This article predictably contains spoilers for Martyrs.
Unfortunately, my first review of Martyrs has been lost into the void of the internet. This is a bit of a shame as I’d have loved to revisit it for this feature, but the fact remains that Martyrs is one of my favourite horror films and really cemented my love for and need to write about film. I still remember my first experience of the film – on headphones, streaming through LoveFilm and how I experienced a huge amount of emotion throughout the many twists and turns the film takes. Previously, I had enjoyed so-called extreme films out of curiosity for what they would show, but I would say this was the first to have a real impact.
Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) is a troubled girl, scarred by her imprisonment as a youth. She makes firm friends with Anna (Morjana Aloui) but her demons are always present. Unable to recover, Lucie takes extreme action, drawing in Anna to help her, but what is waiting for them is worse than anything they have faced before.
Released to French audiences in September 2008, Martyrs immediately made an impact on the horror film community. The high levels of violence and nihilism within the film pushed it into the company of other films in the New European Extremity, such as Switchblade Romance, In My Skin, Trouble Every Day, Inside, Frontiers, Calvaire and Irreversible as well as into wider discussions about extreme and controversial cinema. Although I’ve called it the European Extremity, many of these films are French and therefore it is possible to read them as being films with uniquely French sensibilities and anxieties.
Martine Beugnet writes in The Wounded Screen that ‘the shock and the excess, embedded in the form of the films themselves, that actualise the past, showing how history’s festering wounds contaminate the present’. In this kind of reading, the cultural history of a country cannot be forgotten in considering their meanings. Guy Austin has called attention to details within the films which ground them in contemporary French experience. For example, Inside features a television showing riots taking place and while it would be difficult to describe the rest of the film as inherently politically or socially-motivated, it does at least position itself within that wider context.
Extreme European cinema does seem to have a grounding in strong, if not always heroic female characters who are just as responsible for extreme violence as their male counterparts and frequently lead the action. Indeed, the poster and advertising for Martyrs highlights the two leading women in a way which sees them face the camera and subverts the traditional ‘badass woman stands with her back to the camera and looks over her shoulder’ design of so many other posters.
The 2000s in horror have been dominated by discussions on the artistic sensibilities of ‘torture porn’. The extreme films out of Europe in the early part of the decade pushed for similar scenes in more mainstream American releases. Both the Saw and Hostel series owe a great deal to the gory set pieces of these earlier films. Indeed, some of the directors of the 2000s European Extreme films found work in American productions. Alexandre Aja worked on Mirrors, The Hills Have Eyes remake and Piranha 3D. Julien Maury and Alexnadre Bustillo are now responsible for the more mainstream entry into the Texas Chainsaw franchise, after a period of time being connected to a Hellraiser reboot. The director of Martyrs, Pascal Laugier has to date, not achieved the same success, having also been connected to a Hellraiser project. His film The Tall Man received mixed reviews and was very different than Martyrs, whereas the other film-makers kept a high gore-quota or sought work on projects with already-established monsters and contexts. Laugier’s latest film Ghostland is already subject to controversy, with an actress suing the production for a sequence in which she suffered serious facial injuries. While details of the film are sparse at the moment, the synopsis reveals that the action takes place 16 years apart, following a home invasion. This hints at a return to the kind of time, theme and sub-genre changes which feature in Martyrs, which may signal more success.
The main difference between the perception of Saw and Hostel and its European cousins always seems to be based on the idea that the American films were solely offering up scenes of torture and gore for the sake of it, rather than being politically motivated. Although, for me, there’s no question that certainly films like Switchblade Romance wear their gore and other transgressions as a badge of honour without any wider political or social point.
The fact that Saw has spawned a full popcorn franchise seems to add support to the idea of them as entertainment, rather than provocative art and the ‘traps’ became an active selling point of the later films and the amusement park spin-offs. Hostel can be read as a mediation on Americans trying to find European roots and not particularly being welcomed, although there is no denying that the series is again sold on its ultraviolence. However, I’d say that the extreme European cinema is also sold on this, complete with Cannes walkouts and outrage. Tina Kendall has written of the watching of these extreme films as a ‘distinctive experience of spectatorship that negotiates between the intellectual and the visceral’. In their presence at prestigious film festivals they are afforded a level of respectability, yet their transgressive nature maintains a status of outsider-art meaning it is possible for both art house and exploitation crowds to ‘own’ them.
Martyrs represented something for me that was so interesting because while it was, without doubt, one of the most violent and unpleasant pieces of film I’d encountered, it also represented something quite special and emotive. The film swings through a number of subgenres, with Laugier committing to each one. Lucie’s hallucinations offer an element of jump-scare supernatural horror before swinging into full-blown revenge movie for one act and finally, the full ordeal horror to be undertaken by Anna. As already mentioned, it is the strength with which Laugier commits to each section that both elevates the material and avoids the feeling that they have been hastily pasted together.
The layers of the film mean that it is very difficult, upon first watch at least, to find your bearings within the film. This makes the identification with Anna, who is trying to find her own way much stronger as she functions as our only sane way into the world laid out before us. At first, she tries to comfort Lucie but is then implicated in her revenge plot. Throughout, Anna acts as a kind of conscience – she cannot be totally sure that the family is responsible for the atrocities and so she cannot truly quantify what Lucie has done. As a result, when she finds that the mother is not dead, her first instinct is to try and help. In every part of the film, Anna finds herself part of a nightmarish world from which there is no escape. More depressingly, it is her desire to do the right thing at every stage which further damns her.
