Every year the Midnight Madness program at the Toronto International Film Festival does an amazing job screening the sickest and most disturbing horror movies from around the world. Last year it was Inside and Frontier(s). Before that came sick gems like S&Man, Hostel, High Tension and Calvaire. This year it was Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. The film begins with Lucie, a pre-pubescent girl who’s been beaten to a pulp, running for her life from a slaughterhouse in tattered bloody rags. This is one of the least offensive scenes in the entire movie.
Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) was bound and subjected to extreme forms of torture at the slaughterhouse. Now institutionalized, it’s unknown why this happened, who her captors were, or how she escaped as she refuses to talk to anyone about it, except a friend she makes named Anna (Morjana Alaoui). Fifteen years later we meet a normal family eating breakfast together. The doorbell rings and the father opens the door. It’s Lucie with a shotgun and, without saying a word, puts a giant hole in his stomach then goes on what could be described as an Ellen ram-Page. After making quick work of the rest of the family she calls Anna for help. She’s convinced these were the people who abused her many years ago. Anna thinks it might be all in Lucie’s fragile mind but decides to help anyways. Making things more complicated, there’s a monster loose in the house. To talk about what happens would ruin the numerous unbelievably amazing plot twists (seriously, they’re Crying Game quality plot twists sans the penis).
If you brave this film, be prepared for disturbingly graphic depictions of a woman getting smashed in the head with a hammer, self-mutilation with razor blades and kitchen knives, a little girl being blasted in the back by a shotgun and a woman having nails wrenched out of her skull which were holding a sensory deprivation mask on her head (while not in any way suggesting a correlation, it should be noted that Benoit Lestang, the man responsible for all these brutal effects and makeup, committed suicide shortly after the film’s completion). As deplorable and disturbing as the subject matter and presentation is, don’t dismiss this film as just more torture porn.
The performances, storytelling and technique in Martyrs are undeniable. It’s sick and disturbing masterpiece. A movie you’ll either love or wish you could unwatch. It goes places, extremely dark and disturbing places, that North American filmmakers wouldn’t dare go near. If you look at horror filmmaking as a neverending contest to raise the bar for the amount of trauma you’re allowed to unleash on an audience, then Pascal Laugier holds the barbed wire crown, for now.
For you, what makes a good scary movie?
It’s a film that has a face to the plot it tells. The lack of cynicism and the lack of distance is my idea of a great genre film. A film made as a direct expression from the director. That’s why I love the classics from Dario Argento and Mario Bava. They used the genre as a way to express themselves.
What do you prefer more, gore or psychological horror? Or simply put: visual versus mental horror?
I think for me the gore and the special effects is not the purpose. It’s a tool I have at my disposal to make films though. It’s just like colour, frame, cut, photography. Gore is the same. It’s one of the tools. I can’t spend two years of my life doing gore for the gore.
Like it or not, your film is going to be lumped in with the torture porn genre because… well… there’s a lot of torture in Martyrs.
I have no problem with that.
What differences do you see between French torture porn versus American torture porn?
There is no real French torture porn wave. Torture porn is already dead. It’s just a word invented by jaded journalists. It’s the coming back of the rogue wild horror film from the Seventies. After Wes Craven killed everything by doing Scream, we lived through 10 years of funny horror films. I hated it. I was not alone. The new wave that came back was called torture porn. It means nothing though. As a fan, I loved Hostel, I love Eli Roth’s work but I consider my work very different. I’m not an American, I’m French and my sensibilities are very different. I was interested in using the imagery of torture porn and turning it into something different. Yes, shocking, but still disturbing for a horror audience.
Why do you think offending people is a good thing?
It’s the matter of what horror is if you want my opinion. As a fan of the genre, I was very tired of horror films that said nothing to no one. That’s one of the traps of the genre. The genre can be made from fans, for the fans and it’s in a kind of ghetto. It’s totally powerless. I wanted to make the genre offensive and disturbing again. Once again, the genre first existed for that kind of purpose. Trying to offend the dominant thoughts, the dominant people and trying to express something else. Trying to express something more real, the kind of reality that society doesn’t want to reveal.
