Controversy and Chaos
(Martyrs, Pascal Laugier, France, 2008, 100 mins)
In 2008, amidst the increasingly jaded stream of torture porn and mediocre Hollywood remakes of Asian ghost stories, cine-fanatics were looking for something new, something truly frightening. Then, out of nowhere, came Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, which, from its marketing, appeared to be just another entry in France’s increasingly popular trend of brutal, back-to-basics slasher movies. There had already been some controversy surrounding the politically bruised Frontiere(s), and Alexandre Aja’s sapphic Switchblade Romance, with questions being raised about their graphic and sometimes sexualised violence. When Martyrs was due to be released, it was the first film in history to be given an R18 rating by the French Classification Board. With questions of censorship being raised elsewhere in political France at the time, reaction to the decision and the film itself were hotly debated.
With questions of cinema violence in mind, how does the film itself merit? It is difficult to give a synopsis without affecting the power of the film. It opens on a brief, haunting image of a brutalised young girl, Lucie, escaping from sadistic captors. During her stay at a mental institution, she struggles to come to terms with her ordeal and is haunted by a vicious apparition, something which appears to wish her severe harm. 8 years later Lucie arrives at the home of those she believes to be her abusers, and is set on revenge.
From a horror fan’s point of view, audiences may be disappointed by what is presented in Martyrs. The tone is black as pitch from the outset, and the void of humour may alienate the gore-hound set. This is not horror in the conventional sense – in fact the film is closer to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games than witty gore-fests like the aforementioned Switchblade Romance or the recent L’Interieur. The overriding sense is that this endeavour is not about creating a conventional horror-thriller, but guiding the audience through the characters’ ordeal. This is not about the action of violence, but the psychological effect. The violence is – and this is where the question of censorship comes in- unbearably graphic. Martyrs is visceral, devastating filmmaking; however audiences may find themselves questioning what the point of it all is. The morality of the film is deliberately confused, and the eventual message, one might assume, is to ponder who the victim is amongst all the chaos.
Aside from the violence – of which there is a seemingly unending amount of – the filmmaking is nigh-faultless. There is an almost unearthly connection with the action on screen and the viewer feels implicit in the action, and despite the carnage, there are moments to true beauty in amongst the bloodshed. What appears to have been missed by many of the film’s detractors, is the complexity of the writing. This is not an exploitation film, but a film that wants to meditate upon a span of issues of the human condition – friendship, brutality, loss, guilt and grief- and the film ultimately asks questions about life and death, of transcendence. Praise should go too, to the two main actresses – their hysterical but nuanced performances are wonderful and given the carnage on screen, extremely courageous.
Though almost unbearably brutal, incredibly disturbing and to some, even repulsive, this is a film of many merits. Beneath the chaos is a heartbreaking, thoughtful and ultimately, strangely uplifting human drama. Much more than exploitation, this is a work of beauty and of raw, unmatched power, and should be considered a masterpiece of modern cinema.