Almost out of nowhere it seems, France (and Belgium) have seen a real crop of horror movies in the past few years. Where France’s horror output once largely consisted of the rather gentle vampire-arthouse of Jean Rollin, we have in recent years seen a wave of frenetically-gruesome output such as Haute Tension (2003), Belgium’s demented Calvaire (2004), the wonderful Shaitan (2006), in the same year as Frontière(s), À l’intérieur (2007), and of course the much-vaunted Martyrs (2008). All of these films have much in common: spiralling, personal ordeals which lead to prolonged scenes of torture. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that modern French/Belgian horror cinema, for all of its positives, is already largely canonical – a strange thing to occur in so short a period of time.
Frontière(s) charts the fortunes of a group of four young Parisians who are fleeing electoral riots in the banlieues and taking a large stash of stolen money with them (not before introducing us to the fact that Yasmine, the female lead, is three months’ pregnant). Travelling in twos, Farid and Tom arrive at a guesthouse and decide to wait there until the rest of the group arrive. At first the staff are friendly – very friendly, as the two women working there seduce the boys in no time at all – but in one deft movement the pace shifts and things turn nasty. The extended family, which we now understand these people to be, pursue Tom and Farid and eventually drive them off the road near an abandoned mine. They survive – but for reasons best know to themselves, begin to crawl through a nearby tunnel which brings them right back into the family’s…abattoir. Yes, they’re cannibals!
Meanwhile, Yasmine and Alex arrive at the guesthouse. They, too, are destined to be on the menu but Yasmine’s status as a fertile female eventually allots her a different fate – not to be eaten, but to to join the family and to provide healthy children in order to further their blood line. The family will even overlook her mixed race background in order to permit her. Yes, they’re NAZI cannibals!
Although there is much to do credit to the creators of Frontière(s), such as high production values, decent directing and stylish visuals, not to mention having the gumption to at least raise the spectre of French race relations, I was ultimately overwhelmed by the film’s flaws. It seemed to me to take several popular horror motifs of recent years – a dash of the utilitarian cruelty of Wolf Creek, a spoonful of the subterranean terror of The Descent and a measure of that old chestnut, the demented rural family (see what feels like every other bloody film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) – then to combine them on French soil, ratcheting up the shock value by throwing a pregnant woman and Nazism into the mix. This all depends heavily on the audience being aware of and tacitly supporting the agreed hierarchy whereby Nazis>all other types of villain, and as I’m sure you’re all aware, the proper victim pyramid, where pregnant women and children>just women>everyone else. The relentless torture of petite, trembling females now just feels contrived to me and, as in À l’intérieur and Martyrs, felt like cynical button-pressing. The other major problem I have with this film is its pace. At first, the slow-burn tension being suddenly replaced with immediate threat was effective: the atmosphere change was palpable and worked well. However, because it contains so many elements the film trips over itself to carry them all and thus overextends itself, rushing to contain cannibals, zombies, creatures, emotional and physical torture all in one film. It dashes in places, and falters in others.
Had Frontière(s) disposed with one or two clichés, perhaps cutting down on its story elements and delivering a little more exposition, then I think that its undoubtedly stylish appearance could have blossomed into something more cogent and remarkable. As it stands, this is a French torment film which sticks close to canon and cant, too derivative to really make its mark.