The film already opened in France. Can I get you to tell me about the rating it received and the controversy around that?
We had some problems with the rating commission in France. Not because of the level of gore though. A lot of films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did not get this kind of rating. At first I didn’t understand. They were trying to punish and kill the film. In France, when you get an 18+ rating, your film is dead. It’s like a porno. It’s like XXX. It was a way for them to censor me without asking me to cut anything. So we fought a lot and I was supported by all the unions of the French film industry. I was very surprised. It was a matter of principle. Even for people who didn’t like the movie, it was a matter of freedom of speech and expression. Finally we won and got the normal 16 rating and the film had life.
Did you set out to make an entertaining horror version of Passion of the Christ?
Passion of The Christ is a very funny and stupid film. It’s so gory that I’m fascinated by watching it. I watch it like I watch Italian sword and sandals films. For me, Mel Gibson’s take is not that much better. It’s a silly little film made by a guy who thinks he’s a genius. He’s not. The film is, at the same time, boring and fascinating.
Do you expect anything different in North America when it’s submitted to be rated?
The Weinstein brothers bought the film for the American territory. I think it’s probably too much of a European film to be released in North America. I’m not sure if the regular North American horror fan is going to get it, to be honest. I’m very, very proud that a film shot in French has been sold in almost 40 countries. That’s very rare. Some will be in theatre and others will be on an uncut DVD. For an ego matter we prefer the big screen. But most important to me is that the audience can watch the film uncut.
Why is the film set in 1985?
It was done to create distance between our time and the time in the film. I liked the idea that everything had happened in the past. The only testimony of the film would be the Super 8 footage at the beginning. Also, to be honest, I shot the film in Montreal and for me it was good way to make Canada look more like France.
About an hour in I thought the movie was going to end. Then there’s an incredible plot twist. Did you know the direction the story was going to take when you started writing it?
I found my story as soon as I learned the real definition of the word martyr. What is explained in the film is real. The very definition of the film is someone who sees something, a witness. I knew that I had my subject of the film when I realized that. Once again, it was playing with the archetypes of the horror genre and making them fresher again. To impress the audience, even the audience that watches 10 horror films a week. I didn’t want the audience to be in advance of the story. It’s a very involving experience and a very unsafe one.
Are gunshots your preferred method of introducing a plot twist?
Yes. Any time there is a direct act of violence, it turns the story into something else. There is consequences to what we do. I also like the idea that the more Anna tries to the solve problems, the more she is buried by a new problem. Like the audience. Any time the audience thinks that they know what kind of horror movie she’s in, I try to make them wrong. That’s not the path I’m going to take. Follow me.
Was it important for you to tie up all the loose ends in the film to justify all the violence?
Absolutely. I don’t like the word justify but I knew it would explain to the audience why I’m showing so much violence from the starting point. It’s a film about suffering. It’s a film about pain. It’s not a film about torture. I wanted the audience to feel pain because I make my main actress suffer so much. I didn’t want any distance between their suffering and the audience’s suffering. My film, for me, is very empathetic. You have to feel for them. I never make a laugh at my main characters. I love them and I want them to stop suffering. It’s a very sad movie. I would even say it could be a depressing film. Its saying our time is over and evil has eaten everything. People are just hurting each other and it’s the end of it.
Exactly how many times did Lucie hit the mother in the head with the hammer?
One shot for each year of suffering. Let’s say 15. (note: it’s closer to 20).
What does your mother think of the film?
She hasn’t seen it yet. She’s probably gonna go in France tomorrow night. My father didn’t watch it either. Both of them for different reasons. My mother because she’d get sick because she can’t stand the vision of blades slicing skin. My father is afraid to be shocked by the scenes of the film and wonder, “How did I raise this boy? Where did I do wrong?”