Villainizing Queerness in Alexandre Aja’s High Tension
I was first introduced to Alexandre Aja’s 2003 horror film, High Tension, in the cool darkness of a college screening room. I was a sophomore and taking a class on horror film meant for upperclassmen, but I was lucky to get permission to enroll. As my professor pressed play, thus began a complicated relationship with a film that has shaped my love of horror and an obsession with New French Extremity. It is a film that subverts genre tropes, racks up gnarly kills, and makes us rethink what it means to be a final girl. But, in these genre subversions, it creates a character whose homoerotic desire awakens murderous tendencies. High Tension, with its merits, is a film that villainizes queerness in the name of a juicy plot twist.
The film opens with two friends, Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn), traveling to Alex’s family home in the French countryside. Marie is obviously coded as masculine with her short hair and baggy clothes, while Alex is more feminine with her long hair and floral dress; this is a film that does not work in subtley. But, mere hours after they arrive, Alex’s family is brutally murdered by a local redneck, Alex is kidnapped, and Marie is left to save her from the hands of a killer. It seems like a straightforward narrative, except for some glaring plot holes, but its twist, which reveals Marie was the killer all along, makes High Tension a different narrative entirely.
A typical slasher becomes a film about an evil lesbian whose repressed desire for her best friends awakens a murderous alter ego. It is even possible pinpoint the moment when this mental separation happen: after Marie orgasms while masturbating to fall asleep. As she begins to masturbate, the camera cuts from her face to an old truck driving down the road, holding our “killer.” While she masturbates, the truck gets closer and closer, and as she orgasms, the truck arrives at the front of the house. In this moment, sexual pleasure is equated with death, creating a problematic association between the two that makes lesbian desire something evil, predatory, and destructive. The final girl of the 1980s was virginal, lacking sexual desire, and was therefore granted the privilege of survival, so sex has always been equated with death in the slasher. But, High Tension goes a step further to show that unrequited and repressed sexual pleasure leads to death at the hands of the perceived hero.
High Tension was released in the United Kingdom with the title, Switchblade Romance, which I feel better captures the more complicated nature of the film in regards to lesbian desire. It seems that in a film so concerned with the destruction of the body that my issues shouldn’t rest in the sexuality of the film’s main character. But it is a film that follows in horror’s problematic footsteps of equating queerness with repression and destructive monstrosity. There is liberation to be found in monstrosity, but that’s not the case with High Tension. Instead, a lesbian is made to be a murderous creature who must be locked away forever with no hope of release or recovery; desire for another woman has driven her insane and she must be hidden from society forever.
As my professor turned on the lights, I found myself smiling from ear to ear, in love with what I had just seen. My 19-year-old brain felt renewed by a film that worked to tell such a different story within such a familiar genre. And in a way, I do still love this movie for what it has given me and how it has changed my thinking about queer representation in horror. It has helped me think more critically about what it means to utilize queer characters in horror and what good representation means in this genre. There is something to be said for a film that motivates you to write and question your own preconceived notions, pushing you to better understanding. High Tension, with its plethora of issues and problematic message, moved me to become a better horror fan and scholar. It made me seek out better horror films with queer characters and made me hungry for the representation I didn’t know I craved.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance horror writer based in Chicago. She is an editor for Much Ado About Cinema and a contributor for Nightmare on Film Street. She loves women-directed horror films, J-horror, and anything involving Godzilla.