9/11 decade. I don’t think you can fully dismiss any film that finds a second in the middle of its climax for a scene like this:
 A worthwhile entry into this list, Zombie ingested the full scope of extreme filmmaking, high and low, and produced two of the 2000’s most effective horror films. Then, he abysmally remade Halloween. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about Lords of Salem.
On the other end of the American extreme– the high-art end, let’s say – is best represented by the provocateur Harmony Korine. Korine entered the national consciousness in his late teens when he wrote the Larry Clark film Kids, an NC-17 expose of urban teenage promiscuity in the age of AIDS. Kids vibrated through the indie scene, and its hot-button pushing nudged it into the mainstream discussion. It also wrote Korine his check to direct his own work, which he did with Gummo (1997) the first of his depictions of gutter-poor heartland America. Gummo is an incendiary mélange of amoral, desperate young folks in a tornado-ravaged Ohio town. Animal torture, molestation, blackface, euthanasia – the film is calibrated to offend sensibilities, but it has a lyrical quality. Horrifying, discomfiting scenes transition not because of plot necessity but for aesthetic progression.
Korine’s abandonment of narrative in favor of complete commitment of aesthetic reached its apex (or nadir, depending on your taste) with 2009’s Trash Humpers. Shot on VHS and edited using two VCR’s, it is a raw distillation of Korine’s most nightmarish conception of under-resourced rural America. Four cackling vandals in grotesque old-crow masks travel a desolate southland full of parking lots, overgrown fields and rickety abandoned houses. They break things and perform sex acts on trees, garbage cans, light posts. Occasionally they squat to defecate or settle into some home for a night, where they bray in abrasive twangs. It’s like white-trash minstrelsy. There are a few set-pieces: a cross-dressing hobo joins them and is murdered, they pick up some prostitutes, they bed down in the home of a man who launches into a monologue about living without a head. There are haunting images, too: a baby-doll strung on a post, a nude corpse in the grass under unforgiving sun, a woman with a baby-tram under a lone streetlight.
As with Anatomy of Hell, thy art-film community guffawed. Most critics laughingly dismissed Trash Humpers, but it feels like a necessary indulgence. Korine is not subtle by any stretch but he needed an absolute expression of his sensibility to move on to something better.
All this is to say that Roth and Korine seem ripe in the next decade to make that leap from shocking to trenchant. I have no illusions that Hostel or Trash Humpers are high accomplishments, but they accomplish what they set out to do. And they have a little something to say about this nation of ours. Roth’s upcoming films on IMDb are less than thrilling (the forthcoming Green Inferno seems like a remake of Cannibal Holocaust), but he’s produced back-to-back hits with the two Last Exorcism films and he’s the creative hand behind Netflix’s newest series Hemlock Grove. So, he does not seem to be going anywhere. Korine has an out-of-nowhere hit on his hands with this year’s Spring Breakers, a frenetic potboiler of (what else?) amoral youth with Disney ingénues Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, and a magnificently gonzo James Franco. As of this week, it’s outstripped its budget by 8 million, erasing any producer memories of Trash Humpers.
Who knows what capacity these directors have to produce something as affecting as Amour? What they have is the willingness to explore vile subjects honestly. There is plenty to find objectionable about them but nothing to find calculating. Give one of them a subject worthy of honest exploration.
So, what is one to make of the extreme film movement? Can one enjoy these spectacles? To once again reference the late-great Roger Ebert, a film is not what it’s about but how it’s about it. So, perhaps it shouldn’t matter that these works trade in suffering, objectification, and violence. Yet the works by Noé, Breillat, Roth and Korine are smug. They revel in the shit of their subjects, in the rape and abuse and degradation. Yet again, they are also uniformly well made. What separates one of the extreme films above from some D-list Uwe Boll embarrassment?
The answer, I believe, is vitality. Not a single one of the films above is one I would ever recommend to a new acquaintance, but in the sense that they offer a view into the darkness – into the unthinkable and the horrifying – they are vital.