Plenty has been written about "torture porn", with the idea being that films like Saw and Hostel have stepped over the line of what is acceptable in horror and fetishised violence, desensitising us to the gravity of the acts. In truth, there’s little new in this – the Hellraiser films had a noticeable S&M angle to them, while even back in the 70s, trash flicks like Last House on the Left set a cruelty template that endures today.
Perhaps what makes the modern Hollywood fare so problematic is the they have crossed into the mainstream, therefore attracting more attention, and that there’s no moral framework that remedies or contextualises the suffering.
Fortunately, away from Hollywood, film-makers are at least bringing a certain sensibility to proceedings, using the outrage to prompt questions about what’s being shown. This was certainly the case with Funny Games, which presented acts of violence with a cold neutrality, forcing the viewer to take responsibility for choosing to be party to such brutality.
French cinema in particular has been unrelenting in recent years and Martyrs, a hit on the festival circuit and apparently in development for a Hollywood remake, is one of the most harrowing, shocking and challenging horror films yet.
Abducted at a young age and abused over a sustained period, Lucie manages to escape her captors and start life over in an orphanage, where she befriends Anna. Many years later, Lucie tracks down her abusers to their middle-class abode and decides to take her revenge in brutally shocking fashion.
But haunted by her demons, the situation is too much for Lucie to bear, and Anna is left with a monumental clean-up operation. Worryingly, Anna also discovers that sadly the abuse is still going on, as she stumbles on another victim in the basement of the house. What starts out as a noble rescue attempt has catastrophic consequences for Anna.
Undeniably cruel and often difficult to watch, Martyrs mostly manages to sidestep the Hollywood wrongness and keep in line with the likes of Funny Games, thanks to its willingness to avoid the revelry of the Saw and Hostel series and instead tackle the violence from a different, more mature perspective.
The aggression comes in short bursts and is in many ways no more extreme than what you’d see in a 15-cert film or a Tom & Jerry cartoon, though it’s the systematic and unrelenting nature of it that makes it undeniably harsh. But what director Pascal Laugier concentrates on to devastating effect is the seismic emotional impact and the repercussions of the events, while the complicit guilt is again the viewer’s burden.
Fortunately, all this is married to a strong narrative that supports you through the trauma, a safety net not offered by Funny Games. It’s a ridiculous cliché to use, and it pains me to say it, but it genuinely is a rollercoaster ride, with moments of seeming tranquillity giving way to sharp drops.
But perhaps most importantly, the final third at least seeks to give a reason for the abuse taking place. It’s no justification whatsoever, but it gives the film a curious depth. Morally it’s in no way out of the woods – attractive women are the key victims and the fact that Laugier creates a Hellraiser-esque hellish aesthetic out of the misery means you’re left unsure about the overall nobility of the project.
Memorable in the way it manipulates your emotions, Martyrs is as far from a barrel of laughs as is humanly possible. But if you have a taste for challenging world cinema, then it doesn’t get much more challenging than this.
Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi.
Directed by: Pascal Laugier
Extras: making-of feature, interviews, trailer