Baise-moi is a road movie with a twisted difference. Two young women, one of whom has been raped, embark on a journey through France, sustained by murderous fantasies of revenge. Their aim is clear: to have sex with and then kill as many men as possible, which they do, again and again, in unrelenting and lurid detail. That's about it. These women have the self-satisfied ferocity of a black widow spider: they simultaneously satisfy their sexual and murderous appetites in scenes of appalling degradation. This, I suppose, is meant to be a kind of freedom.
Baise-moi - directed by two women, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi - has just opened in Britain and is perhaps the most extreme and disturbed film ever to have been passed by the censors. Like many modern French films, with artistic aspirations or otherwise, it collapses the boundary between pornography and mainstream cinema at a time when there is no longer anything new or challenging to be said about pornography: the sex in the film is actual rather than simulated, and the violence has all the suffocating appeal of a snuff movie. Baise-moi labours to shock. Its website has a section entitled "The Controversy" and statements of denunciation are worn like badges of honour on the posters and advertisements. Yet what is most shocking about Baise-moi is not, in the end, the violence, but what it signifies about the cultural emptiness - what Tom Paulin has called the "moral void" - of France in the age of Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The film has been acclaimed as a work of radical feminism - which may say more about the confusion and relativism of modern feminism than anything else. Rachel Holmes, the academic and writer, said on Newsnight Review that she enjoyed it because it refused to satisfy the male gaze. "These women kill like men. There is nothing here that we haven't already seen in a Tarantino or Scorsese. What there is in this film is women killing men, but talking about it like women. After the first shoot-'em-up scene, when they have committed this murder, doing it in a cool, if you like, masculine way, they have a conversation about it . . . I went to see the film in a foul mood and came out finding it utterly cathartic. It's one of the most feminist movies I have seen in a long time."
Which means, I presume, that the film satisfied that one particular female's gaze. Yet, more seriously, what does it mean to be feminist, you wonder, when a work of pornography in which the human animal is reduced to being no more than a monolith of base motive, in which women giggle while men writhe in pain in an orgy of blood and semen, is described as feminist? Is this what more than three decades of gender wars have been reduced to: cheap sloganeering about the male and female gazes?
Another French film on current release is The Pornographer, directed by Bertrand Bonello. It is a baffling, soft-edged elegy to the sexual libertinism of the late 1960s, and tells the story of an aged director of skin flicks who, late in life, decides to make one last film. The Pornographer has been passed by the censors, although a 12-second segment, in which a man ejaculates into a woman's face, will not be shown at British cinemas - in this country, we have never agitated to have our hard-core sex freely available at mainstream cinemas, preferring the furtive, subterranean experience of purchasing a video from an out-of-town dealer, or the illicit thrill of a Soho basement.
The Pornographer - like Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999), with its excited portrayal of scenes of actual penetration - is propelled by what it believes to be a radical agenda: it wants to destroy the last taboo of mainstream cinema, which is to show the penis erect and engaged in real sex acts, and so verisimilitude is prized above all else. But there is nothing radical or subversive about sex, even when it comes wrapped in the aesthetic designs of the new French cinema. In the age of the internet, lads' magazines and the video, when men of all ages are free to hold the remote control in one hand and their penis in the other as they surf the late-night cable channels, we have become inured to the tyranny of the sexual image, to the hard concentration on, and the endless cheap exploitation of, the human body, with its grunts and groans, its juices and ecstatic releases.
There is nothing transcendent or rapturous about the couplings portrayed in Romance, Baise-moi or The Pornographer. In the new French cinema, sex is always sordid. It is always separated from love and companionship. It is, as Shakespeare wrote, "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame". Perhaps that is the purpose of these films, in which images of sex and death are so tightly interwoven: to show us as we really are, with all facades and artifice removed, to remind us that we are really nothing but flesh and blood. Their vision is resolutely anti-humanist, in line with much current thinking in philosophy and science which seeks to show that all schemes to remake the world - socialism, environmentalism, liberalism - are doomed to fail; that history has no direction or meaning; that progress is a myth; that the human animal is hard-wired to find meaning in a universe where there is none; that life on earth is a fluke and amounts to little more than an unceasing struggle for survival; that there is, needless to say, no God.
Watching the dead-eyed actors moving in time to the commands of the directors - actors tricked into believing that their work is engaged and artistic - you understand that what you are seeing in these films is a reflection of a wider nihilism in French society. The French may be celebrated for their hauteur and difference, for their robust struggle against the homogenising forces of les Anglo-Saxons; but they are also a nation in thrall to cheap effects - pornography, populism, political posturing. With the defeat of Lionel Jospin by Le Pen and the increasing boredom and atomisation of the electorate, the French exception is beginning to resemble nothing so much as a peculiar kind of defeat, one located in an isolated and reactionary anti-Americanism. Such a wilful sense of difference and the American Other has had disastrous manifestations in foreign policy, illustrated most damagingly by the cultivation of Robert Mugabe, the interventions in Rwanda that contributed in no small part to the genocide of 1994, and the stubborn insistence on carrying out nuclear tests in what is left of the old francophone Pacific island colonies. All this has alienated the French young from their ruling elite, an elite now dependent on the aged and discredited Jacques Chirac to defeat the aged and foolish Le Pen. Whatever happened to modernity and renewal? Perhaps what France required long ago was its own version of Margaret Thatcher, after all.
