The Skin We’re In: Subverting the Male Gaze in New French Extremity
A naked woman, alone in her apartment, sinks into the bathtub. Her hand trails down her body, over her breasts, her stomach, and lower, until… Her lips part in ecstasy, her head tilts back, her eyelids flutter…as she plunges her fingertips into the angry open wound on her leg. She peels back skin like wrapping paper, blood tinging the bathwater with pink. It is a perverse twist on masturbation, the protagonist sating her desires as the audience suffers while watching her. The voyeurs turn their gaze away in shock and disgust, yanked rudely from their carnal fantasy as their erections deflate like a popped balloon. This sort of scene is right at home in the world of New French Extremity.
New French Extremity refers to a movement of French films, mainly horror (though not exclusively), that force their audience into situations of intense discomfort. They do not shy away from violence, sex, and existential horror, but luxuriate in it. They ease into the bathtub, gleefully prod at an open wound, and dare you to look away. Many associate New French Extremity with the brutalization of women, often at the hands of a male writer and director. These women are not the focus of the film, but rather unfortunate collateral damage. When New French Extremity is in the hands of female directors, however, the use of the female body transforms into something entirely different. Female nudity, sexuality, and desire are removed from the realm of the palatable for male consumption, and are instead shaped into playing areas for agency, for disgust, and the deliberate subversion of expectation. This subversion takes many forms, but the effect is always the same: the female body is transformed from an object of desire into something else, something complex, human, and, at times, difficult to look at. This sort of rebellion against the palatable can be seen prominently in Raw (Julia Ducournau), Revenge (Coralie Fargeat), and In My Skin (Marina De Van), though the methods and narrative purpose of each film vary. Female directors in the New French Extremity movement pair the most objectified aspects of their heroines, their naked bodies and their sexuality, with imagery that is deliberately violent, confusing, or even disgusting, and use that combination to reclaim these aspects for the women. Now there is nothing inherently subversive or revolutionary about depicting the destruction of women’s bodies. After all, torture porn has existed for quite some time. What sets these films apart from works like Hostel 2 is one key ingredient: purpose. The purpose of the destruction is what matters. Whether that is self-destruction (as in In My Skin), transformation (Raw), or survival (Revenge), the effect remains the same. Pain or pleasure, these women are enacting it from their own desires.
Marina De Van’s In My Skin (Dans ma peau, 2002), which also features the writer/director as its star, follows a woman named Esther as she engages in more and more extreme acts of self-harm. Esther’s journey begins with an injury at a party, which leaves her with a large wound on her leg that she is unable to feel until long after the initial injury. After this, she becomes obsessed with the destruction of her own body, and the distance she feels from it. While the film is perhaps best known for its gruesome, unflinching depiction of self-harm, including Esther cutting and biting herself, and even attempting to preserve a piece of her own skin, it is the purpose of this violence that makes the film notable. It is a story about a woman exploring her relationship with her own body, and the distance that she feels from it. This manifests in the obsession with her skin, and with the varying methods she can use to destroy it. It is an act, not of self-punishment, but of macabre exploration, and is for absolutely no one’s benefit but her own. We can’t get off on her suffering or her pleasure, but instead are forced into the position of passive observer as she takes us along for the ride, whether we like it or not. Whether intentional or not, this framing of Esther’s body flies in the face of the traditional way in which women’s bodies are depicted on film. Esther is in various states of undress throughout the film, but the camera never frames her for the audience’s pleasure. Her nakedness is paired with up-close depictions of cutting, of picking at stitches and sticking fingers into weeping gashes. These lingering, sickening shots of blood and tissue seem to say: “Women are not pretty objects. We are human: flesh and blood and meat.” The film casts off all illusions of a woman as a delicate flower, and allows Esther to pluck her own petals, leaving the bare and brutally honest stem behind.
When it comes to and stripping the veil of politeness from womanhood, there is perhaps no better film in New French Extremity than Julia Ducournau’s Raw. Raw forces its audience to recognize that women are not mystical, fragile beings meant to be put up on a shelf and gazed at for entertainment. They are, like men and like all human beings, animals at their core. The film’s protagonist, Justine (Garance Marillier), finds herself gripped with an insatiable hunger after consuming meat for the very first time as part of a school hazing ritual. From then on, Justine transforms from an archetypical wallflower to something wild, ravenous, and without shame. She indulges her appetites, both nutritional and sexual, in animalistic ways: she eats her sister’s severed finger off the floor, laps up blood like a starving dog, and bites a chunk out of a boy’s lip at a party. Just as In My Skin pairs extreme violence with nudity, Raw pairs Justine’s sexual exploration with images of aggression and violence, leaning into the deeply disturbing.
Following the party scene, where Justine bites a chunk out of a boy’s lip while kissing, she attempts to wash away a mix of blood and paint in the shower. As she bathes, rather than following her naked body or framing her for the audience’s enjoyment, we are forced to watch as she fishes a loose piece of the boy’s flesh from her back molars. She drops it onto the floor of the shower, and, following her primal hunger, picks it up and eats it. Her marriage of predatory hunger and sexual exploration continue in a later scene, wherein she loses her virginity to a classmate. As the two have sex, Justine climbs on top and begins to set the tempo of their thrusts. All the while, she attempts to bite into his shoulder again and again, as he repeatedly stops her. Eventually, just as she climaxes, she satisfies her bloodlust by biting down on her own arm, hard enough to draw blood. The closeup of Justine’s face, eyes wild and blissful, mouth dripping her with own blood, is the peak of the film’s sensual savagery.
