This review of Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) begins similarly to Mathieu Kassovitz’ 1995 drama La Haine. Both begin by mixing real and documentary footage of riots in the streets of France. In both cases they are riots over an intense distrust of the government. For Frontier(s) it is a distrust over a newly elected right-wing government.
In a way, it feels like Gens is trying to pick up where Kassovitz left off, beginning with an enraged citizen pulling a gun on a police officer just like La Haine ends with guns drawn between these same sides.
Except, Frontier(s) is much less elegant. The camera is shaky handheld as the characters shoot their way through the streets. In the case of La Haine, a gun is not fired until the very end, to devastating effect. And in the case of La Haine, the camera is a steady observer, picturesque in its capture of the three protagonists falling through the turmoil of their country.
The comparisons could continue (Frontier(s) has more over-dramatic acting, less of a coherent statement to make, and a general lack of stylistic flourish), but it seems unfair to stack Frontier(s) up with a film so intricately crafted as Kassovitz’. This said, it is impossible to watch both movies and not see the emulation at work in Gens’ film.
The film has other influences as well. Namely, Eli Roth’s torture porn progenitor Hostel. A significant portion of the plot of Frontier(s) revolves around a group of rioters who hole up in a dingy hostel to lie low, only to find themselves amid a bloody battle for survival. Not to mention the hints of The Descent, given that two of these rioters end up inside an abandoned mine.
Hell, the film even gives off some Texas Chainsaw vibes with its homicidal patriarchal family that lay waste to a band of travelers. The savagery of the film surely feels taken out of Tobe Hooper’s Chainsaw playbook.
The question then becomes: “Is Frontier(s) its own film, or an amalgamation of inspirations tied together under the central cultural currency of political protest?”
It is hard to say it is anything but the latter. The film never really moves with a melody of its own, even though it does thrum with a tense tonal rhythm.
Frontier(s) succeeds where its tone does not let up. Where a film like Inside (released around the same time as Frontier(s)) relies on the gore without giving much in the way of tension, Frontier(s) bleeds tension out of its every pore. With the genuine struggle at hand for both sides of the fight, the gore becomes more earned than it does in your basic torture porn output.
What emerges as perhaps the only thread in the film that rings novel is the presence of a “daughter” in the homicidal family, a woman, Eva (Maud Forget), who was stolen away from her parents as an infant and raised for the sole purpose of giving the Nazi patriarch of the family an heir. It is the scene with her and another captured woman, where she cuts the other’s hair, that is by and away the most fascinating in the film, both narratively and visually.
From this scene on, the film does take on a new outlook. It reflects back on itself, thematically returning to the opening scene of the film. A dissident to authority is forced into servitude, even as she decries that she is not one to obey. If this is an attempt to make political commentary, it is a strange one. There is a connection to xenophobia with the anti-Semitic characters, but the civil (or not so civil) disobedience of the opening is lost in this final act.
Still, the theme remains something intriguing, especially as it is coming out of a genuine torture porn flick. The film is still shot with the grotesque yellowish hues of a Saw sequel, with a shaking camera in the more ambulatory scenes that provides little in the way of cinema. But there is something about how Frontier(s) blends its obvious influences into a product that is nevertheless brimming with dread and uncertainty that makes the film noteworthy.
Frontier(s) is poorly acted. It is directed with a mediocrity that seems satisfactory only for a genre movie of this type. But it has a way of sifting through its various overt influences to get to a final act that is adequately gripping (even if the film’s finale loses the drive that got us to that point). It is a rough and tumble journey through Hell, but Frontier(s), at the very least, does not become reductive in its adherence to generic trends. If anything, it shows faint glimmers of new life to such a genre.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)