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.