While the film explores Justine’s sexuality, it is important to note that her body is never sexualized on its own. Toward the beginning of the film, just after the hazing, there is a scene that features Justine tossing and turning in bed. Unable to sleep, she throws the covers off of herself, and strips off her clothes. Rather than anything remotely erotic, the audience is treated to the sight of an angry red rash spread across her stomach, arms, and legs. Later, in the health office, the doctor peels long strips of skin from her infected body as Justine lays on the exam table in her underwear. Even a scene dedicated to Justine’s sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) giving her a bikini wax, the camera focuses on the minutiae of the wax clinging to the skin, and the scene culminates in Alex losing a finger. Justine may be a sexual being, but it is on her own terms rather than the audience’s. Justine is at her most traditionally attractive during a scene toward the end of the film, where she dances in front of her mirror in a borrowed cocktail dress. Even here, as Justine has truly come into her own as a sexual being, the audience is deprived of any enjoyment, and the emphasis of the scene is placed on Justine’s indulgence in herself. The camera shifts from wide shots of her reflection to extreme closeups of her lips, tongue, and teeth as she kisses her own reflection. This is her moment, and it has nothing to do with us. As she pulls away from the mirror, she smears a hand across her face, deliberately ruining her lipstick. In that one simple gesture, her attitude, and the film’s attitude toward her, is made clear. She does not care about looking good for an audience. Between Justine’s journey, and her sister’s shameless hedonism, the film suggests that not only are women not anyone’s prey, they are capable of being the predators. They are not for consumption, but rather exist to consume.
While Raw reclaims female desire, and focuses on its heroine’s pursuit of her desires, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is a story of survival. Borrowing from (and improving on) the formula of the typical rape-revenge horror film, Revenge sees Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), a young woman, brutalized and left for dead by a group of men in the desert. Where previous films in this genre place a great deal of emphasis on the act itself, often depicting the sexual assault of the young woman involved in a gratuitous, borderline pornographic way, Revenge concerns itself with Jen’s survival. While Jen is positioned as an object by the men who attack her, first as a sexual object to be used, and then as an inconvenience to be discarded, she spends the duration of the film following her assault proving this assumption wrong. Jen demonstrates incredible strength, physical and mental, as she survives in the desert with life-threatening injuries, and takes out each of her attackers one by one. While the story is a powerful and cathartic one as a whole, Revenge earned its place in this piece with its depiction of Jen’s body and her relationship to it.
While In My Skin depicts mutilation as a means of self-exploration, and self-destruction, Jen puts her body through horrifying trials in order to live. Her body is not a sexual object, but an incredible tool for survival. Impaled through the abdomen by a branch, Jen retreats to a cave in order to treat her wounds. Once she removes the branch, she must cauterize the wound in order to avoid bleeding out. She cuts open a can of beer, heats it over the fire, and sears the wound shut. When she removes the remnants of the can, she is emblazoned with a scar in the shape of a phoenix, the beer can’s logo. This moment is appalling to watch, and is anything but subtle, but it allows Jen to physically rebrand herself, to stake her own claim on her body once again. Like both Raw and In My Skin, Jen’s naked body is paired with images of unflinching violence and discomfort, in the name of transformation. She spends the majority of the film in a state of undress, almost completely naked by the end of it, but (with the exception of the beginning of the film, when she is being viewed through the eyes of her rapist) her nakedness is not to be sexualized by the audience. The charred flesh on her abdomen, the shape of the phoenix rising, dares you to even try.
None of this is to say that New French Extremity is the only way to counter the male gaze in film. There are dozens of methods, from telling more stories that feature women over the age of 35 to featuring a genuinely diverse range of body types onscreen. Female filmmakers aren’t required to showcase mutilation, pain, or violence in order to remind everyone that women are human beings. However, in a world where the natural creasing of skin is photoshopped out of existence, where women are still expected to sit quietly with our legs closed, where naturally occurring body hair is shamed and pad commercials pretend cis women’s uteruses bleed blue once a month, it sure is satisfying to see the general narrative challenged so aggressively. Women are not pretty porcelain dolls or wide-eyed vacant sex toys. Women are hair and teeth, sharp edges and hunger, are pain and survival. We’re here, we’re gross. Get used to it.
Addison Peacock is a writer, actress, and podcaster whose work has appeared on The Mary Sue, The Establishment, Vague Visages, The Horror Honeys, and others. You can hear her acting work on The Nosleep Podcast, Congeria, and The Death of Dr. John Parker, as well as several independent audiobooks. You can also hear her as the cohost of comedy folklore podcast The Cryptid Keeper. She is currently based in Los Angeles, where she is working toward her MFA in Writing for TV, Film, and Theatre, petting as many cats as possible, and watching way too much horror.