Friday, September 26, 2008


Martyrs is about a cult of nihilistic aristocrats who are searching for evidence to what lies beyond the void, so that, ultimately, they can find something to believe in before they die. They do this by studying the psychology of martyrdom; subjecting women to unheard of physical suffering in hopes that one of them will "let go" and give themselves over to horrendous punishment (ie "martyr" themselves) ultimately reaching a state of pain-induced spiritual euphoria that they can then report back to the group on.

The cult leader explains that they use women in their experiments because of the high tolerance for pain that females have. Of course, it's convenient that the women chosen are also cute, full-lipped, and wearing fruit-of-the-loom tighty whitey tanks and hip hugger panties. Nothing makes ninety-minutes of cruel debasement, urination, force-feeding, and violent head shaving more bearable than having some eye candy to gawk at.

Respected genre enthusiasts/writers like Todd Brown at Twitch try to separate films like Haute Tension, Calvaire, Inside, and Fronteir(s) from their American sadist-horror brethren by arguing that films such as Martyrs are actually anti-exploitation in their exploitation (similar to the anti-violence by-way-of violence defenses of Kubrick & Peckinpah - which I agree with, btw - when they made A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs):

"In fact you could argue that Martyrs is an anti-exploitation exploitation film, a film filled with incredibly extreme elements, true, but a film that has no interest in using those elements to titillate or fill the audience with vicarious thrills." (Twitch)


In fact, the shot in Martyrs that definitively sums up the veiled "titillating" intentions of this S & M horror flick - as well as the entirety of the French art-horror boom that misguided horror fans have naively labeled a "new wave" - is a scene where the leading actress is bound to a steel device while the skin of her body (except for that pretty face, of course!) is peeled away, leaving only fleshy muscle. Shot from below, director Pascual Laguier makes sure he fits the actress's young, nubile breast and nipple into the bottom of the frame. Further, the expression on the young woman's face falls somewhere between pleasure and pain, implying a sexual experience.

This used to be a woman.

And how about popular horror touchstone Bloody Disgusting's take on Martyrs:

"The first comparison that will come out of everyone's mouth is that Martyrs is the next Inside, which it is. Both films are from France, both films are insanely violent, both films will give you nightmares and both films kick ass, but it must be known that there is a major difference between the two films. Inside is fun and literally is like a Disney movie in comparison to how tough Martyrs is to watch."

With blank insights such as these, it's no wonder horror devotees have been easily fooled into proclaiming France as the next fresh hub of horror. The cold, serious tones & artistic aesthetics of French horror confuse viewers even more. There is an impulse, say, to take a piece of poop seriously if it is presented to you on fine china or in a wine glass. You get seduced into thinking "ahh... this one is special" when really it's still just another piece of poop.

Simultaneously there is an impulse for directors to cover their tracks by claiming "social-commentary" as an excuse for the enjoyment of playing puppet master in a den of debauchery. Most famously - and hilariously - was Xavier Gens saying that Fronteir(s) was an indictment of France's treatment towards their immigrants. Yet, in an introductory sequence, Gens syncs up footage of the 2006 labor protests obviously meaning for it to draw upon the protests that followed the suburb riots of 2005.

Suffering is sexy!

When I was in line Tuesday to pick up my tickets for that day's screenings, I overheard two Kung-Fu film enthusiasts criticizing Fighter - the best film at Fantastic Fest this year - for being "too girly". It made me realize that perhaps a large chuck of genre movie fans don't care to move beyond the surface of a film and give-in to something that could make them feel. With that, I can make sense of the popularity of French-sadist horror. It's flashy, and slick, and "cool". Titillating for the eyes, but not the brain or heart.

"Torture"-porn has become an ineffective way to describe and dismiss this kind of stuff, but one thing's for certain... it's definitely porn.


Soiled Sinema said...

I absolutely loved reading that.

Bravo for calling out self-proclaimed critics that pass anything during inspection with enough violence.

