Sat. Sep 23rd, 2023

French horror has brought us classics of all shapes and sizes, but no type has been more pervasive than the New French Extremity movement.

This turn-of-the-century revolution in French film has brought the genre some of the most debased yet artful horror ever made. From Alexandre Aja‘s High Tension, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside, to Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Titane, there’s a selection of the most wild and violent scenes ever put to film. But one movie from this movement is the height of uncomfortable viewing.

Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs was first released this month in 2008, and it brought a maelstrom of shock and controversy with it. A brutal, unrelenting juggernaut of madness and misery that still manages to be something meaningful and beautiful.

Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) was tortured as a child, and made a miraculous escape from her captors. She ends up befriending a fellow abuse survivor named Anna (Morjana Alaoui). Years later, Lucie has found the people responsible for her tormented past and unleashes the most visceral shocking blunt revenge possible with a shotgun in the first of many eye-wateringly violent scenes. What happens next is a truly surprising turn of events that drags the viewer deeper into the depraved world that birthed Lucie’s trauma.

A Horrifying, Meaningless Search For An Answer

Credit: Canal+

Martyrs may have an overarching theme of unpleasantness, but as a film, it strays between sub-genres with an alarmingly casual gait. One moment it’s a home invasion revenge movie, then a monster movie, and then…well, it makes Hostel look like a comedy. It refuses to sit still but makes its point in the end.

The complaint could be made that it almost feels aimless to begin with. As the viewer is pulled from pillar to post by the increasingly harrowing and manic events onscreen, it certainly starts to feel that way. But as the film eventually lets you go physically, if not mentally, the realization that you’ve endured a watered-down facsimile of the savage conditioning at the heart of the story kicks in.

What is it exactly that makes Martyrs so hard to watch? There are many contenders for sure. The rage-fuelled massacre during the opening, the representation of Lucie’s increasingly brittle state of mind, and the arduous slog of that final experiment. But the key to Martyr’s uncomfortable state is in its disdain for innocence and love. It’s somewhat unsurprising that director Pascal Laugier stated he was going through a bout of clinical depression when he wrote Martyrs. The nihilistic tone certainly doesn’t feel like it came from any kind of happy place.

Nowhere is that nihilism shown better than with the treatment of Anna. Throughout the film, Anna is shown to care deeply for Lucie, even though it’s broken her own homelife over the years. She’s consistently shown to be a person with great empathy, which puts her in a horrible situation when she discovers what Lucie has done early in the film. Her reward for trying to help Lucie find closure is a sickening and ultimately fruitless ordeal that sticks in the mind long after the credits roll.

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By Dave Jenks

Dave Jenks is an American novelist and Veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Between those careers, he’s worked as a deckhand, commercial fisherman, divemaster, taxi driver, construction manager, and over the road truck driver, among many other things. He now lives on a sea island, in the South Carolina Lowcountry, with his wife and youngest daughter. They also have three grown children, five grand children, three dogs and a whole flock of parakeets. Stinnett grew up in Melbourne, Florida and has also lived in the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and Cozumel, Mexico. His next dream is to one day visit and dive Cuba.