Sunday, October 28, 2012
13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Frontier(s)
Imagine ‘Hostel’ meets ‘La Haine’, but moving from the urban jungle to the isolated rural locale of, say, ‘Calvaire’ or ‘Haute Tension’, and with an anti-Nazi commentary, and you’ve got ‘Frontier(s)’, Xavier Gens’ brutal and shattering feature-length debut.
As Paris riots following the election of a right-wing government, a gang of youths dodge the bullets, the burnt-out cars and the ministrations of a bludgeon-first-ask-questions-later police force. They have a bag of stolen money and one of their members is nursing a wound that’s leaving him closer to death every minute it goes untreated. Their priority is to get the fuck out of Paris, head through the country and make for the border. They have a vague plan involving getting to Holland, but just staying alive is going to prove the real challenge.
Let’s meet our hoodie (anti)heroes, and I’ll be honest here – for the first twenty minutes of the movie they present as a bunch of total wankers. We’ve got Alex (Aurelian Wiik), the nominal leader of the group; Tom (David Saracino), his unpredictable and moody second-in-command; the moderately more sensible but gauche Farid (Chems Dahmani); Sami (Adel Bencherif), the aforementioned injured party; and Yasmine (Karina Testa), Sami’s sister, who is pregnant with Alex’s child.
For a while, ‘Frontier(s)’ reminded me of Kim Chapiron’s ‘Sheitan’ (made a year before Gens’ opus) – a bunch of unlikeable youths head for the country and fall afoul of some scarily fucked-up backwoods types. But whereas ‘Sheitan’ has a barnstorming and perversely likeable performance from Vincent Cassel as the anti-heroes’ chief antagonist, ‘Frontier(s)’ gives us a villain whose icy, buttoned-down aesthetic allows for no guilty pleasure style empathy. A villain, moreover, whose agenda anchors the second half of ‘Frontier(s)’ despite Gens’ increasingly frenzied set-pieces. If ‘Sheitan’ is ultimately a black comedy, there is nothing funny about ‘Frontier(s)’.
With the script splitting Alex’s gang up – to the point, as things progress, where they’re often alone and confused and pitifully unprepared for the nasty shit that’s in store for them – they delivered into the less than tender care of former Nazi war criminal Von Geisler (a genuinely terrifying Jean-Pierre Jarris) and his family of grotesques. How grotesque? Put it this way: the Von Geisler clan make la familie Leatherface look like the freakin’ Waltons.
Von Geisler (known as “papa”, the only remotely comforting aspect to his persona) is keen for son Karl (Patrick Ligardes) to take his place as the head of the family. And who can blame him with only the corpulent Hans (Joel Lefrancois) and the thuggish Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan) offering any competition? He is entirely blameworthy, however, in pimping out his daughter Gilberte (Estelle Lebefure) to ensnare victims, and forcing the abducted and cowed Eva (Maud Forget) into a life of servitude at the family’s behest.
The travails that the Von Geislers put our delinquent protagonists through are straight-up torture porn, as visceral and unflinching as anything that venal subgenre has served up. For the most part, though, he doesn’t linger on the violence – it is sudden, shocking and all the more effective as a result. If anything, Gens pays more attention to the grue when the remaining survivor fights back in the protracted finale (particularly during a bit of business involving a circular saw).
There’s also a suspenseful woman-in-peril sequence as Yasmine realizes that, unlike the outpouring of race-hate that motivates the attacks on her friends, the family have a different fate in mind for her. Which isn’t to say that ‘Frontier(s)’ channels suspense tactics over outright gore. The film is as blood-soaked and gruelling in its catalogue of nastiness as any other example of the new wave of French horror – and, yes, I’m including ‘Martyrs’ and ‘Inside’ in that assessment.
Indeed, with the spatial peregrinations which suggest that the film’s second half plays out across an area at least three times bigger than the establishing shots of the Von Geisler farm imply, and with a shoot-out-and-explosions finale that seems to have wandered in from a Luc Besson production, there’s no denying that ‘Frontier(s)’ goes increasingly over the top the longer it unspools. What prevents it from going off the rails is the absolute conviction of Gens’ political agenda, culminating in a final scene – which fades to end credits at precisely the right moment – guaranteed to leave you feeling as gutted as anything that’s preceded it.
Oh, and that parenthetical plural in the title? It refers to borders that are geographical, social, political and historical/ideological.