Cannes Film Festival attendees were the first to witness Martyrs, the latest blow in French cinema’s wave of feral, aggressive and stylized gut-punchers.
Pascal Laugier’s sophomore feature – a stern slow burn that escalates into a fitful burst of madness – had some horror aficionados, upon exiting the theater, reportedly drooling about the level of violence and drawing parallels to Inside, another French shocker. Martyrs, it seems, is the new yard stick against which all forms of extreme genre films should be measured against. Well, that’s what they say. The two teaser trailers that flexed their strength online (here) evoke chaos and confusion, as if the captain of this nightmare is out to screw you up good.
Guess what? He totally is.
To learn more about Martyrs, I recently took the opportunity to connect with the feisty and honest Laugier who gives us a taste of what’s to come when The Weinstein Company releases his film Stateside.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: In your own words, how would you describe Martyrs?
Pascal Laugier: I would say that, at first, Martyrs is a suspense-mystery film. It starts with a very realistic tone, the kind of horrible facts you can find everyday in newspapers: A little girl is found half naked and lost, wandering by a country side. Near catatonic, she can say nothing about what happened to her. French policemen find out quickly where she has been incarcerated. But she bears no traces of sexual abuse so the reasons of her abduction and what has been done to her remain a total enigma. Fifteen years later, the child has turned into a beautiful, but still traumatized, young woman. And it seems, after what could be called an obsessive search, that she has found the place where her torturers live. Is she right? Or completely insane?
I don’t want to say more about the plot since the film is built in a way the audience is not supposed to guess. Martyrs plays with a lot of archetypes borrowed from different horror sub-genres, like “rape and revenge,” “ghost” and “creature” films and the real point of everything is revealed only in the final seconds of the movie. For me, that was the exciting part of the project. To make a film, as a horror fan, that would be challenging and surprising – disconcerting even – for a hardcore horror audience, because I don’t think horror should be limited by any standard, any conformism of the times as it is the case so often. It’s the freest genre that I know and that’s why I love it so much.
Shock: The film recently played to a Cannes Film Festival audience. Reports that came our way said the reaction was divisive, was this expected?
Laugier: I was not in Cannes, so I can’t say precisely [what the reaction was]. I know some people were astonished by the film and some were really angry against it, hated it. I was even accused by a minority to be fascist and sexist, which is, according to me, absolute nonsense. My previous film, House of Voices, was totally different – much cooler, quieter – so the audience felt like being taken by surprise. Some people like being challenged, others hate it. But the film surely didn’t inspire any kind of indifference. Some of the reactions were exactly connected to my own energy when I wrote and directed the film: emotion. Because, for me, Martyrs is a very sentimental film. It’s a love story that turns bad. Some people cried during the screening and that’s the thing I’m the proudest of. Every day on the set, dealing with what Martyrs is really about, I felt in that mood.
Shock: Where did Martyrs come from for you? The title alone yields various definitions. Is your film rooted in religious themes, is it a reaction to something in particular?
Laugier: If I tell you more about the title, I’ll reveal too much of the inner concept of the film. It would spoil it. Metaphorically, I would say that the film is a way for me to speak about the times we are living in right now. I have the feeling, like a sad intuition, that our occidental urban societies are filled with despair and brutality. Like a world close to its own end, a world that is going to be replaced by something else. The cynicism of our system has killed everything, people are more isolated and lonely than ever. I don’t think it can last, even if I’ll be dead by the day things really change to something better. Horror is a way for me to express personal things. To escape from the irony and the intellectual misery public opinion has fallen into. The culture of “fantastic” is a good tool to feel far away from the dominating thoughts and the imperialism of the mass media. It’s a “counterculture,” free to express things that aren’t said. Horror can be a subversion, it can be oriented to a mature thinking audience.
