“It’s not a likable movie. Even me, myself, I hate the film.” (Pascal Laugier)
Pascal Laugier’s radically experimental horror film Martyrs (2008) is a persuasive and explosive leveling of capitalism, which is not limited to materialism, the Catholic Church, the cynical genre of torture porn, and the widespread embrace of anti-humanist postmodern irony. Martyrs joins the work of Pasolini, Bava, Bataille and other confrontational artists, including Luis Buñuel. Specifically, Martyrs recalls the eye-slitting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. It directly assaults viewers with both detestable visuals and agonizing sounds of pain, in an almost unbearable filmic experience of terror that rouses the even the most cynical viewer from her/his postmodern stance of superiority.
Martyrs makes the viewer responsible for the reinforcement of institutionalized capitalism, particularly religion, and more specifically religion’s obsessive embrace of death, its insistence on afterlife, its abuse of women, and its concomitant obsession with martyrdom. It is also a critique of the consumer of the horror film and an astounding film in and of itself.
For those who have not seen the film I offer this brief plot summary:
Horribly abused as children, Lucie and Anna bond as friends. Years later, Lucie murders the family she thinks abused them. Anna helps clean up the gore but Lucie commits suicide. Anna discovers an elaborate dungeon beneath the house. A black-clad team arrives and chains Anna in the dungeon where she is tortured beyond recognition. “Mademoiselle,” an older female leader of the cult, tells Anna that her group is looking for a witness to the afterlife. They believe that undergoing vast suffering may allow a martyr to glimpse the afterlife. So far their female victims have not been able to give them the answer they seek. Anna, after being flayed alive, is asked what she has seen. She whispers something in the ear of Mademoiselle, who commits suicide.
Martyrs’ nihilism is complete and impossible to dismiss, making it a far different experience from other extreme horror films. According to Laugier, Martyrs exists in a world “in which evil triumphed a long time ago” where people are defined by capitalism, and “spend their time hurting one another” (Sélavy). Laugier himself rejects postmodern cynicism as “a failure of everything” (Northlander). Inspired as much by H.P. Lovecraft’s insistence of horror as a genre that subverts society and civilization, as well as Laugier’s early experience of watching John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982) – which Laugier describes as “a masterwork” (Northlander) – Martyrs is frequently misread as yet another torture porn film and it is frequently celebrated, especially on the web, as simply the most gory and sadistic horror film ever made. But, not so fast.
In fact, Martyrs openly challenges such films and simplistic genre films, and supersedes them by using fresh narrative techniques and exposing the roots of capitalism, misogyny and horror film tropes. In Martyrs, a curiously modern upper-class French sect, perhaps a metonymic representation of the Catholic Church, capitalist bourgeois family life, money, privilege, and even the film industry itself, – operates a hospital-clean basement zone of ritual torture, in the name of God, beneath the façade of an ordinary looking suburban home. Brightly lit and flatly designed, the house stands in stark contrast to the more conventional cinematic tropes of Gothic castles, darkened attics, and standard issue locations of terror and violence in traditional horror films.
It’s a mundane, utterly faceless location; if you passed it in the street, you wouldn’t give it a second look. In short, the house fits right in with the landscape of contemporary bourgeoisie. In a particularly breathtaking move, Laugier draws parallels between the filmic merchandising of torture with the ritualistic mundane torture of the cult in the film. In the basement of this house beautiful, where the torture takes place, we see a peculiar series of movie-poster-like marquees, suggestive of horror film posters. Instead of film posters, however, the frames hold photographs of famous historical events involving torture and murder, perhaps indicting the audience for their insatiable appetite for violence.
This is one of the most brilliant moves in the film – in that it completely undermines our ability to laugh off, (or enjoy voyeuristically) the excessive torture that we witness. We become martyrs in a sense. This small gesture shocks us to our core by reminding us that even while we are safely watching a fictional story, real events of incredibly painful torture, ritual abuse, and sanctioned murder surround us and we are responsible, precisely because we do nothing about it. Laugier, calls to mind the words of Jean-Luc Godard in Week End: “To overcome the horror of the bourgeoisie we need still more horror.”
Stylistically, Laugier rejects flashy editing, and CSI-styled camerawork, designed to artificially “involve” the viewer in a sadistic positionality. He also avoids using many shots from the victim’s point-of-view. Shot, for the most part, in long takes in a cinema verité style, using wide, “observational” long shots, Martyrs stares directly at the audience, making us complicit in the horror that we co-produce by viewing the film.
Martyrs is not a pleasurable experience at all, which is precisely the point. Laugier believes only in the fleeting power of a loving relationship between two female victims, but even that relationship is doomed by the damage of historical materialism. Martyrs subverts all conventions in order to best expose how institutions of power corrupt basic human desires. This corruption destroys the meaning of life, living and the pursuit of pleasure and replaces it with a death trip – a meaningless quest for power, money, and life after death. In interviews, Laugier often speaks of human relationships as the broken shards of brutal capitalism triumphant, “more driven by the market than humanity” (Bloody Disgusting).
