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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Violent subjectivity : new extremist cinema and the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy Birks, Chelsea


Non-simulated penetrative sex, graphic sexual violence, gore, cannibalism, murder, incest, and necrophilia: excessive violence and explicit sexuality characterize European new extremism, a contemporary arthouse film movement that challenges audiences through its visceral interrogations of the body. Affect and embodiment are at the heart of the discourse concerning new extremism. Although approaching the movement from different frameworks, scholars agree that these films are transgressive in terms of style as well as content: they foreground the ways that cinema is able to impact the body, rather than the mind, of the spectator, and in doing so challenge traditional notions of spectatorship. This thesis examines new extremism in light of the work of contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose ontology of the subject provides a fresh perspective on the confrontational and occasionally traumatic cinematic experiences offered by these films. Nancy is a philosopher of limits: he argues that metaphysics has reached an impasse, and the way forward is to figure these limits in order to gesture towards what is beyond our ability to signify. He characterizes this excess in corporeal terms, arguing that there is always an excess in our material experiences that cannot be constrained to a system of thought. Using films such as Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009), Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998), and Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002), I explore the ways that new extremism illustrates and exemplifies Nancy’s argument that the body is in excess of our understanding. The subject for Nancy constitutes itself, and in so doing divides itself from its body: this results in paradoxes and contradictions that are inexorable to our metaphysical thinking. But these paradoxes are suspended over the groundless non-essence of reality, a reality that we make images of through art and language. Nancy argues that art and existence are predicated on violence and cruelty, forces that he characterizes ambivalently as giving rise to the possibility of both abhorrent brutality and radical creation. New extremism touches on this ambivalence, using its central interrogation of the body to expose what is at the limit of our understanding.

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