A confession: I can’t write titles.
I watch a lot of films. Here is the collection; note the creative use of Jack Daniel’s bottles as bookends, which has the dual benefit of keeping my liver less pickled than it could be.
As a rule, everything there falls into one or more of the following categories:
a) Psychological thriller
b) The special kind of transgressively disturbing that makes grown men cry
c) Historical, most often Nazis
d) Cult classics
I’m something of a connoisseur of b), possibly best proven by the fact the only reason A Serbian Film isn’t on that shelf is that I can’t buy it uncut in the UK and refuse to accept anything else. (Incidentally, the concept is far more distressing than the actual execution, which is outright cartoonish at times. Very well made though). This has been the case since I insisted on watching The Exorcist as a tender eleven year old and took seven years to pluck up the courage to watch it again. It’s hilarious now, of course. Especially recut as an ’80s sitcom.
The only film I watched as an adult and have yet to bring myself to watch again is this one:Anyone who knows French cinema purely for Amelié and other such kitsch junk set almost entirely in cafés with liberal tuning of the Parisian colour settings and not a rat or homeless person in sight [breathe] would be surprised at some of the celluloid depravity that country’s produced in recent years, affectionately dubbed the New French Extremity movement and characterised by original transgression and body horror. Irréversible is probably the most notorious, but Martyrs is immeasurably more brutal.
Should I give it a chance? Probably. But there’s so many elements of Martyrs that make it what it is – a film that in terms of plot and themes appears nothing too special, but will numb your brain for days – that Hollywood has a track record of fucking up entirely.
– Two young-ish kids are blown away with a shotgun in the opening scenes, for more or less absolutely no reason. America doesn’t do killing kids unless it’s kids killing kids and being used as a metaphor for why parenting/the government/everything is going to hell. Most of the ‘most horrific twist endings’ or ‘hardest scenes to watch’ involve kids in some way. Rightfully so, as violence of any sort against kids is horrendous, but in Martyrs it’s just a thing that happens. It’s over quickly, but it’s not pleasant and it sets the scene for what you can expect, which still doesn’t prepare you.
– There’s a lot – a lot – of gore. The title refers to the villains of the story, a religious cult, subjecting young women to near-fatal levels of torture in order that they will become witnesses to the afterlife (‘martyr’ is derived from the Greek for ‘witness’) in their quest to determine the meaning of life and whether there is another after it. None of the gore is for its own sake, in the model that made Saw and Hostel so successful. It’s also not at all stylised; there’s no creative and (let’s be honest) fairly cool Saw traps. It’s a young woman getting seven shades of shit beaten out of her until she’s a shell of a person. And it manages to do this, and slowly wear down your own resilience as a viewer, without sexualising the women in any way – you can guarantee any remake will not resist the urge to slip a bit of that in there.
– It’s deeply, deeply existential. The meaning of the ending is subject to plenty of debate, as is the symbolism throughout. It’s the kind of film you’ll be thinking about for days afterwards without really knowing why. It’s also fairly atheistic – one of the most basic interpretations to draw from it is as a critique of organised religion and their outright hellish behaviour towards their fellow man in their quest to find meaning which may not exist. It’s very French in that respect, and between that and the very unconventional ending, it isn’t really one for mainstream audiences. At one point it was rumoured that the ending of the remake would be less nihilistic and have a ‘glimmer of hope’, at which point I let loose a string of expletives I don’t feel comfortable posting on a blog which only has the one adult content warning. Whatever that film turns out to be, it won’t be Martyrs.
– There’s no fucking ghosts in it. This wouldn’t be a cause for concern on its own, but when the producers’ previous titles include Paranormal Activity and Insidious, my expectations are not that high.
– All the principle characters, including the main villain, are women. Plenty of people have written about the US’s problem with this in a much better way than I could attempt here, but for a quick idea, have a look at the Bechdel test graphs and how many films still aren’t passing it. And it’s literally the bare minimum you could expect from a modern film beyond ‘acknowledges existence of women’.It might be good. It might be really, really good. At the moment, however, the odds are stacked against this. Martyrs is an excellently made and very disturbing look at humanity, and it doesn’t need to be touched. Especially not this soon.
Just watch the French original and do yourself a favour.