Neither gothic, disgusting, nor phantasmal, the monsters in Martyrs are ordinary human beings, just like the members of the audience. They are smartly dressed, speak with politeness, and display a creepy corporate chic mixed with a bit of suburban tedium. Their aberrant behavior is largely hidden from public view and confined to the basement of their attractive benign-looking home. But most importantly, I think, Martyrs strongly suggests, largely through the use of the mundane, that routine torture goes on everyday in most homes and families and in the institutions that hold up capital: patriarchy, the church, law, the military, and society. Laugier is careful to render ritualized abuse as mundane almost to the point of boredom. The torturers look as bored as MacDonald’s workers or stockbrokers. Their behavior is cold, dull, commonplace, reminiscent of the systematic torture of the Nazis and the Inquisition. Laugier often stresses that his film is a radical departure from torture porn and other horror film forms. As he told Ion Magazine:
“Torture porn is already dead. It’s just a word invented by jaded journalists. … After Wes Craven killed everything by doing Scream, we lived through 10 years of funny horror films. I hated it. I was not alone. The new wave that came back was called torture porn. It means nothing though. …I consider my work very different. I’m not an American, I’m French and my sensibilities are very different. I was interested in using the imagery of torture porn and turning it into something different. Yes, shocking, but still disturbing for a horror audience.” (Mann)
As David Sterritt concludes, Martyrs “deserves recognition as the first and founding member of a genre hitherto unknown.”
As far as the cult is concerned, the violence they inflict upon their victims is as ordinary a task as shopping for groceries; they gain no sadistic satisfaction from their acts, and there are no ominous speeches or justifications preceding or following each act of torture. It’s also interesting to note that the film does not include any sexual abuse. When asked what drives the sect, Laugier responded:
“Fear of death. And knowing the Ultimate Secret. And that’s something that could happen in real life. I mean, you know that when society is completely driven by the power of money, the …anything is possible. Everything is allowed… It’s not worse than going to Asia and fuck some… you know, because you can afford it. Because [capitalism] … breaks all the taboos of the power of money it’s very, very possible that one day some people with a lot of money will try to break the last thing that makes us all the same, all equal, that is to say Death. That’s an idea, and maybe it’s a poetic idea, but it’s very connected to the world we are living in.” (Northlander)
Even though Laugier allows for some ambiguity, in the end, it seems clear to me that there is no afterlife, no union with God, and no ascendance into the heaven for the final victim in Martyrs, even as it conjures up iconic images of female martyrdom, such as that of Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652), or Carl Th. Dreyer’s film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).
It is worth noting, then, that Laugier himself was raised Catholic, yet he states that he no longer “believes in conversion,” adding “I know everything about sacrifice, guiltiness, and the ecstasy of suffering.” He now regrets his Catholic upbringing, because “without this shit, I’d be a much quieter, [more] peaceful person” (Bloody Disgusting). Laugier’s obvious contempt for the Church and capital is equaled only perhaps by his ability to take a pickaxe to the politics of horror films and their audiences. As Christopher Sharrett brilliantly demonstrates in “The Problem of Saw: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” horror has made a hard right towards conservative politics. Martyrs is a political answer to the problem pointed out in Sharrett’s essay, deliberately and carefully moving the horror film back into a confrontational stance toward the status quo.
Some critics lump Martyrs into a subgenre of films dubbed the “New French Extremism” movement. Laugier dismisses the idea that his Martyrs is anything like the other films in the so-called movement and he also outright rejects the notion that there even is such a movement. As Laugier makes quite clear, his intent is “to divide, to shock, and make cracks in the certainties of the audience” (Sélavy). Yet paradoxically, Laugier admits that he still has faith, he has faith in the redemptive power of the cinema itself, which can, he argues, “take the worst of the human condition and transform it into art, into beauty” (Sélavy).
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief of the journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and A Short History of Film (2008), both co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon; as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997).
Bloody Disgusting (2008), “Martyrs: Exclusive Chat with Director Pascal Laugier!” Web. No longer available.
Mann, Michael (2008), Interview with Pascal Laugier for Ion Magazine.
Northlander (pseud.) (2008), “Northlander Interviews Martyrs‘ Pascal Laugier – and He Spills About His Hellraiser Remake!!”, Ain’t It Cool News, December 28.
Sélavy, Virginie (2009), “Martyrs: Interview with Pascal Laugier”, Electric Sheep, May 2.
Sharrett, Christopher (2009), “The Problem of Saw: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” Cineaste, Vol. 35, No. 1, December, pp. 32-37.