Shock: Many of your colleagues leading this revolution of hyper-violent French cinema are holding up a mirror to the sociopolitical climate in your country…
Laugier: Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to dream about making horror and fantastic films in my country. The whole system rejected the very idea of genre culture. Now, some of the guys who watched John Carpenter and George Romero’s films on video when they were teenagers have become producers. So, the French market has opened. It’s a very good thing. We, the fans, expected it to happen for years! The problem right now in France, is the general climate. Again, some people think violent movies should be taken out from the multiplexes. There are a lot of debates, political discussions about the influence of nasty images on young people. It’s always the same old story: Any time a society is hard, unfair and brutal, horror films are accused of everything. It prevents the politics from taking their own responsibilities about the fact that they f**kin’ created that terrible social situation. Horror is a just a mirror of its time.
Shock: The film appears to have a high level of torture, however, I’m sure you wouldn’t say this falls in line with what the mainstream press is calling “torture porn,” correct?
Laugier: Torture is not the point of Martyrs. The film deals with human pain, the meaning of it, which is something completely different. The expression “torture porn” is a very recent one. And it’s almost already gone. It means nothing to me, which doesn’t prevent me from liking Hostel as a fan but my film is just different.
Shock: Inside, High Tension and Frontiere(s) – all films with strong female leads. You’ve deliberately chosen empowered heroines for your film as well, why is that?
Laugier: Women were the ones who made me connect to horror and fantastic culture at first. Like a primitive image, watching Mia Farrow, short-haired, in melancholic pieces of work like Rosemary’s Baby and The Haunting of Julia (Full Circle) inspired forever my way of viewing the world. I mean, it blew my mind to a point that, until now, what is sold as reality doesn’t seem as real to me as a lot of things that were told by Polanski, Argento, Carpenter, Francis Bacon and dozens of great artists. It’s not a way for me to escape from the real world, it’s not like being close to other people. It’s just a way to be closer to what I find true and beautiful in life.
Shock: What sort of challenges has Martyrs had to overcome to get to the screen?
Laugier: The film was rejected by all the big French studios, by a lot of actresses, too. But, we found a way to do it without them. It could have been worse. The film was really supported by Canal+, the only TV Channel in France that still finances some unusual projects. Plus, the energy of my producer, Richard Grandpierre, made the film economically possible in a few months. I didn’t go through a never-ending development hell process and I feel really lucky about it. Although the shooting was incredibly hard – but which one is not? We suffered a lot by dealing with so many special effects and so many stunts in a short period of time. It was exhausting and powerful at the same time. The main problem, beyond the technical difficulties, was to deal with the fact that the actresses had to cry a lot. Almost every day. And it’s something very difficult to obtain from an actress, because after a while, their eyes are as dry as their emotions. I had to push them to make them accept to fall again and again into their inner dark world so they would be convincing onscreen and the shots would match. It was a hard process, even for me, since I’m a rather nice and shy guy in the real life!
Shock: I’m curious, how has your dialogue with The Weinstein Company been to date? Are you fearful they may sit on Martyrs‘ release for a while?
Laugier: I never talked to them. I know that Bob Weintein tried to watch Martyrs in the plane back from Cannes and couldn’t stand its violence. He stopped watching it after a half an hour! Can you believe it? The guy who started his career by producing The Burning, a very nasty slasher, couldn’t stand my film! I find it so funny… In the end, I think they will release Martyrs directly to DVD, which is okay for me. All the fans from your country will be able to see it in an unrated complete version. Anyway, I think my film is too European to have a regular theatrical release in the U.S., even if I would love that. It would be miracle and I don’t believe in it.
Shock: Lastly, are you thinking about making an English-language pic in the U.S. now or do you already have something lined up in France?
Laugier: I would just adore the idea of going to America to make a film. It would be like a child dream coming true. But it really depends on the projects I am proposed. I would never do a shitty remake of a great horror classic. I am too much of a fan. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I’d ruin a film I love. If I can find a small project – for an independent producer for instance – a producer who’d leave me free enough to do things my way, I would definitely love to spend a year or two in the U.S. I’m very open. We’ll see. Right now, I’m working on a new project, something between France and Canada. I can’t wait to show Martyrs to a real audience and see the reactions. I think they’ll be as radical and extreme that the film itself. This perspective is very exciting.