A key example of this within the film occurs at the very start where the young Lucie is fleeing the place where she has been kept and stops to notice another woman in the same situation. Despite her noticeable pause, she keeps running. It is Lucie’s guilt over this woman that contributes to her later visions. Anna, however, meets an emaciated woman who has been bound in what amounts to a metal chastity belt and a blindfold device which has been screwed into her scalp. In one of the film’s softer (although still distressing moments) Anna is seen to carefully help the woman, helping her into a bath and trying to remove the device from her head. It has always been one of the most touching moments of the film as Anna shows tenderness to a woman who has known nothing but fear. The fact that this act keeps Anna in the house further cements her as an ideal victim for the cult.
The ambiguity of the film’s ending adds to it’s intrigue. The fact that the words at the centre of the organisation’s interests are enough to make Mademoiselle instantly commit suicide offer up options for what those words are. Being an atheist cynic, I’ve always kept it that Anna tells her there is nothing. However, anything that Anna says, given the belief the organisation places in her offers the perfect opportunity for a last middle finger which reduces the group’s aims to vile criminality with nothing else for them to cling to. In a sense, there’s almost a happy-ending to be brought from that. While Anna’s torture and eventual death cannot be undone, she is able to destabilise that operation. Of course, that reading offers further implications for the organisation and those they hold captive. If the organisation is deemed a failure, the girls kidnapped face an uncertain future – are they killed or dumped with the trauma of what they have seen? Or, does another leader take over and continue the project?
However, you could also take the point of view that Anna does see something and relates to Mademoiselle that she can never be a part of it. Or, that there is something, but it is the wrong answer as far as she is concerned. There are many more instances which I think, despite the violence of the film attracts repeat viewings. What I love most though, is the refusal to answer that question as answering that question definitively would immediately remove that uncertainty. Laugier has previously referenced shows like The Twilight Zone in his writing in terms of being short presentations of ideas that could then spark further conversations at the end. The ambiguity within Martyrs does open up conversations around guilt, the afterlife and the potential for human cruelty. Although in my experience (and I include myself in this), everyone who has watched the film needs a period of at least half an hour to really put any tangible thought together.
It is said within the film that women make better martyrs and this offers the justification for Lucie and Anna’s capture. However, it almost feels like a critique of other horror films. Laugier has been openly critical of postmodern horror films like Scream, for the fact that they make it appear that everyone just has the same DVD collection that they like to show off through references. Despite being a lover of the Scream trilogy, I can sort of see his position on this. When films share a common language and that common language appears to be comedy over horror, it makes it more difficult to make anything different. Martyrs is undoubtedly intended as a very serious horror film. The fact that Laugier wrote it in a period of depression lends the film a sense of hopelessness and is utterly devoid of any humour. As a result, the cruelty is always cruel and there is no break or room to breathe within it. There is a crucial brutality in Anna’s degradation is that it is so far away from slasher violence. The slide of the ladder as her beatings continue build up a sense of the never-ending cruelty being enacted upon her.
Scholar Amy Green has written on how both Anna and Mademoiselle shed their outwardly female appearances before their most crucial moments – a feature which seems particularly important in a film which reinforces the importance of women as the victims. Anna’s captors aid in this transformation by shaving her head and the constant beatings contort her facial features to the point that she loses all recognisably feminine traits. Indeed, her final form in the experiment notably removes all of her skin as well as any display of sexual organs. The aforementioned chastity belt on the other victims, as well as their emaciated appearances hint at a need to remove gender before the transitional ‘martyr’ period. Mademoiselle, too, is seen to remove all her jewellery, makeup and headwear in almost ritualistic fashion before her suicide. Whether this is a ritual to enable a smooth passing into the afterlife, or an abandonment of her role due to the realisation of what Anna has told her remains unsaid.
Despite the enduring legacy of Martyrs and other European extreme films, it is notable that they do not translate to box office success in the country in which they are made. As a result, these films are made more for the American market than the European. This is interesting – America has the largest appetite for the consumption of extreme cinema but no interest in the production of it, at least with mainstream studios. There is also the issue that American studios seem keen to remove subtitles from any production to achieve the widest possible potential audience. I am still at a loss for words at English-language, New Zealand film Housebound potentially being remade for an American audience, but as a project has yet to materialise I can only imagine it has fallen through.
Martyrs has of course, spawned a (particularly awful) American remake, which again shows the degree to which studios are keen to adopt the transgressive popularity of these titles but are not as keen to present them in their original form. The reason that the Martyrs remake fails is due to a complete misunderstanding of the original film itself. After being in development hell for some time it was rumoured that Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism) as director was keen to give it a ‘happy-ending’, which instantly halted any lingering hope I had for the project. Stamm eventually left the project as it had a reduced budget. The eventual film maintains the firm friendship between the two girls but over-sanitises and over-explains almost everything. While I’ve learned to shrug rather than grumble about remakes (the original film will still exist, after all), this seemed to be an example of how often remakes miss the central points and atmosphere that made the original films so successful.
The original Martyrs still stands as a bold horror film which appears to be the entire vision of the creator, without compromise. As a result, the film lacks compromise and for those who are unable to stay on board throughout, it will lack that impact. For those who allow themselves to be taken on that journey, it is an amazing experience and as cliché as that sounds – it really is an experience. Standing largely in isolation, it’s themes are huge, but it’s focus on the central character of Anna provides a focus which enhances the cost of human cruelty for whatever aim. It is a film I can say, without hesitation, that I love – although I still have serious thoughts before recommending it.