I have just read XCiTes (Flamingo, £7.99), a fascinating collection of essays, interviews and new fiction edited by Georgia de Chamberet. The book offers an insight into a France that is urban, polyglot, multiracial and multicultural. But there is nothing inspiring about the stories included here, for all their ambition and linguistic invention. They are mostly set in nightclubs and seedy bars and are, on the whole, about different forms of self-abuse. Their titles - "Fuck Me" (the inspiration for Baise-moi), "Transient Bliss", "Trashed", "The Gallery of the Insane", "Into the Void", "Lost in Music" - should in themselves suggest that we are once more entering the moral universe of the new French cinema: emotionally illiterate, blurry, narcotised, corrupted. The characters portrayed in these stories are recognisable archetypes, too bored to vote or to care about mainstream politics, intent merely on seeking escape from the stale burden of consciousness.
The great chronicler of the moral and cultural emptiness of modern France is Michel Houellebecq, perhaps the most talented and contrary writer in Europe today. Many contemporary French writers play with the idea of nihilism; Houellebecq means it, both in his life and work. In person, Houellebecq, who is in his mid-forties, is a dissolute presence, sickened by a life dedicated to cigarettes, alcohol and trips to bizarre, anarchic sex camps in the Paris suburbs, which he satirises ruthlessly in his marvellous novel Les particules elementaires (published in Britain two years ago as Atomised).
Gerry Feehily, an Irish literary critic based in Paris, met Houellebecq at a party last year. "He was surrounded by all these glamorous publishing women and journalists, but he looked utterly wasted and dishevelled," he told me. "When I spoke to him, he seemed to be shaking; there was this distant, faraway look in his eyes as if he wasn't quite there. But at the same time you could see that he was utterly contemptuous of everything and everyone around him. Sometimes you have the feeling that he really hates France and everything about it."
Atomised tells the story of two brothers, Michel and Bruno, who are born to the same progressive mother, a 1968er in outlook and lifestyle. The brothers are later separated by the fragmentation of their family life; bullied and humiliated at school, they endure a miserable adolescence. They both enter early adulthood as disturbed, isolated figures. "I'd like to believe that the self is an illusion," Bruno tells Michel, "but if it is, it's a pretty painful one." So begins the brothers' journey to find meaning in a world of disappointed aspiration, a journey that takes Bruno into compulsive promiscuity and the sexual demi-monde of Paris, and Michel into molecular biology and experiments into the very foundation of what it is to be human.
Houellebecq has thought hard about what it means to live in a post-Christian universe. He believes we are living at the end of an age of reason. What lies ahead is a fall into chaos and ennui, as represented by the rise of Islamo-fascism in the east and decadent consumerism in the west. Christian doctrine, he writes, accorded unconditional importance to every human life from conception to death. But today the "agnosticism at the heart of the French republic" has facilitated the "slightly sinister triumph of the determinist world-view", of a world without the possibility of transcendence. But still the value of human life continues to preoccupy the liberal conscience. Which in the "last years of western civilisation contributed to a general mood of depression bordering on masochism".
Houellebecq is a former communist and was once a leading contributor to the progressive literary journal Perpendiculaire, from the board of which he was eventually banished after he refused to be held accountable for the racism of his character Bruno. In recent years - even before Atomised, which as the Economist wrote, was "not so much published as detonated" - he began, like Celine before him, to occupy a position of perpetual opposition, to both left and right, similar to the editorial line of the now defunct LM magazine in this country.
More specifically, he has emerged as a combative critic of the revolutionary excesses of the late 1960s, a period which, he believes, laid the foundation for modern lassitude and despair. In Atomised, Bruno and Michel are forced to evaluate the codes by which their parents' generation lived - the licentiousness, the irresponsibility, the refusal to conform. Houellebecq - like many younger French novelists, for whom he is the commanding presence, an influence and inspiration - works out of a sense of profound crisis: did we as a nation take a wrong turn? What if our pursuit of sexual satisfaction and freedom was really a kind of imprisonment? Have the costs of living through the revolutionary period of the 1960s been too great to wider society?
With the publication last year of his most recent novel, Plateforme (out here in the autumn), Houellebecq has become a figure of even greater controversy and discord in France. Plateforme is a study of sex tourism in Thailand and is full of witty, unhinged attacks on liberal-left orthodoxies and on religious fundamentalism (it was published in France before 11 September). From his new home on the south-west coast of Ireland, he continues to detonate missiles of contempt against France, Islam and what he calls the "evils of globalisation". He is an emblematically modern French figure, because he appears to believe in nothing and is opposed to everything. The only respite in his work is a kind of intense erotic abandonment, a wilful surrender to preposterous desires. His novels, though among the most accomplished to have been written in the past 20 years anywhere in the world, share a vision of France that also finds expression in the anti-humanist themes of Baise-moi and much of the new French cinema.
"The generation that has grown up since the Second World War, the generation of our parents, was the most optimistic in history," Houellebecq told the writer Andrew Hussey, author of a fine biography of Guy Debord. "They believed in progress, the consumer society, sexual happiness and they were naive and wrong to believe in such things. This generation is different because it knows that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, that pleasure is the opposite of happiness. That, to me, is an unassailable moral position."
So that, then, is the challenge confronting the political class in France: how to reach a generation that no longer believes in the possibility of progress or indeed of happiness? Small wonder that Le Pen's bootboys are on the march.