‘High Tension’ Is Super Queer And A Little Romantic

High Tension

Memory can be a tricky thing. We may not remember all the distinct details of the books we read or the movies we watch, but almost certainly, we’ll remember the emotional context that signposts them in our minds. Watching High Tension for the third, maybe fourth time since it was released 22 years ago, I’d forgotten a few key details. Midway through, I was convinced Marie (Cécile de France) escaped a gas station bathroom by crawling through the window, The Curse of Michael Myers style. Instead, she simply waits the alleged killer out until he leaves. I had to search ahead of time whether Hendricks the dog, lived or died. But what I didn’t forget was the first time I was introduced to Alexandre Aja’s slasher classic, a template for the French Extremity movement burgeoning at the time.

I was in fifth grade, going on sixth, sitting at Twin Kiss, a local ice cream shop where I lived (and arguably the greatest ice cream shop in the country). It was a ramshackle little place, and above the soft serve machine, they had a chunky little television turned on to some local station. The High Tension TV spot came on, and immediately, I knew I had to see it.

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A truncated (read: censored) version of High Tension was released in American theaters in June 2005, two years after its domestic French release. Some gore had been excised, some dialogue had been dubbed (luckily, Cécile de France did her own English work for Marie), and Lionsgate hoped it would be the next big horror thing. It wasn’t, at least among general audiences. Eventually, it trickled its way down until it was on a shelf at my local Blockbuster several months later. Of course, I had to rent it.

My assessment of High Tension as both a slasher movie and a premier example of New French Extremity hasn’t waned in recent years at all. While contemporary critics often regard it unfavorably for its ludicrous twist ending, I remain as enchanted as ever with Aja’s capacity to cull so much from so little. It’s electric, a high-voltage slaughter-thon steeped in bad taste. High Tension is propulsive from the get, an urgent repudiation of contemporary culture, the slow yet steady decline of not only the French government but the world writ large post 9/11.

Of course, I didn’t get that at the time. I just thought it was sick. More importantly, it was an early introduction to queer cinema, one of the standout texts where I saw, in some capacity, people who were like me in a horror movie. Queer horror predates High Tension considerably and, within the modern pantheon, at least, it’s arguably the most problematic of the bunch. Horror has always been queer, but horror texts haven’t always imbued queerness into their narratives responsibly, with decades of dead queers and dastardly villains consigned to tentpoles of the subgenre.

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My filmic education was Blockbuster. There wasn’t another video store nearby, DVDs were expensive to purchase, and I had to share a single computer with six other family members. The horror I saw was the horror available to rent. Which is to say, I didn’t know what queer horror was in 2005. I just knew High Tension had gnarly, gruesome kills and two cool women at its core, one of whom was unapologetically queer.

Marie isn’t, and probably shouldn’t be, a template. She’s toxic, developing unrequited feelings for her best friend, Alex (Maïwenn). The result is a fractured personality, with Marie manifesting both a waifish love interest and a hulking, brutal spree killer. As a spree killer, Marie murders Alex’s entire family (and her dog, which is so uncalled for). The twist is revealed, somewhat sloppily, via convenience store footage before the final act. Marie has been the killer all along, logic be damned.

I’m not going to litigate the tenability of High Tension’s plot reversal, because for as much as I love the movie, I can’t defend it from a narrative perspective. Thematically, however, I think it’s perfect in its imperfection. Love, especially queer love, is messy. Formative relationships are often unrequited as queer persons navigate their nascent identities in a world fundamentally ill-equipped to handle them. Nobody knows what to do with them, and queer upbringing is regularly contextualized by the outlets through which one negotiates their identity. Think about Sherlock fans on Tumblr circa 2012 to get a clearer idea of what I mean.

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Marie isn’t one-note, and both Cécile de France and Alexandre Aja recognize that. The finale is tender, a softly textured stalk-and-slash as Marie chases Alex down, desperate for reciprocation of her long-gestating feelings. Cécile de France never overplays Marie’s menace, and even her killer persona (the late Philippe Nahon) matches her nonverbal scrambling, her vulnerable desperation. Weirdly, it’s kind of romantic, encapsulating the idea that if they wanted to, they would. Granted, murdering an entire family isn’t ideal—your crush probably won’t like that—but it is indicative of at least some commitment, a brazen declaration of love most persons are too afraid to admit to themselves, let alone those around them.

It’s that unabashed queerness—messy, violent, twisted—that sticks with me years later, accounting for my enduring fondness for High Tension (aptly titled Switchblade Romance in some regions). I didn’t know queer horror before it, and while I’ve experienced a lot more since, its flagrant subversion of good behavior and decency is as impactful as ever. Queer love can be messy. Not this messy, I hope, but there’s efficacy in its earnestness. I can’t account for whether that was intentional—reading Marie as another noxious attempt to vilify queer persons would be a reasonable analysis—but I can account for the way it made me feel: Energized, excited, and just a little more comfortable in the world.



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