Karina Testa’s Guttural Scream from Hell, by Guest Writer Robert Aaron Mitchell of Soldier of Cinema
Brutality was front and center in France at the beginning of this century. It was exposed in government institutions and flickered across cinemas. The extremity of the French prison system was brought to light. Dr. Veronique Vasseur wrote a book on her experiences working in La Santé prison entitled, Médecin-chef à la Prison de la Santé. She detailed many atrocities. Skin diseases among prisoners were rampant as showers were permitted only twice a week. Temperatures of the water ran over 100 degrees. Mattresses were filled with lice and bed bugs. Prisoners stuffed clothes into holes to try and keep rats away from them. Food was often spoiled. Rape, self-mutilation and suicide were prevalent. In 1999 one hundred and twenty four French prisoners committed suicide. Within the same time frame and with a far larger prison population California had twenty-four suicides. The French self-identity of defenders of human rights was deeply challenged. Of the prison population of the time – some 55 000 people – over half had not been convicted of a crime. Parliamentary inquiries were launched. Three years later the Paris-based International Observatory of Prisons published a report. “When OIP decided to publish a report on the state of prisons in France in 2003, we had objective reasons to fear a deterioration of a situation deplored and denounced in 2000, by two parliamentary assemblies and the president of the Court of Cassation,” the nonprofit group wrote in its report, “But we didn’t imagine we would have to describe a descent into hell.”
A descent into hell also aptly describes what was happening in French cinema at the turn of the century. Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi (2000) Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) This trio of films are transgressive, ultra-violent and hold nothing back in the depiction of sexual assault. The intensity of what was depicted affected audiences. People fainted, were audibly disturbed, made physically ill. At Cannes, audiences walked out in noticeable numbers during the premieres of the films.
The Midnight Madness programme at the Toronto International Film Festival became a showcase for what has been labeled the New French Extremity. This cinematic label has been attributed to film critic James Quandt. Midnight Madness premiered Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003) Fabrice Du Welz’ Calvaire (2004). 2007 would see the premieres of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s À l’intérieur and Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) The following year would see the premiere of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, a film that destroyed the audience assembled at the Midnight Madness premiere.
The horror genre has seen some of the greatest acting performances in cinema. Portrayals that rival any Oscar nominated performance. Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Linda Blair in The Exorcist readily comes to mind. When I began to think of a performance in a horror movie that has stayed with me I immediately thought of Karina Testa in Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s). Karina’s performance arrived in the middle of the New French Extremity, a cinematic movement that saw many great performances. Her performance resonates with its devastating depiction of trauma.
Frontier(s) begins with a close up of an ultrasound. We hear the beating of a heartbeat. Yasmine (Karina Testa) says over the black and white images, “My name is Yasmine. I am three months pregnant. One day, someone said: “Men are born free with equal rights.” The world in which I live is the opposite. Who would want to be born to grow in the chaos and the hate?”
A Guardian headline from April 5, 2006 stated, France’s political crisis grows as 3 million take to streets. These large scale protests in France were against a proposed youth employment law which was known as First Employment Contract which would have made it easier to fire workers under 26 and no reasons would have had to be given. The proposed law was scrapped as France saw the largest protests in the country’s history. In the world of Frontier(s) a far right government has just been elected. The images of Yasmine’s ultrasound are replaced with television images of civil unrest.
As the opening credits draw to a close, Yasmine holds her brother Sami who has been shot and is bleeding profusely. They navigate a warzone between riot police and protesters. Cars are on fire. Molotov cocktails are being hurled through the air. A shootout erupts between police and youth. Yasmine and Sam are holed up in a warehouse awaiting Alex who is Yasmine’s boyfriend, father to her baby and leader of a criminal gang who have just pulled a heist to the tune of a 125 000 Euros. The five-member gang reunites at the warehouse. Sami is getting worse. The gang splits up. Alex and Yasmine race Sami to a hospital. Sami dies on a gurney in a hallway. Yasmine races out of the hospital doctors and security chase after her for answers. Alex and Yasmine leave the city to rendezvous with the others in the countryside.
Tom and Farid – the other members of the gang – get out of Paris first. Once in the countryside they arrive at a fork in the road. Tom takes a left. Simple decisions can lead to catastrophic effects. They arrive at a hostel and take a room for the night. Tom has designs on one of the women who work there. They hookup. The wild abandon of youth.
Alex makes contact with Tom who informs him of their current location at a hostel in the countryside. Alex withholds the information that Sami has died. We get our first glimpse of the power of Karina Testa’s performance. Her eyes are on the verge of tears. They lock on Alex. She emits silent rage. Yasmine confronts Alex with withholding her brother’s death to the others. Alex shrugs it off. They arrive at the hostel and are informed by the same women Tom and Farid encountered that their friends are staying in a different cottage. They are taken there.
In a scene where Alex and Yasmine are in the dining room of this cottage under the guise of being reunited with their compatriots Yasmine takes in her surroundings. We are with her at this moment. Her eyes, inquisitive, anxious, apprehensive are also us, the audience. Yasmine and we do not know where we are or what will happen. There are enough signs that we should be on high alert.
As this night proceeds, one horrific situation leads to the next and the next. The character of Yasmine is brought to the edge of being dehumanized, her spirit broken. Yasmine’s eyes are dead, locked in a thousand yard stare, her eyes well up with tears. The audience locks eyes with her. Once again we are with Yasmine. This is a scene that stays with you. Yasmine retreats to a place deep inside her psyche. That an audience can feel such an intense psychological action further speaks to the power of the performance.
Yasmine arrives at a place where sheer survival instincts take over. The trauma that has been inflicted on her, the brutality she has returned to her pursuers manifests in silent, shaking, defiance. Karina’s physical performance is powerful, haunting and disturbing. Stella Adler in The Art of Acting wrote, ‘“Emotions aren’t doable. Actions are doable, and if you do them correctly they prompt the feelings”. This is a performance that interweaves intense emotions as well as the physical demands. In a scene of graphic violence when Yasmine successfully defeats an attacker she gets completely drenched in blood. Yasmine walks away almost Frankenstein-like. She is stiff, shaking, and her eyes faraway. Operating on the base instinct of survival. Rarely has the direct result of violence been shown so powerfully on screen.
As the fears of Y2K and the new century waned, France saw brutality brought to light. France’s self-image as human rights defenders was exposed by these shocking and necessary truths. Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) captures the xenophobia, the restlessness of a young generation as well as age-old human atrocities. Xavier’s film is also prescient as the sources of evil in the story are Nazis. A group that was often believed to be near dormant in the years following World War Two. These white supremacy entities would rise later in the twenty-first century to devastating effects. Cinema can indeed capture the current culture. It takes a lot of craftspeople operating at the peak of their talents. In Frontier(s), which is an ensemble piece, it is Karina Testa’s portrayal of Yasmine that is the centerpiece. It is one of the greatest performances in genre cinema. Karina’s portrayal spans silent, shaking devastation to guttural screams from the furthest depths of hell. Karina Testa reacts to horrific circumstances that are a reflection of the present day as well as the effects of the worst elements in human history.
Robert Aaron Mitchell is a writer, videographer, filmmaker, and journalist. You can read his work at his Soldier of Cinema blog. His videos and interviews can be found over at his YouTube channel. He is the writer and director of the short film, The Bobby Diamonds Story.