Tuesday, October 12, 2010

High Tension

Initially Published Here

During the first decade of the 21st century, some misguided film theorists and critics decided to try and lump together an otherwise disparate collection of movies and filmmakers under the heading of “New French Extremism.” Included in this genre were films as wildly different in style and sensibility as Demonlover, Pola X, and Baise-moi as well as the careers of directors such as Gasper Noe, Catherine Breillat and Philippe Grandrieux. To be sure, these folks all share an interest in unsettling subject matter. But their approaches and sensibilities vary wildly from the visceral to the intellectual to the pornographic and everything in between.

By far the most populist in intention of all the films considered was Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (made in 2003, the director has gone on to direct several Hollywood horror films including this summer’s Piranha 3D). A straight-up throwback to the horror/slasher films of the ’70s and ‘80s, High Tension showed the world that the French were just as capable of producing a first-rate scare film as anyone. The story is as basic as they come -- two girls return to one’s country home to study for upcoming exams when all hell breaks loose. They are pursued by the proverbial unstoppable killing machine until one of the girl’s (Cecile De France’s Marie) manages to turn the tables. Or does she … ?

Let me get this out of the way upfront: I found De France’s Marie to be one of the sexiest screen presences I’ve encountered in a long time. With her large, expressive eyes and crew cut she comes across like Falconetti with a body by Nautilus. The film itself is quite beautiful at times, with corn gently swaying in a midnight breeze and blood dripping down a white closet door getting equal attention. Action sequences are fluid and exacting without any of the frantic camerawork that stands in for genuine suspense in a lot of horror films. However, the movie completely lost me during the big “reveal.” It has a truly awful twist ending that felt not only gratuitous but insulting. It makes very little sense in the context of everything that’s gone before. It’s a real shame. If the filmmaker had just stuck to the straight and narrow this could have been the perfect little horror movie instead of the dopey genre exercise it turns into.

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