I’m not sure who first coined the phrase ‘torture porn’ as a genre label, but it smacks of the insistence of musical journalese to arrive at names for supposed new musical scenes, like ‘slowcore’ and ‘nu-gaze’, which largely reflect nothing other than a handful of disconnected bands using the same guitar pedals. In the case of ‘torture porn’, it was the arrival of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), then retrospectively applied to Saw (2004) and its sequels as well as The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and even bizarrely The Passion of the Christ (2004) that flagged up this apparent new pattern in horror cinema.
The latest to have this label attached to it is the new film from Pascal Laugier, whose only previous directorial credit was the unspectacular Saint Ange (2004). Here, in Martyrs, we begin with a young girl named Lucie escaping from a mysterious and grisly captivity into the outside world, where she is rescued and subsequently placed into an orphanage. The authorities are mystified by the circumstances of her incarceration: though showing signs of prolonged physical abuse, the expected signs of sexual abuse are absent. Lucie is emotionally withdrawn and inevitably shows signs of deep trauma, but nevertheless is befriended by fellow orphan Anna. Flashfoward several years, and the grown-up Lucie is now out for revenge against her captors, with a somewhat spellbound Anna in tow.
From these opening scenes onwards, it is clear that the comparisons to Hostel and Saw are rather ill-fitting: these opening reels in fact position the film firmly in revenge-thriller territory, much nearer to something like Haute Tension [Switchblade Romance] (2003) or the work of Korean gore-maestro Chan-wook Park. Despite the splatter, of which there is plenty – believe me – there are also some thoughtful psychological considerations posited. Lucie is haunted by some form of demon, but it Laugier carefully leaves ambiguity as to whether this is internalised or an all-too real one. The latter renders her apparent persecution at its hands literal, but the former interpretation throws up a messy tanglement of guilt and self-harm.
There is a clear divide in the film where it diverges completely from where conventional expectations would tell us it was going. From this point on, not only does our focus on a particular character shift dramatically, but so too the tone and thematic concerns, and what follows cresendoes to what is a near-unpalatably bleak and violent third act. It is difficult to go into too much detail without giving away significant amounts of key plot developments, but suffice to say it requires a great deal from the audience, and to my mind is why reviewers have had such polarised opinions about the film as a whole. I consider that where it goes and the philosophical points is raises are enough to justify what are some of the most harrowing scenes I have seen on film; others, I can well understand, will disagree.
It is significant that the closing credits finish with a dedication to Dario Argento, for not only is the Italian’s stylish pouring-on of gore a clear visual reference point for Laugier, but so too the intellect behind the bloodshed. Argento for many years was never taken seriously as a cinematic thinker, but subsequent revisionism has pointed to underlying themes of voyeurism, gender relationships and fetishism in his oeuvre. Martyrs may well suffer a similarly long gestation period before the mainstream takes it to be anything other than exploitation, but for my money it is as necessarily horrifying and vital as the likes of Irréversible (2002) and Salò (1975), and well worth visiting for the open of mind and strong of stomach.