Frontier(s) (2007)

Frontier(s) (aka Frontière(s)) first published by Film4

Summary: Writer/director Xavier Gens’s feature debut transposes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the French borders, throwing some contemporary politics (along with its hapless principals) into the pot.

Review: It is 2002. Unexpectedly defeating the Left’s main candidate in a first-round upset, leader of the extreme right National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen would go on to take second place (behind Jacques Chirac) in the elections for the French Presidency – marking a moment when the country seemed to be sleepwalking towards the most repellent form of xenophobic nationalism. It was in this year, and in this context, that Xavier Gens began work on his screenplay for Frontier(s), and it is with these events that the film opens. 

Five young chancers from the Parisian banlieues pull off an opportunistic robbery under cover of all the political rioting in the capital’s streets. When Sami (Adel Bencherif) is seriously injured in a police shootout, his pregnant sister Yasmine (excellent new scream-queen Karina Testa) and her ex-boyfriend Alex (Aurélien Wiik) haul him off to the hospital while their accomplices Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani) drive on ahead to flee the city. The plan is for the group to rendez-vous later somewhere on the inland border, and divide up the loot – but instead, at a rural family-run motel, they will all receive a nasty lesson in politics, as the (national) frontierlands prove far more dangerous than the melting-pot ‘jungle’ of the Parisian suburbs.

If all this suggests an urban social realist thriller akin to Mathieu Kassovitz‘s La Haine (1995), it soon crosses over to the darker territories of survival horror, clearly mapping out its many influences along the way. Criminal fugitives picking the wrong off-road hostelry in which to spend the night – yup, it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) updated for the noughties. Parisian badboys meeting more than their match in the French backwoods – that’s right, we are close to Kim Chapiron’s Sheitan (2006) here. There are also mutant troglodytes straight out of Neil Marshall‘s The Descent (2006), a character being brutally hamstrung to prevent his escape à la Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), and the physical transformation of Yasmine into Cécile de France’s crop-haired, blood-drenched ‘final girl’ from Alexandre Aja’s Switchblade Romance (2003). Most of all, there is the long, dark shadow of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, whose grotesque family dinners and perverted butchery play a prominent part here.

Frontier(s) is just as derivative as it sounds, but director Gens has two tricks up his sleeve that guarantee his debut feature a place in the annals of horror. The first is his eagerness to embrace all the most heart-stopping excesses of the genre, in what must rate as one of the most unremittingly hardcore gorefests in recent memory. Here humans (both living and dead) are stabbed, shot, clubbed, sliced, steamed, chopped, burnt, mutilated, table-sawn, bitten, gouged and hung up to dry in an exultant parade of body horror that will reduce genre novices to quivering, zombie-like wrecks, no less traumatised than Yasmine herself. Horror connoisseurs, on the other hand, will have an upturned rictus fixed to their faces, as they bear witness to an orgy of grand guignol that takes good taste way beyond the bounds, but always stays just the right side of serious to remain harrowing till the final, haunting image. Savvy it may be in its cannibalisation of other films, but this is no laugh-a-minute pastiche.

Best of all, though, Gens frames his horror in such a way as to suggest that there is a grim reality underlying his extravagant genre set-pieces. Cannibal Nazis may well represent a largely untapped wet dream of exploitation cinema (even if zombie Nazis represent a whole subgenre), but set in the context of Le Pen’s recent near victory, these flesh-eating throwbacks evoke anxieties all too real and all too contemporary, as the spectre of French fascism, long buried since the last days of the wartime German occupation, comes rushing back to the surface on the streets as much as on screen. Here once again, ‘degenerate’ migrants and foreigners are faced with the extreme prejudice of ‘pure-blooded’ Aryans (and their inbred offspring) who are determined to take possession of the country’s future (embodied by Yasmine’s unborn child), and to devour – or at least eliminate – any competition. In short, this is a film with hard lessons about both the current state of French national identity, and the drift back towards the reactionary side of the political border – lessons that are hammered home to the viewer through ultraviolent genre thrills. 

The only real downside here is the pretentiously punctuated, over-academic title, better suited to a Derridean academic paper than to such hysteria-tinged slice-and-dice – although it might mean that there are some unsuspecting intellectuals out there who are in for one almighty surprise when they settle down to watch all the down-and-dirty carnage that Gens has cooked up for them. For in Frontier(s), as with any good barbecue, there is plenty of red sauce, and absolutely nothing here has been left underdone. 

Verdict: Xavier Gens’ debut is a bludgeoning, bloody trawl through the tropes of survival horror, with a strong political subtext.

© Anton Bitel