Stick it to the man!

bill r. said...

I have to admit, Fox, that I stopped reading (okay, I skimmed a little afterwards) after I read the synopsis of Martyrs, which I have to say sounds fascinating, because I was afraid of spoilers. I gather you didn't care for it, and maybe I won't either, and I even appreciate what I gather was your point...are people really arguing that that POS Haute Tension is anti-exploitation? It revels in exploitation, and is a shitty movie, to boot.

I did think Calvaire was interesting. The premise behind it seemed to be "What if Bela Tarr made a hard-core horror film?" Do, you go into detail about that film in your post? Because, you know, I didn't read the whole thing. Spoilers, and all that. Sorry...

Fox said...

Hey Bill-

I don't go into details, but if you're spoiler sensitive I would probably hold off. It's hard for me to tell what people want to hear and don't want to hear before a movie. You could read on and if you start feeling the "spoil" coming on you can duck out. :)

But no... I didn't mean about Haute Tension getting that kind of defense, just specifically what I've read from a couple of reviews on Martyrs. I would like to see it get a release of some kind b/c I think the debate would be interesting. There is no way it's gonna get a theatrical release the way Haute Tension did in an edited form as High Tension. But it definitely will have a DVD audience.

Speaking of debating, I do disagree with you on Calvaire. I hate that movie too (I think I've hated ever new French horror film with the small exception of part of Them). But I think you bring up an interesting point when you mention Bela Tarr. That's precisely one of my beefs with new French horror. I think people give its sadism and cruelty a pass b/c many of them are artfully shot, yet as a sum, they are no different to me than the work of Rob Zombie (worse, even).

Fox said...

p.s. I wish you could get your hands on a copy of Martyrs b/c it would make for good blog discussion with Octorber coming up.

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if first commenter Soiled has a copy. Those guys find stuff in corners of the world that you'd never knew existed.

bill r. said...

Well, I don't love Calvaire. But, you know, it's a horror film, and it's horrifying. I don't want to defend it too strongly, because to a degree I'm with you about this topic, though my problem with these films has more to do with creative bankruptcy then anything else.

Fox said...

You know, I was talking to a friend this past week, and it's becoming more clear to me that the Horror films I am attracted too are ones with comedic elements in them... Basket Case, Re-Animator, Dead Alive, Dawn of the Dead. If comedic's not the right word, then "fun" maybe. Still, I think Psycho is the greatestm and that isn't funny, nor is Deathdream, which I try to push on everyone any chance I get.

I've never agreed with the sentiment that a horror film should be judged on how scary it is, or how "scared" it makes you. I'm not saying YOU are saying that, but I hear that stated as the criteria pretty often and I think that is silly.

bill r. said...

But a horror movie shouldn't be judged on how funny it is, either. I like some horror comedies, but I wish there were far fewer of them.

And why shouldn't a horror film be scary, or disturbig? It's horror!

Fox said...

Oh, I agree. I'm not saying that a horror movie needs to have humor in it, just that those are the kind of horror films that I am generally attracted too.

I wouldn't put parameters on what a horror movie is or isn't, I was just saying that I know many people that do. People that say a horror movie is only good if it scares you. Well, I don't really get scared by films... rarely ever. But I love to watch filmmakers make sense (or attempt to) of their warped imaginations/daydreams up on the screen.

bill r. said...

Oh. Okay, then. I agree with that.

Marilyn said...

I haven't seen these films, so I can't comment on them. I will comment, however, on this statement:

"I overheard two Kung-Fu film enthusiasts criticizing Fighter - the best film at Fantastic Fest this year - for being "too girly". It made me realize that perhaps a large chuck of genre movie fans don't care to move beyond the surface of a film and give-in to something that could make them feel."

