Saturday, November 6, 2010

Frontiere(s): Going One Step Too Far

One of my pet peeves in horror movie criticism is objection to what the characters actually do in the film. I see it on film review sites coming from people who should know better (or maybe I just wish knew better), and in the teeming cesspit that is any discussion thread for any horror movie on IMDB. "The characters are stupid" is, to my mind, rarely if ever a legitimate complaint. "That would never really happen" is also not a legitimate complaint, especially coming from enthusiasts of the slasher genre, for obvious reasons (really? Are we going to quibble plausibility in the fifth fucking film to star an unkillable hulk in a hockey mask? Really?).

I prefer to go into a movie assuming that it's going to have its own internal logic - how else do you suspend disbelief for any movie featuring the supernatural? I have a problem when movies violate their own internal logic - when something happens without any roots in what came before - but as long is the movie is internally consistent, I'm fine. I also go into a horror movie accepting the idea that the characters are going to do stupid things. Sometimes because people are just stupid, and sometimes because being in a terrible situation makes otherwise sane and rational people do insane and irrational things. This particular form of lazy criticism is usually followed by a disquisition on how they, the commenter, would have handled it. It's usually some variably baroque variation on "I'd kick the monster's ass." Detailed badassery is sometimes included. The wish-fulfillment practically oozes from your monitor. "Why didn't they just…" and "that would never happen" are lazy substitutes for serious consideration.

That said, "that would never happen" is one of my key criticisms of Frontiere(s). There's really no better way to put it.

Frontiere(s) opens during the Paris riots of 2005, as four small-time criminals are attempting to flee the city. One of them, Yasmine, is pregnant. The movie opens with her in voiceover, contemplating bringing a child into a world like this. The movie opens cold, fast, and furious. The shit is burning down, and they are the rats trying to escape it. There's a lot of running and yelling. The four of them are going to have to split up, but they agree to meet at an inn in a rural, isolated area and regroup there. How they know about this place isn't really clear, and this won't be the last time we're not really clear on something, but the movie hurries forward.

The first two get there, and they're treated to a nice meal and the promise of some action from a couple of attractive women who work there. As said getting down is being gotten, one of the women pulls off her shirt, and from the the back, the viewer can see something the protagonist can't - the giant National Socialist emblem tattooed on her back. Oh, shit, this inn is run by Nazis! And Yasmine - who's pretty damn Arab - is headed there! What will happen?

Well, the first thing that happens is that the two guys who arrived first get knocked out, strung up and bled like pigs. See, they aren't just Nazis…they're Nazi cannibals.

Because either just plain Nazis or just plain cannibals wouldn't have been horrible enough?

See, here's another thing I don't like - when the threat is more threat than you really need to be threatening. After a certain point, you're just piling on the adjectives. Case in point and brief tangent: The book Gerald's Game by Stephen King. I like King's body of work generally, but they aren't all home runs. In Gerald's Game, a woman and her husband are at a remote cabin in the woods for a married-couple type getaway, and decide to indulge in some kinky (handcuffs and roleplaying) sex. Well, the husband (the titular Gerald) gets a little carried away and starts playing entirely too roughly for his wife's comfort. Though handcuffed to the bed, she manages to get a good kick to the gut in. Ill-considered though this was, what comes next isn't retribution - he has a heart attack and keels over. So now here she is, naked, handcuffed to the bed, and she realizes the front door is unlocked. That's some serious "oh, shit" right there.

Then King introduces the antagonist - a mentally retarded man who lives in the area. This could be really bad - combine the needs and body of an adult with the mind of a child, and bad things can happen. But wait! He's not just mentally retarded, he's a mentally retarded cannibal! Basically Ed Gein with a subnormal IQ. But wait! He's not just a mentally retarded cannibal, he's a mentally retarded cannibal with the bone-deforming disease acromegaly!

Steve-O, you had me at "handcuffed to the bed, naked, and the front door is open." Why pile the rest of this crap on?

I have the same problem with Frontiere(s). You don't need for Nazis to be cannibals, and you don't need cannibals to be Nazis. Either is scary on its  own. It feels like overkill, like the story equivalent of all the running and yelling at the opening of the movie.

So anyway Yasmine and the other guy get to the inn, and they discover in short order ("hey where are our friends?" "oh shit, at least one of them is dead in the basement along with a shitload of other butchered bodies!" Fuck!) that they're in a bad situation. They are captured, chained and caged.

But not slaughtered - not yet. See, the creepy German patriarch of the Nazi cannibal family has decided that he wants to spare Yasmine - black-haired, olive-skinned, Middle Easterny Yasmine - for "breeding stock." He wants her to pump out babies to begin the master race.

Hold right the fuck on a minute. He wants to mate his perfect Aryan boys to this Arab girl? That would never happen.  I don't mean "that's stupid", I mean that pretty much violates the one thing that defines Nazis - an obsession with racial purity. The whole point is to avoid miscegenation. This guy is bad at being a Nazi. There is now absolutely nothing useful about them being anything other than garden-variety cannibals. I didn't actually throw up my hands at this point, but I certainly performed the mental equivalent. They lost me.

The rest of the film is basically more running and screaming, but with buckets of blood being flung around. There's a daughter whose children are all deformed and feral, but after they're introduced early on they never really come up again. Violent standoffs occur, things burn, people are coated in gore, but there's no sense of import to it - there's no dynamic, the movie starts loud and fast and keeps being loud and fast, and maybe the filmmakers expected that running and screaming to compensate for the movie's shortcomings. The result is incoherent and dull - we're never really given an opportunity to see the protagonists as people, but we're supposed to sympathize with them (hence the baby, I guess?) and the rest of the movie isn't developed enough to make their role as pieces to be pushed around a board suitable for the story. There's a difference between crossing a line, crossing a boundary, and just blindly pushing forward. This movie just blindly pushes forward, piling on threat after threat, all of it ending up loud, empty and directionless, lost.

IMDB entry
Purchase on Amazon
Available from Netflix


  1. So much insightful and funny writing here! A pleasure to read, as always.

  2. very good article on an apparently pretty bad movie. when I wanted to convince people to give some pen and paper roleplaying game a try (call of cthulhu, mostly) I always got them hooked by asking:"So you think you could manage not to get killed or go insane in a similar situation? Why don`t we find out?" hehe....

  3. Really well put, mister! My reaction to Frontere(s) was ambivalent: i enjoyed it but it also revealed what's wrong with French New Wave of Horror Films: stylish visuals, superlazy and unnoriginal writing. Again, congratulations!

  4. I enjoyed Frontiere(s). In the first third of the movie I shared your reaction, but I thought the movie moved slickly into a mode that was so over-the-top that it became enjoyable again. It was cynical and empty, sure, but as a piece of energetic entertainment I dug it. Like Michael Bay with buckets of blood flung around.

  5. I can see that, but I think I couldn't look at it that way because I'd had all of this hype build it up into this "OMG so extreme and terrifying" example of the New French Extremity, and it didn't deliver on that for me. It's a tough thing to do, granted, to keep building up intensity without it turning shrill, but I kept waiting for things to get really terrible, and they didn't. Sort of like they shot their wad with the whole Nazi Cannibal thing.

    If you can track down Røvdyr, I'd definitely recommend that along the same lines. No fat on it whatsoever.