A Look Back at Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s)

It’s been over a decade since the emergence and popularity of the French Extremity horror films.  Today, films like High Tension, Martyrs, and Inside are generally considered classics of the 21st Century by horror fans, and the directors, especially Alexandre Aja and Pascal Laugier, have gone on to have successful careers as  directors. When looking back on the last decade and the success of these films, there should be more attention given to Xavier Gens’ 2007 film Frontier(s), which accurately predicted and responded to the rise of right-wing populism in Europe.

The term the New French Extremity was first coined by Artforum critic James Quandt, and while it may be impossible to fully define the term or this particular style of cinema, film blogger Matt Smith once said that this wave of films does have two common themes: home invasion and/or fear of the Other.

The second theme is especially applicable to Frontier(s), which opens in Paris, torn apart by riots due to the election of a far-right candidate to the presidency. The rest of the film focuses on a group of four Muslim teens who plan to run away from Paris to Amsterdam with a bag full of robbed money.  Two of them, Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani), decide to stop in a b & b, where they encounter neo-Nazis/cannibals. Eventually, the remaining teens, Alex (Aurelien Wiik) and Yasmine (Karina Testa), go looking for their missing friends at the b & b, and from there, things don’t go well. More specifically, the cannibal family’s patriarch and former SS officer, Le Von Geisler, wants to make Yasmine a mother for the new Aryan race.

Like other French Extremity films, Frontier(s) is seeped in heavy gore and violence, similar to some of the American horror films of the early 2000s, such as Saw and Hostel. The cannibal Nazis, meanwhile, are Gens’ nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and grindhouse films of the 1970s, especially some of the dinner scenes.

Yet, looking back at the film over a decade later, it’s the political backdrop that stands out. In an interview with the website Horror Pilot, Gems described his influence for the film, stating, “I started to think about the story in 2002 during the presidential elections in France. When the extreme right arrive in the second turn, I got really scared. And that gave me the idea of the film.”

This fear is obvious in the opening minutes, which features cops dressed in riot gear, protestors flooding the streets of Paris, and sheer chaos of tear gas and bullets that forces the group of four Muslim friends to flee the country. The sadistic cannibals are a reminder of how the old ghosts and ideas of white supremacy still linger, to the point that a living  Nazi war criminal is the one who orchestrates the events, including the severe torture that occurs in underground chambers. The film features other torture too, including a scene in which the family feeds pork to Tom and Farid, suspecting that they are Muslim.

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Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani) sitting down for dinner with the Nazi cannibals

When the film was released, the reviews were mixed. Writing for Slant Magazine, Ed Gonzalez had this to say:

The film unspools as a seizure-inducing succession of nonstop screaming, references to horror-film freakouts old and new, and slick market-tested shocks, beginning with a protest rally in the wake of the election of a French right-wing nut and ending with Karina Testa’s Last Girl Standing “escaping” from an inn where a deranged posse of cannibalistic neo-Nazis is trying to renew the blood of their family. It sounds enticing, but Gens’s engagement with the contemporary racial discord currently tearing at France’s bowels isn’t sincere but rather a transparent ploy to give the film a sense of gravitas.

Looking back, the political turmoil evident in Gems’ film, especially the opening sequence, does seem sincere. As he said in the interview with Horror Pilot, he was inspired to create the film after the election results of 2002 and the rise of the far-right. Beyond that, the film’s opening predicted the turmoil that would consume Europe over the next several years and the rise of the AdF Party in Germany, Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party in France, and the authoritarian regimes that have swept power in Poland, Hungary, and most recently, Italy. The fear of the Other by white Europeans, underscored to the extreme by the cannibalistic neo-Nazis, foreshadowed the immigration crisis that would consume the EU for the next decade.

The power that Le Von Geisler  wields over the family is also built on abuse towards women. Two of the family’s members, Gilberte (Estelle Lefebure) and Klaudia (Amelie Daure), are forced to offer sex to any brown-skinned newcomers that stumble upon their b & b. This is a way to convince them to stay, and early in the film, the friends discover several passports belonging to others that were kidnapped, tortured, and cooked. Yasmina, meanwhile, is only spared when it’s discovered she’s pregnant and the Nazis find a use for her in their desire to create the master race. It should be noted that Yasmina is one of the strongest Final Girls in any of the French Extremity films, enduring countless waves of torture, including watching her friends and boyfriend die, and yet enduring and resisting such a brutal form of patriarchy.

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Frontier(s) feels eerily relevant a decade after its release. From the opening scenes of unrest in Europe, to the female protagonist’s survival against a relentless patriarchy, the film is one of the real standouts of the French Extremity films from the last decade. It was speaking to issues that would only become more prevalent in the years following its release.

 

 

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