A Good Thing to Lose: The French horror movie, Martyrs

At some point in the past year or so, I have become what we in Scotland would refer to as a "Big Jessie"

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26 June 2009, 11:07am

A still from

Martyrs.

At some point in the past year or so, I have become what we in Scotland would refer to as a "Big Jessie", and I am almost certain that this is a natural psychological side effect of fatherhood. You often hear about new parents softening as their children grow, but I seem to have avoided such a clichéd personality change in all facets of life except one: I now have little threshold to endure painful suffering in movies, especially when it comes to children. I loved Slumdog Millionaire, either in spite of or because I spent the majority of the first hour with tears in my eyes, as our prepubescent hero seems to encounter violence and abuse at regular, relentless fifteen-minute intervals.

I also have little time for horror movies these days, which would have come as a huge surprise to the younger me. I was well versed in Hammer Horror as a child and had written a sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween before I turned ten, and spent a great deal of my early teens immersed in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead 2, An American Werewolf in London and anything else I could get my eager hands on. My bedroom resembled that of the young boy in the televised version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot: floppy unworn monster masks, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster, stacks of grisly comics and gory movies on VHS, and a pile of Fangoria magazines, the 1980s horror bible.

But these types of films don’t really interest me anymore for a number of reasons. As you get older, you naturally become increasingly horrified by the real world around you and maybe don’t feel the need for further fantastical frights in the cinema – the streets and the news can be scary enough. Plus, a lot of contemporary horror movies are simply remakes and retreads and hold little appeal to someone who still knows all the originals inside out and back to front. And the general trend in today’s films seems to be the endurance of suffering, and as I explained above, that’s not my cup of tea these days. In fact, an actual cup of tea, a biscuit and The Lavender Hill Mob would suit me more of an afternoon.

All of the above explains why I have been unable to watch a film that has been gathering dust in a pile in the living room for some time. I’m not sure why I sought it out at first, I think it was the review that claimed it to be one of the most shocking and brutal movies ever filmed, and I was stupidly sucked in by the hyperbole and bought the DVD. The sealed, boxed disc has been languishing on a shelf for ages, while plenty of other, less horrific material has been enjoyed to varying degrees. A friend viewed it recently and practically dared me to watch it – but under no circumstances should I do so alone or in the dark, I was warned – and I just haven’t had the balls to put it on. Then another friend watched it too (alone, but in the afternoon) and recommended it but also added that he never wanted to see it ever again. Okay, so fuck it: here goes. I’m going to watch the French horror movie, Martyrs. How bad can it be?

ONE HOUR AND THIRTY-SEVEN MINUTES LATER

First of all, I’m happy to report that I’m not the Big Jessie that I thought I was: it really wasn’t that bad. It’s undoubtedly brutal, yes, but in preparing for the worst I managed to endure its more grisly moments with relative ease. The first fifty minutes contained the best – and most traditional – moments of the film, in which a girl exacts revenge on a family who may or may not have abused her, while she is concurrently haunted by a very scary lady ghost. It’s super-violent, yes, but far from the worst I’ve seen, and the mysterious supernatural element is quite chilling. It’s very effective and genuinely surprises as it turns several old horror movie conventions on their heads (I’ll spare you the details in case you intend to see it). Yes, I’m scared – but I’m having fun too! I suddenly remember what the attraction to this sort of thing feels like again. And then it takes a rather bizarre turn, and the second fifty minutes become somewhat of an endurance test for both actress and audience alike. There are scenes of prolonged torture, extreme violence and disturbing punishment until the reason for it all is finally revealed. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that what starts out as a creepy, unsettling genre flick attempts to end as a philosophical commentary on the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

Martyrs isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, but it does seem to be trying to address violence in cinema rather than setting out simply to shock. The problem is, though, that it undoubtedly will shock many who see it, so it’s difficult to ascertain whether it will encourage or hinder any wider debate about the portrayal of violence and cruelty in its chosen medium. Another French film, Irreversible, was far more provocative in this respect, as was Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games. Anyway, whatever – what do I care? I’ve got through it and it was no big deal.

Extreme violence such as that of Martyrs is big news in the film world right now, as the British Board Of Film Classification have just passed Lars Von Trier’s new horror movie, Anti-Christ, uncut at certificate 18. The film includes close-ups of genital mutilation that left many Cannes viewers in a state of disgust, and lots of self-appointed moral guardians who haven’t seen it are calling for it to be banned. There was an interesting debate on Radio 4’s Moral Maze last night that centred on the movie and the BBFC’s decision, and which of course ignited a lengthier debate on the state of modern culture and the merits of censorship. There were no conclusions, obviously, but the general consensus would appear to be that material should be judged by its authorial intent. This is why Anti-Christ remains intact – because the BBFC don’t believe Von Trier’s intent is to corrupt the audience. This is fair enough, they’re probably right, but I still don’t agree with their reasoning. What if the intent of the artist is simply to shock and offend? Shouldn’t we still be allowed to judge this for ourselves rather than have a board of censors tell us we’re too stupid to understand it for ourselves? And there’s always someone with supposed evidence to support that images of violence in film and television can influence violence in the real world. I’ve always thought that was bollocks too: I’ve told you above of my childhood of horror films and, bar a few misjudged taxi queue punch-ups, I’ve rarely hurt the proverbial fly. Violence, like sex, is all around us in a very real physical form, and unfortunately we live in a culture where the sight of an erect penis is considered more offensive than an on-screen rape or murder. That just can’t be healthy, can it?

Anyway, the point is that everything is offensive to someone somewhere. Personally, I had to switch off the Adam Sandler "comedy", I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, because of its barbaric view of homosexuality and zealous use of the word "faggot". Surely something like this – awarded certificate 12A by the BBFC – does more damage to society than a stiff willy or the gory special effects of Martyrs and Anti-Christ? I certainly think so, but I’m sure I’ve just offended someone too.