The utterly bleak Martyrs is at the crest of a wave of nasty little horror films coming from France, ranging from the excellent (Haute Tension, by Alexandre Aja, who unfortunately hasn’t made anything good since) to the terrible (Ils). One can, I suppose, run this through some psychoanalytic filter and argue that it’s part of France’s working out its multicultural anxieties (see my attempts at doing so in Xavier Gens’ Frontière(s)). But it’s far more likely just the market at work: the result of a general shift in (American) critical and commercial attention to its novelty, not to mention better distribution.
The conventional wisdom on horror, at least, is that the nineties were dominated by Asians (Japan and South Korea), and the 2000s by Europe (the U.K., Spain, but mostly France). I do find this sort of national(ist)-inflected discourse interesting — e.g., “the French are kicking our asses!” — concerning the horror genre, especially on the fansites. I suppose it’s not a product of knee-jerk American jingoism, though the discourse sometimes ends up sounding that way; it comes from the simple fact that the United States had waved the horror banner for so long in the seventies, Italy being the lone exception. It doesn’t help that the main U.S. market for horror, for a long time now, seems to be teens, with all the pandering that involves — not to mention the fact that every other release seems to be a remake or a sequel. (Am I the only one whose heart sank upon seeing the Saw V teaser?)
Laugier, in any case, clearly aims to make a more intellectually substantive statement than the gross-outs of Saw and its ilk. Which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that Martyrs isn’t exploitative trash, but it’s far more than that, and it cuts deeper than just a cold audience-baiting exercise. A young girl named Lucie escapes from the basement dungeon where she was tortured and held captive. (It’s clearly inspired by the recent horrific case of Austrian Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth in their cellar for 24 years.) We’re told, by way of a flashback news clip, that she is the only survivor, and that her abductors were never found.
Fifteen years later, Lucie (accompanied by her friend Anna, from the same mental institution / foster home) exacts explosive, bloody revenge on her tormentors. This brief moment of catharsis, if one could call it that, is but the smallest stab of sunlight in Martyrs. This all happens in the first fifteen minutes or so, and from then on there’s nothing but unremitting darkness. (Indeed, the “making of” documentary on the DVD was essential viewing on my part, just to see if the lead actresses, Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï, were okay.)
I don’t want to spoil the specifics of the plot, except to note that it a) takes an odd left turn into, shall we say, Lars von Trier territory (and, by extension, the work of a different, genuinely Great Dane), and that b) the title really is meant to be taken literally. About halfway through the movie, there’s a slow, frightening tonal shift which accomplishes something interesting: it makes one question one’s own suspect pleasures in viewing the first quarter of the film.
One might even call the last third of the film a rebuke of the audience, if only one weren’t so sure that the filmmaker wasn’t actually enjoying all this. (And indeed, I can’t imagine anyone remotely “enjoying” this.) After you endure one brutal revelation after another, you look at the clock and realize, to your dismay, there’s still a full third of the movie left. And dear god, it gets even worse.
Other than its perverse plot twist toward the end, and its theme of retribution and guilt, the main difference in Martyrs from its predecessors is that its violence is relentless and far more ugly and degrading. There’s clear skill on Laugier’s part; the way he imagines the house as both site of messy domesticity and clinically sterile torture chamber is more provocative than the philosophy crammed into the last act. But I’m somewhat suspicious of the writers’ attempts to intellectually justify such horror. (And mine, actually — it’s hard enough to explain my enjoyment of, say, trash like the first Saw, though in an earlier blog entry, I tripped all over myself trying to read Hostel as a mildly subversive joke about American capitalism.) The horror bloggers have been mostly ecstatic about Martyrs, but I think they’re mistaking this mere upsetting of expectations for profundity. And yet…
It’s significant that the movie’s events all essentially take place within the confines of the same country home, for the audience, too, is held prisoner. And it’s why I felt compelled to write (anything) about the deeply disturbing Martyrs and the way it gets under your skin. Maybe its images will finally disappear when I close my eyes at night.