Friday, October 28, 2016

Frontière(s) (2007)

France / Switzerland, 108 minutes
Director/writer: Xavier Gens
Photography: Laurent Bares
Music: Jean-Pierre Taieb
Editor: Carlo Rizzo
Cast: Karina Testa, Aurelien Wiik, David Saracino, Chems Dahmani, Jean-Pierre Jorris, Patrick Ligardes, Samuel Le Bihan, Maud Forget, Joel Lefrancois, Estelle Lefebure, Amelie Daure, Adel Bencherif

It's easy to call Frontière(s) torture-porn, because the label fits in so many critical ways. It came out of the general horror revitalization going on in the 2000s (and/or eating of itself, ouroboros style, with reboots and remakes of classics). More specifically, it comes of a French strain that is particularly ferocious: Martyrs, Inside, High Tension, and many others I'm still too scared to look at. Frontière(s) puts that most fundamental element of torture-porn front and center, which is the large private facility dedicated to such horrors. They are usually warehouses (as in the Saw franchise) but they may also be hostels, as we find here, or abandoned buildings in failing cities, or nightclub spaces after hours. Anything that's big and relatively private will do. So first things first, fair warning on that point. This movie is ultraviolent, albeit only in overwhelming bursts.

Frontière(s) pays respects to some surprisingly resonant sources, such as Psycho, Taxi Driver, and no doubt others I did not recognize, but the movie it most clearly seems intended to model is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It opens in a similar way, grounding itself in a specific moment of historical time, suggesting that what we see is what comes of large-scale psychic dislocations. In Texas Chain Saw, it is Watergate, and news stories about grotesque '70s murders. In Frontière(s), the news reports are about an election in France in which an extremist rightwing group has come to power. The public response has been widespread rioting with brutal police crackdowns. But that's not even the very first images and scene in the picture, which are video of an ultrasound that is hard to make out, and a woman in voiceover—Yasmine (Karina Testa), we find out later—ruminating on her decision to end her pregnancy.

The terms of the movie take some time to sort out. Against the backdrop of the rioting and civil unrest, our primary characters begin to distinguish themselves. They have robbed a bank, taking advantage of the chaos, but the getaway has been botched. One of theirs has been shot. They can't go to a hospital and they need to leave the city as quickly as possible, making for the "frontiers"—the border crossing into Holland. With two cars, they split into two pairs, and plan to rendezvous by mobile phone as they can.

Among other things, Frontière(s) is a first-rate action picture. Director and writer Xavier Gens plainly knows how to stage and shoot firefights, car chases, and hand-to-hand combat, with and without weapons, and other stunts, assembling and inserting them as set-pieces. The dynamic of this movie is swift and constant change. You know the action is coming when the film stock switches over. The cross-cutting sequences that are enabled by splitting these characters up over and over again, the pairs and then the individuals, and tracking with each one, create propulsive momentum as characters meet their fates, or discover the fates of others. This movie is also good at advancing the plot with clarity, even with a lot of things going on at once.

The place in the country, short of the Holland border, where they all end up, is a house of horrors masquerading as a hostel. It is E - V - I - L from the moment we see the first interior. "Good evening ladies. Can we get a room?" the first bank robber in says to the Betty and Veronica behind the counter. Helpful moody blues music cues us as well. "Everything is possible here," says the Betty we will come to know as Gilberte. It's a small role in the general scope, but every member of the family operating the hostel comes to be burnt into your memory one way or another: Klaudia, Eva, Hans, Goetz, Karl, and especially Von Geisler (Jean-Pierre Jorria), the patriarch.

The hostel in the countryside, you see, is operated by modern Nazi cannibals. At this point in my notes I start using the word "horrible" a lot. There is a scene, for example, approximately the longest 11 minutes in my life, in which Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani) must crawl through a tightly enclosed space underground and they keep getting blocked, mostly by their own fear and panic. Horrible. It's horrible what happens to Tom, and even more horrible when Alex (Aurelien Wiik) discovers it and tries to help him. It's horrible what happens to Alex too. The whole movie is basically capture, escape, and evade capture, with lots of surprises, usually horrible. Plus corpses everywhere. Everywhere.

Somehow it works. (I was relieved to find Manohla Dargis of the New York Times likes it too, because I hate to be seen as an advocate of torture-porn.) And I think it works because, in spite of the implications of the primary label, most of the deaths here are actually quite horrible to witness. They have meaning, not meaninglessness. We know Tom as a good-hearted fool, and Farid as a romantic naif, and Alex and Yasmine as a typically troubled 20something couple. We know who is dying and it hurts.

What's wickedly sharp about Frontière(s) is how it weaves all of it into a narrative that is impossible to stop looking at. Texas Chain Saw provides the frame and even a couple of the characters, notably Hans as the butchering Leatherface (who recall was equally minor in the original). This story with all its trappings, even including dinner table scenes with the whole family, is somehow supercharged via the expedient of its underlying political story, imagining the rise of Nazism, called that, in modern Europe. Horrific vision—the white devils unshackled at last. Once this movie makes that believable, which is accomplished early in the news report footage and the scenes in the city, we are as trapped in that hostel as anyone in the movie. At a certain point it becomes pure spectacle. I can't take my eyes off of it. And it keeps pulling tricks, all the way to the end. Put it on your Halloween schedule, if you keep one.


  1. Jeff. Just watched this. gruesome. Wow. Thanks for your spot on review.

  2. The look of this, which is probably characteristic of all torture porn (I have no idea?), is the first thing that jumped out at me. Digitally lurid noir? Early shots on the road were particularly beautiful. And the political subtext delivers some savage black comedy too. A paranoid nightmare of immigrant/mixed-race/minorities living in the suburbs of Paris. Disgusted by rightwing boss politics, sick and tired of skirmishing w/ the police in the streets, in their desperate escape they run smack dab into some unfathomably evil bumpkin Deliverance-like Nazis living in the rural frontiere(s) of France. "Skim the fat off of them," the old Nazi guy orders, after killing a couple of the city mongrels. But only the mixed-girl is left standing, as she turns herself over to the police she was fleeing only 24 hours b/f. Too much gratuitous grossness for me but that it'd likely offend Le Pen's French even more than a squeamish horror wimp like me counts for points in my book.