Extreme Horror: Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs” (2008)

Warning: If you have not seen the original Martyrs, do not read this article. Instead, scroll to the bottom of the page, watch Bleeding Critic’s video review, then see the film. Come back after you’re done.

Let’s face it — nobody knows for sure what (if anything) happens after death. Besides a love of life, this uncertainty is one of the reasons we go about our daily activities in complete denial that we are going to die. Although we might have accepted the idea that “everyone dies,” emotionally we’re having none of it . . . until the moment of death comes and we have to face it, whether we like it or not.

Mortality is such a blow to our love of self and our misguided sense of control that we’d do just about anything to avoid it. From a psychoanalytic perspective, one of the reasons for the existence of religion is to provide a sense of certainty and comfort about existence after death. From Freud’s point of view, this certainty is illusory, a narcotic effect of Marx’s “opium of the people.”

In the three major monotheistic religions, there’s some form of Heaven for the faithful and Hell for non-believers. In Hinduism and Buddhism, there’s rebirth that depends on one’s karma. There’s also the possibility of gaining control of one’s rebirth and ultimately attaining Nirvana (either merging with Brahma or with the Void). If you’re reborn, you’ll be exceedingly fortunate if it’s as a human being. There are as many answers as there are religions, too many to list here.

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So what if religion has failed you? What do you do to gain a sense of certainty and control in the face of the universal outcome of every living thing? The 2008 French horror film Martyrs provides one answer — an exceedingly horrifying one at that. Dedicated to the masterful Italian director Dario Argento, writer-director Pascal Laugier‘s film is as brutal as the best Giallo film and as thought-provoking as art cinema. As Billy Crash put it on THE LAST KNOCK podcast, “It’s torture porn with a philosophy.”

Laugier is a master of misdirection, never allowing viewers to rest in a sense of certainty. Just when they think they know where the story is going, the story takes a sharp, unexpected turn. When a sense of calm starts to prevail, a tornado of violence appears out of nowhere. Touching on this sense of deliberate chaos, Jonny Numb summed up the film as follows:

Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs was a lot of things, albeit in a deceptive manner: blunt, brutal murders that seem nihilistic and unprovoked take on greater resonance late in the game; characters in the throes of psychosis are later revealed to be sane (or, at the least, not uninformed in their actions); and scenes of systematic physical destruction are not executed without an underlying purpose. It was a film icy in its aesthetics, finding unexpected warmth in highly dubious characters that the viewer does not necessarily associate with until it is well on its downslope.

Jonny goes on to point out the significance of Martyrs in the evolution of the international horror genre. “As a cultural marker, it fit well within the surge of French horrors that defined a couple impressive years in the late 2000s, to say nothing of its inversion of the roles and responsibilities of women in regard to a genre that – to put it kindly – often seems confused as to what comprises a strong female character.” The strong female characters of Martyrs can be both aggressor and victim, merciless and merciful. While there is a similar dichotomy among the male characters, each tends to align with one side. By contrast, the women oscillate between extremes, often within a single character.

What’s fascinating is the motivation for this apparently erratic behavior. While one of the female characters is out for revenge and acts out of hate, another is motivated by love. But the motivation of still another is fear of death. She develops a secular definition of the term “martyr” that she uses to rationalize a hideous program that puts esoteric knowledge well above human rights. Desperate for answers, she will do anything to others to get them.

This is what makes Martyrs an extreme horror film. It’s not only a collection of gruesome, transgressive scenes within a coherent, believable story. It’s not just a well-made film with top-notch performances from the cast. It derives its true horror from the deep-seated fears that live within us. It’s particularly horrifying because Laugier aims at something we don’t want to think about and hits his mark: one of the most dreaded facts of life and our desperate, sometimes pathetic attempts to deal with it.

How far would you go to learn the answer to this mystery? What would you do if you found out the truth? To paraphrase a memorable line from the film, “Don’t stop doubting.” And watch Bleeding Critic’s review of Martyrs: