Or, what happens when a movie thinks it’s more intelligent than it actually is…
Written By: Pascal Laugier
Directed By: Pascal Laugier
As the final seconds tick away in the credits of Martyrs the director, Pascal Laugier, thanks Giallo maestro, and all around horror legend, Dario Argento. I has to take some time to mull over this instance of thanks. Signore Argento was never one to shy away from graphic brutality in his films. He was also never a director who was afraid of adding in artistic touches next to said brutality. Certainly, Signore Argento’s films were, in general, sleazier than what Martyrs is offering. However, the more I thought about Martyrs the more I came to the conclusion that it is sleazier than anything I have ever seen from Signore Argento. Defining Signore Argento’s brand of horror as artful sleaze would be an apt description. What matters most to me about that definition, and label, is that Signore Argento was overt about his sleaze. He didn’t hide behind the beauty of his films or an air of high mindedness. Monsieur Laugier can thank Signore Argento all he wants, but Martyrs is the opposite of artful sleaze. It is a pretender, a wolf in sheep’s clothing that tries to raise its high horse as high as it can to mask the needless brutality of the film.
I’m not against brutality in my films, especially in my horror films. What I don’t like is when a film becomes a sham in order to somehow justify its brutality. The first half of Martyrs was plenty brutal, but the brutality served to create an atmosphere and move along the story. In the second half the brutality exists because Monsieur Laugier can be brutal. That, to me, is not reason enough for brutality to be in a film that wants to present itself as an art project. The brutality in Martyrs must be questioned, because to be honest the film offers little else to question.
One of the reasons I have loved horror for these many years is because of the thematic depth that can be found in the genre. It is for this very reason that I despise the artificiality of Martyrs. At some point in time Monsieur Laugier decided he wanted to make a horror film that was as brutal as they come. But, in an age of horror brutality even the most extreme brutality might not be enough to garner your film acclaim. To that end the theological bent of Martyrs was inserted into the screenplay. Unfortunately the theological aims of the film never have the weight that they should. The thematic depth in Martyrs is like giving a dog a hollowed out bone. The dog will tear through the bone in a matter of seconds and be left unsatisfied by the lack of substance within the bone. Monsieur Laugier constructs a horror film in Martyrs that is the shell of an empty bone, and it’s obvious once the second half begins that he has no idea how to intelligently fill said bone.
Back to the brutality, because I do really believe that it’s important to question the brutality in Martyrs. I won’t deny that the gore effects in Martyrs are fantastic. There wasn’t a second of the film where I wasn’t impressed by some bit of blood spatter or raw sinew. However, I have to return to the idea of what function the brutality serves. As I said previously, in the first half the brutality heightens the tension filled atmosphere of the film. It also helps the film to keep a steady pace and it clearly defines the two main characters and their relationship. The second half of the film does neither of those things. At the end the only purpose I could see to the brutality was to remind us of how much the human spirit can, or cannot, endure. The first half of the film explored that same territory, but in a much more interesting and thoughtful manner. That’s mainly because the first half of the film is bereft of the theological nonsense that makes up the second half of the film.
Martyrs has been a polarizing film since its release. I appreciate that the film has given me this much to write about, and that it has helped me to reflect further on why I love the horror genre so much. I wish that I could say the film was thought provoking because of how well constructed it is as a horror film. The truth is that I can’t say that because it is in its high minded missteps that Martyrs helps to remind me of the greatness of the horror genre. Claire Denis showed in Trouble Every Day that the New French Extremity is a movement within horror that can bring about deep thought as well as a virtuoso cinematic experience. Martyrs serves to show why the New French Extremity is a shallow exercise in ultimately aimless brutality. I know that many will disagree with my assessment of Martyrs, and some will agree with what I had to say. One thing is for sure, Martyrs has succeeded in being a film that horror fans take notice of, for better or worse.