That's a more widespread feeling than you imagine and doesn't just apply to fans of genre films. On a film discussion board which will remain nameless because I'm embarrassed that I was part of it, a white-haired man said that he didn't want the board's character to be polluted by a bunch of "pussies" posting. Of course, the older, docile women didn't complain about this word or his pronouncement; they just argued that just because someone asks people to behave civil doesn't mean they are "pussies."

Fox said...

Marilyn, you sure liked to get mixed up in controversial film board discussions (thinking of the House Next Door thing from a few weeks ago).

Now I need to go find this board that you speak off. If I type in White-Haired Man + pussies + film discussion that should probably do the trick.

Luckily, the guys in front of me expressed their opinion much more civily than that man. I just thought they were being short-sighted.

Soiled Sinema said...

To bring the discussion to a full circle, I admit to have enjoyed Calvaire. I don't view it as French horror because of the way it was shot and the properties that it consists of. That bar scene in Calvaire creeped the hell out of me. It reminded me of a Tod Browning's Freaks 3000. I didn't care much more the later half of the film, but it sealed up nice. I still wouldn't group it with any of the French-feminist horror.

Fox said...

And to be fair - and give national credit where credit is due - the films is actually a product of the Belgian film system. Fabrice Du Welz is Belgian.

If I'm correct, the film is in French, and it takes place in the French countryside, so I often inccorrectly lump it in with "French horror". Though, it's still Euro-sadist so I feel ok doing it.

And Solied, you're right, it doesn't have the "feminist" bent that Haute Tension, Inside, and parts of Fronteir(s) does, though it does have a hair cutting scene that is becoming a staple of French horror... notable also in Fronteir(s), and Martyrs. I wanna say there is a scene like this in Sheitan but I can't remember.

Marilyn said...

Fox, I'll let you know who they are if you go there and trash everything they say. Believe me, you'll want to.

Fox said...

Jesus! What is this place??? Like Neo-Nazis4cinema.Com or something? :o)

Fox said...

Speaking of Fabrice Du Welz and Calvaire, Twitch just posted some footage from his new movie Vinyan:

It played at Fantastic Fest but I missed it to see something else. Which was wise b/c I heard the print that was mailed in was kinda shoddy.

MovieMan0283 said...

The funny thing is that this sort of amoral/surface-only/trash-loving aesthetic used to be considered subversive. And many of its practioners probably still think that's what they're being.

The truth is that it dovetails perfectly with the "Go shopping"/keep your head buried in the sand mentality of 00s America. Subversive my ass - anyone who thinks reveling in torture is somehow sticking it to the man hasn't been reading the newspaper lately.

Karl Hungus said...

This was a very interesting read. I have to say that I do step to the defense of so-called "Torture Porn" (a term I loathe) fairly often, and there's still one or two I'd like to see, but I do feel that these kinds of gore movies have outstayed their welcome for the most part.

It's especially true when you watch some French thrillers, such as Tell No One, that the quality of the horror is seriously lacking in comparison to other genres being produced by the country. Or for that matter, horror that's coming from Spain, such as [Rec] or The Orphanage.

Fox said...


I'm glad you mentioned Spain. To me, they are making the most interesting horror right now. I haven't seen [REC], and liked The Orphanage but wasn't too keen on it, but there are lots of interesting people coming out of there. Nacho Cerda, Nacho Vigalondo, Koldo Cerra, Elio Quiroga... and others. Their films may not always work for me, but I like their sensibilites a lot.

NOTE: Timecrimes comes out this December. I hope people go see it!

Karl Hungus said...

[Rec] was one of the most genuinely scary films I've seen in a very long time, I reviewed it on my blog not so long ago, I'd heartily recommend it.

As far as Spain goes, as a long time horror fan, I go where the horror goes, so to speak. Not so long ago, the best films were coming from Japan and Korea, but the horror scene there stagnated, and a lot of very formulaic films were produced, a lot just repeating the same theme again and again.

There had been some modern gore movies that I enjoyed greatly, I really liked the Hostel films for example, they were very tense and disturbing and I think that Eli Roth is a seriously under-rated director. But of course, it started quite a bandwagon, and a lot of films that followed where shameless cash-ins and hollow copies. That's where the French scene has gone now.

