There are a few films that hold the uneasy glory of serving as proof of horror hardness, a sort of litmus test for gore and nastiness and how much you can handle: the Guinea Pig series, Audition, Nekromantic, to name a few – but perhaps none which hold up as well today as Martyrs does.
Pascal Laugier’s 2008 Martyrs was released at the tail end of the New French Extremism wave of cinema; though Laugier himself never cared for the association between the genre and his most iconic work, it’s almost impossible to deny it’s there. The violence, the extremity, the shock value – it fits comfortably amongst movies like Inside and Baise-Moi, stalwarts of this era of French cinema.
Inspired by Hostel, Laugier wrote the script for Martyrs in the depths of suicidal depression, struggled to find any studios willing to finance it’s creation, and had an even harder time tracking down actors who would take on such an extreme piece. But, eventually, he did – and the legacy it’s left behind is huge.
Though the initial reaction to the movies was pretty polarized, it soon starting garnering festival attention and awards, and now, it’s seen as a bonafide horror classic – just a couple of years ago, Rolling Stone put it on their list of best horror movies of the 21st century.
But I think what makes it such an infamous movie is the sheer extent of the violence depicted here. When I heard about Martyrs for the first time, it was still kind of underground hit, discussed for the shock value and extreme sadism it features as such a major part of the plot. Hell, I didn’t know there was much of a story attached to it until I plucked up the courage to watch it for the first time. The violence, especially the particularly shocking climax, was always talked about first when I heard about this movie, and, from discussions I’ve had with other horror fans, I’m not the only one.
But the question remains – is Martyrs really that disturbing? I watched it again recently, partially because I wanted an answer to this question; when I first saw it, it was more as a feat of endurance, proving I could, than an attempt to analyse the film on any kind of critical level.
First off, I have to say, yes – Martyrs is still a brutal watch, even fifteen years after it’s original release. In some ways, horror has become more extreme, but I don’t think I can compare the sheer brutality of this movie to many recent releases that gained even slight traction (maybe the Terrifier movies, at a push). It’s genuinely hard to keep your eyes on the screen at points, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary visual effects work of the late, great Benoit Lestang, who creates this uncomfortably realistic, stomach-churning effects that turn the gore into something discomfortingly accurate.
But it’s not just the extremity of the gore I find so difficult to watch. There are a few scenes in Martyrs that feature comparatively “minor” violence compared to other horror movies – there’s a sequence where main character Anna (the superb Morjana Alaoui) is just punched in the face, and it’s one of the most difficult scenes to watch for me. And I think that’s a great example of what makes Martyrs so memorably unsettling and disturbing; it makes every act of violence feel uncomfortable to watch, and it does this by bringing the focus on to the human first and foremost.
Laugier’s excellent script matched with the brilliant ideas and performances at the heart of Martyrs are what elevates this movie into a classic, and what makes the violence so difficult and disturbing to watch. The first part of the movie focuses on the relationship between Anna and her best friend Lucie, who was previously abused by the cult that abducts Anna, and it takes it’s time building up that relationship and asking some really interesting questions about whether violence and even murder can be justifiable based on the previous actions of the victim. We come to understand Anna as a compassionate, loving, and decent person, trying her best to help Lucie through the trauma of what she’s survived.
Which makes what comes next all the harder to watch. And the context of the violence makes it all the more impactful, too – Laugier draws on classic images of human suffering and especially women’s trauma over the years as a way for the cult to justify and motivate their actions, brings it unsettlingly close to real life. It isn’t done for just the sadistic pleasure of watching someone suffer; the perpetrators don’t seem to get any joy out of the actual acts they’re committing. The way that violence is treated as a means to an end, in an almost cold and removed way, serves as a strikingly horrible contrast to the unspeakable horrors that Anna undergoes in the third act of the movie.
Martyrs really is that disturbing, but it’s far more than just the extremity of the violence that makes it that way – Pascal Laugier crafted a context for that violence that makes it all the more horrible, and the excellent performance bring in the human in a way that renders it genuinely hard to watch at times. It’s reputation as a shocker is well-earned – but it’s reputation as a prestige piece of cinematic art is, too.
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By Lou MacGregor
(header image via ReelRundown)
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