I just sat through Martyrs, a French language horror film in the new tradition which is being established right before our eyes.
I'm going to bet the majority of people who might read this are people who haven't seen this little French serving of complete insanity. With that in mind, I'm not going to say much about the film, except that I loved it. It's been a really good while since I've seen something which was able to hit me in the soft spots with as much ferocity, accuracy and consistency.
So, in order to give those of you who might see the film a chance to go in blind and untainted, I'm going to talk a little bit about how I see the film, and why it's gotten the reaction it has from both mainstream critics and the horror community. For once, they're equally torn. They love it, hate it or are completely flummoxed by it. This is probably the thing which made me most interested in seeing it. Beyond the fact that I'm a horror obsessed geek, I tend to find the films I enjoy the most are the ones which create the most bitter divide in the audience. It means you've felt something strongly or you just don't exactly know what to feel or how to think about it. When a film can draw such strong opinions of pro and con, and still at the same time have people more or less saying, "yes, it's something different and new, but I don't know that I like the different and new that it is", this is a good sign.
Let's start with the blatantly obvious. This is not a film for everyone. In fact, this is probably a film for a relatively small audience. It's showing at last years Cannes Film Festival served it well because it did create this buzz and this controversy among the critical community, but it also is probably drawing some unfair and unnecessary criticism because there are people seeing this film who were never meant to see it in the first place. It's not meant for the faux art house crowd. Of course, they're calling it misogynistic. If a woman isn't worshiped or presented in what they interpret as the most positive light, they tend to whip out the misogyny card. This is not to say there aren't some extremely misogynistic films out there, because there are. At the same time if you can't give women the respect to present them as you would any other human beings, with examples which are really cool, awesome characters and also really horrible, disgusting characters, you're selling them short by presenting them as being something more or less than human. I know some really incredible women who are inspirational to me. I know some really disgusting women who are inspirations in much the opposite way. There is nothing of them I want to see in myself. I say faux art house because in the last fifteen or twenty years what we've begun to be spoon fed as "art films" aren't really art films or even independent films. Most of them are just films major studios have used some small arm too spend less money to produce, but still provide enough money to make sure the costumes are pretty and the equipment is top notch. There was once a tradition of art house films which were dangerous, hard, and challenging. If you appreciated those kinds of films, you will probably appreciate Martyrs at least for it's aspirations and it's pure technical prowess in storytelling and narrative, if not as a whole.
I understand perfectly why there's a wide section of the horror community which is not at all thrilled by Martyrs. The simple answer is that it's not a simple film. It is violent and gory, which your average gore hound usually eats up. But, it's a little too complicated to be a splatter flick. It's a little too cerebral to be your usual kind of hack and splash horror film. It's at least aspiring to be something a little more intelligent. Don't get me wrong, I can absolutely enjoy a big dumb gore fest as much as any pure gore hound. Sometimes, it's great to be able to just turn my brain off and enjoy some big, loud, bloody excuse for incredibly silly and completely unbelievable puppet shows. In many ways, that's how you have to look at some horror flicks. There really is nothing else going on. It's all right there on the screen, there's nothing more to think about or consider. They are very purposefully saying nothing. They're no underlying theme or idea. They are just there to gross you out, make you jump a few times and take you on a roller coaster ride from the safety of your non-moving seat. If you're looking further than that, you just are incapable of getting it. This is not the movie for the pure of heart gore hound.
Also there's a whole spate of reaction to the film which cover the current "jingo" for simpletons. Misogyny is one. Torture porn is another. Lesbian chic, yet another. Pretentious and religiose round out the use of contemporary go to descriptions for people too lazy to actually come up with something more meaningful and more nuanced. Sorry guys, but you're as intellectually lazy as the mainstream movie folks you all seem to really like to skewer. At least the majority of those people will admit to not even wanting to have to think about their movies. I understand this reaction though, and it's something that happens when many films are capable of skirting that line of presenting the superficial, popcorn, pure entertainment variety of film with some really strong ideas, themes and questions. To some degree this has to do with the fact that Martyrs is a horror film. The critical community pretty much sees the horror film as the unwanted orphan dropped off on the film communities door step. It's there, and yes, sometimes something good comes out of it, but the thing is, we really don't like to admit we raised it and it's part of the family. To another degree, I think as an audience we've dropped our expectations so low that when something does come along that does have something more going on, we don't necessarily catch it if it's not slapping us in the head with a frying pan. If they're preaching to us, we can't stand it, but we've been inundated by big dumb movies for so long, we forget to look for something smart going on under the immediately accessible surface. I don't think the critics are immune to this, especially considering that as a community they seem to really enjoy finding something to look down their nose at. I can't really hold it against them either. In movieland, there's a whole hell of a lot to look down your nose at. At the same time they can laud heaps of praise on films which are too dumb to understand the meaning of nuance and subtlety (you remember Crash, don't you?).
Beyond the fact that Martyrs is a horror film film though, it deals with some really uncomfortable ideas, themes and questions. Suffering is actually a central theme and there are some really interesting questions the films suggests about it. The misogyny call is particularly dubious in the instance of this film because it suggests woman are more capable of surviving and transcending suffering than anyone else, "especially young women" is actually a line from the movie. I can't go into it more without spoiling it. It also suggests something about extremism in it's own way. The fact that this film has gotten stamped with the "torture porn" label by some critics is something I almost think is good. If it were to be watched in comparison to some of the other films which have been slapped with this unfortunate label, most especially Hostel (the film which inspired the term), I think a pretty interesting set of ideas would start to emerge about what these films are actually saying. Both of them, in their own way deal with a kind of extreme dedication to an idea or ideology. The kind of dedication which suggests that for these people, they either don't care about right and wrong or possibly even more frightening, believe that the dedication to this ideology or idea puts them above considerations of right and wrong. I think that much like the films of the late sixties and early seventies, some of today's films have some weird, inexplicable process of cultural osmosis going on and the questions and the horrors we're dealing with in the real world are coming out in some of our horror films.
The thing is, Martys is not for everyone. Not at all. Had it not gained some level of notoriety in the way of controversy and becoming somewhat notorious, it would have been passed around the horror community and argued over by those of us who are passionate about horror films. The rest of the world would have been more or less unaware of it's existence, kind of like Cannibal Holocaust. I am specifically at odds with the fact that there is a remake of Cannibal Holocaust in the works because the rest of the world doesn't need to know about it. It's in no one's best interest, except possibly the studio hoping to incite controversy with it. Martyrs is a film which would have and probably still will find a very loyal cult following. People who are capable of loving and admiring both it's ferocity, it's grace and it's thematic aspirations would have told friends about it, who'd have told friends about it and so on. Occasionally, some poor schlep whom it was never intended for would have been forced to sit through it by some well meaning friend who thought they would enjoy it, and there would be people out there who'd seen it and just reviled it, and that would help it's strange cult status. It's the kind of film meant for people who can appreciate the full range of what film can be and who love film for that reason. The pure gore hounds can't handle it because it's probably just a little too high brow, even for it's guts and gore. The people who like to fancy themselves "aficionados" or guardians of films cultural importance aren't going to like it because it's rough, dirty, disturbing, gory and most especially, deeply subversive. This is one of those rare little films for people who can appreciate all of those things equally without being chained to any single one of them as more important than the other to either the medium itself or the culture. It's kind of movie for people who love movies in equal part because of their splendor and their sickness.