I think there's a hell of a lot of merit in the idea of a torture movie, and there's some interesting ideas there, but the film makers are never really willing to explore it. There's certainly gore and sexuality in the films, but it just seems to me that it's just there because it's what's expected, harking back to the slashers of the 80's. None of them want to explore the link between violence and sexuality in a meaningful way.

The only film that's done that so for me, was Takashi Miike's "Audition" which was quite a thematically deep work, which looks at a character who through years of abusive has been conditioned to put love and pain together, hurting someone they love is second nature, as well as being a look into the cyclical nature of violence as the abused becomes the abuser.

That's something that was explored to a degree in Ichi The Killer as well, although in a much camper, over the top way. It's about sadism and sadomasichism, and makes no bones about it. I think those films are a lot more self-concious of what they are than their French counterparts, and know where they're going and what kind of statement they're making.

Anywho, food for thought I guess?

Fox said...

Good comments, Karl. I agree with this:

None of them want to explore the link between violence and sexuality in a meaningful way.

And that's part of the reason I would disagree with you on the merits of Eli Roth as a director. I place him in the category of exploiters, not explorers. Though his films do contain a bit of dark humor that raise them out of the deep nihilism of French Horror, they come off just as equally sadistic and empty to me.

I know Roth - and some of his defenders - like to say Hostel is a reflection of our Abu Ghraib/Gitmo times, but I just think that's a false front for his desire to stage new forms of cruelty. While, in comparison, someone like Miike (or Yoshihiro Nishimura with Tokyo Gore Police, reviewed below...) has fun with his over-the-top gore and will create interesting set pieces in something like Ichi The Killer. Undeniably Miike's films are shocking, but I don't think that is his primary intention the way I do with the French and Roth.

Plus, how interesting is it that Ichi cries like a baby when he kills? I think thay film is flawed, but what I like about Miike, is that even at his most extreme, he has a moral center. I mean, how can something as fucked-up as Visitor Q end with a shot that is kind of um.... touching!?! Same with the last shot in Ichi (which I've seen twice yet have failed to make sense of the end... maybe you can help)? It has a moral/ethical weight to it missing from French and the more sadistic American horror.

Anyway... good discussion Karl! Thanks for joining in and I'd like to hear more of your thoughs... especially on that ending to Ichi. :0)

Karl Hungus said...

Well, I like Roth because he's got a very keen grasp and understanding of pacing and tension. His films aren't simply a collection of torture scenes strung together. Take the first Hostel for example, one of my favourite parts is where Paxton and Josh are trying to find their friend Oli, and end up chasing someone wearing a similar jacket. It's just this wonderfully paced, well filmed, and gripping scene that reminds me a lot of Don't Look Know (One of my favourite horrors).

We never actually see what happens to Oli, and I think a lesser film would just show his death for the sake of it. Roth doesn't, and it adds greatly to the sense of mystery and forboding that the film carries with it from that point onwards. I don't think he's as good as Takashi Miike, or does anything particularly new, but I do believe he's got some serious talent. When you compare Hostel to the kind of cash-ins like Captivity, there's a stark difference in quality.

Even if a gore movie like this doesn't do anything new or radical, a well made and enjoyable one is always a good thing. I'm still itching to see Inside, but it's not been released in the UK/Ireland yet.

As for Ichi The Killer's ending, when Kakihara sticks his needles in his ears to kill himself, he imagines the fight that happens then. He lobotomises himself, as far as I can tell, which is why you see him again after he supposedly died, sitting there slack jawed. Hope that makes things clear.

Evan Derrick said...

I agree whole heartedly. This is a great piece, Fox. Make me wish you would come write for me. :)

Fox said...

Is there a benefits package? :0)

But seriously, I don't see why we can't do some collaborating. We can discuss it further on e-mail if you'd like.

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