As the new millennium began, the world was confronted by the new wave of French extremity. It was a movement that comprised itself of transgressive horror, slicing its way through social morays, and ripping apart the proverbial envelope. One of the many entries at its forefront was Martyrs, a tour de force directed by Pascal Laugier. Successfully merging violence with an imposing amount of philosophical depth, it completely shifted the paradigm of the genre, and set a standard that many films are still attempting to live up to. The story contained within Martyrs was rather complex. In simple terms, it was a transcendental journey told through the experience of flesh. Beyond that, it touched upon the curiosity of what lies in the world beyond the physical. Raising more questions than it answered, it remains one of the most thought provoking horror films of all time. Even upon its conclusion, the answers were still completely out of reach.
Martyrs grasped at the collective mind of its viewing audience, and found a way to weave itself into the subconscious. On the surface, it seemed like just another entry in the long line of films associated with body horror. However, it went far beyond that, and constantly shifted its themes and overall presentation, never remaining dormant for far too long. As it progressed, it wasn’t so much storytelling as it was travelling down a rabbit hole. Shifting from found footage to home invasion, and then into a supernatural approach regarding a manifestation of guilt. At last, finally introducing a society who obtains knowledge of the unknown through the suffering of others. It managed to keep its message and intent hidden until the third and final act. Even then, things weren’t so cut and dry. Before it arrived at its climax of undiluted pessimism, we had learned a simple truth about the human existence; in the end, we all end up in the same grave. (IE—After the home invasion and subsequent events that follow, both perpetrators and victims end up being buried together in a mass grave.)
As an art form, Martyrs is a unique reflection of the country from which it originated from, in both cultural significance, as well as artistic output. Martyrdom isn’t just a part of France’s history; it’s an integral part of their culture. Joan Of Arc, the country’s patron saint, is undoubtedly one of the most notable in history. On more than one occasion her legacy has been told through film, and the influence from France’s favorite daughter is certainly not lost within this particular entry. (IE—When Anna arrives at her final state of martyrdom; she looks somewhat reminiscent to the depiction of Arc in Carl Theodor Dryer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), right down to a vacant expression that seems to stare off into the void.) Joan of Arc always claimed to be guided by the voice of God. In another element carried over into the film, the voice of her friend Lucie guides her as she approaches her final transition into martyrdom and divinity.
France’s artistic output through the decades has had a prominent impact upon what has been shaped and moulded into what we now consider modern horror. Martyrs is an example of a torch being carried on by a new generation. It almost hearkens back to one of France’s earliest forms of morbid entertainment. At the tail end of the nineteenth century, to the early 1950s, graphic horror lacking a moral compass was performed upon the stage every night. Known as the Grand Guignol theatre, it helped set a standard that would go on to influence several splatter and exploitation films, along with a writer from England named Clive Barker. It was one of earliest examples of establishing horror as an art form, and continues to be held in the highest regard. Many of the plays provided an effective form of escapism, as they were even played during the German occupation during the Second World War.
Guignol helped establish Eyes Without A Face, released in 1960. One of the early prototypes of body horror, it’s gone on to be one of the most celebrated of all-time. Eyes Without A Face is about a doctor who attempts to give his daughter a new face through taking skin grafts from victims. Its legacy has continued on with Pedro Alomodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011), which itself could easily be seen as an updated version. An example of blurring the lines between horror and art, both the film, and the Guignol, laid the foundations of what the modern extremity movement evolved into.
Next year marks a decade since the release of Martyrs. Since then, it’s been remade for the purpose of catering to an audience who has the difficulty of dealing with such an open-ended conclusion. Stripping away the bleak philosophical outlook completely decimates everything that the original presented. It’s somewhat akin to when Billie Holiday recorded “Gloomy Sunday”, also known as the Hungarian suicide song. The recording company made her change the ending, to make it convey optimism. In 10 years, a lot has changed in the constantly evolving landscape we call horror. That’s just the thing; times change, the legacy of a great film doesn’t.