The New French Extremity is a French movement of films created and released between the early 90s to late 2000s. As France was experiencing a time of heightened xenophobia, homophobia, police brutality, and a struggle with national identity, the films that were coming out of the country began to change. Less romanticism, more nihilism. Less tilted hats and long cigarettes, more blood and gore. The term “New French Extremity” was originally coined by James Quandt in 2004, but a more thorough exploration into the movement was done by Alexandra West in her book Films of the New French Extremity.
When discussing New French Extremity, Quandt famously classified the films as “Cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.” This statement is one that some critics of the movement may use to dismiss the symbolically powerful and moving films within the category. By including “nubile” flesh, “spumes of sperm,” the films are easily dismissed as unforgivably raunchy or depraved, which naturally tends to reflect poorly on those horror fans who love the films cradled within the sub-genre.
A collection of indelible films would come out of the New French Extremity, with directors such as Gaspar Noé, Claire Denis, Marina de Van, Pascal Laugier, Alexandre Aja and others creating transgressive, violent works of art that refuse to look away from the darkness witnessed and experienced through those tumultuous times. The artistic expression of these filmmakers moved toward natural, aggressive violence and boundary breaking violations of sight and sound, drawing both criticism and praise for the unflinchingly bleak narratives that some felt teetered too close to exploitative filth.
In addition to violence, films of the New French Extremity have a tendency of showing explicit sex, often unsimulated, abuse of animals and children, and feature incendiary language that breaks societal taboos. But these societies are the very reason such art exists. Civil unrest and structural racism simmer dangerously close to the surface in such films as Inside and Frontier(s), while the subjugation and oppression of women are presented within the frames of Trouble Every Day and Baise-Moi. These societies refuse to acknowledge the harm their actions, political and structural, place their own citizens in. As is customary when dealing with Beautiful Filth, these works don’t come from a place of peace and tranquility – they are born out of the violence that has been witnessed by their creators.
One of the most devastating films to come out of the New French Extremity is Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. High on the countless lists of most extreme films ever made, Martyrs was released in 2008 to fairly harsh criticism. Laugier has referenced American films Hostel (Eli Roth) and Saw (James Wan), both considered a part of the ‘Torture Porn’ sub-genre, as direct influences for his debut feature. But Martyrs is a fair league above both of those films, with much more to say and a much harsher way of saying it. Unlike torture porn films, many of which also came out during the same time period, Martyrs and many other films within the New French Extremity lack the catharsis that comes from a “hero” striking back at those who harm them. In Hostel there is a “final boy” in Paxton who, after witnessing the torture of his friends at the hands of sadistic wealthy club members, is able to escape from his own torturer and rain a bit of havoc down on those responsible. The audience can smile and cheer Paxton on, yearning for more blood and guts, but that of the evildoers.
Martyrs is a test of will. It is a nihilistic, paralyzing journey into a kind of darkness that no one is prepared for on first watch. And on second watch, the viewer is not met with relief that they know what is about to happen. There is nothing enjoyable or fun about the events unfolding on the screen. It is not a romp, but an ordeal, a protracted exploration of trauma and guilt. It is gutting, and it is absolutely brilliant.
The opening scene of Laugier’s Martyrs shows a young girl running out of an abandoned warehouse. Her body is bloodied and bruised, her bare feet are stained black, her hair is cut short, uneven and patchy. Her eyes dart from side to side, she is like a small animal separated from her herd, running from a predator, swerving through the streets until finally she tilts her head to the sky and opens her mouth wide, letting out an agonizing scream.
It is an image and a sound that no person ever wants to experience. We are meant to care for children, protect them, teach them the ways to eventually protect themselves. And as an audience, we are forced to watch as this little girl’s trauma, as yet unknown to us, begins to manifest itself, as well as the subsequent turmoil she faces in the wake of her escape from the invisible terror she ran from. This girl is Lucie, and after being found and placed in an orphanage, she makes a single friend in Anna.
Martyrs is a love story first and foremost. Lucie and Anna’s friendship is first seen through home videos taken at the orphanage and then within the film as Anna tries to help Lucie who suffers unbelievable pain at the hands of a beastly woman, emaciated and scarred. Lucie has escaped her prison, but cannot escape the ghosts of the memory that was born there, hiding in those dark corners of her mind.
Fifteen years later, the audience is presented with a beautiful family. They banter through breakfast, cracking jokes, the perfect nuclear family. The doorbell rings and dad answers the door. His face falls. A shotgun tears a hole in his stomach, killing him immediately. Lucie (Myléne Jampanoï) is grown now, a woman who has never smiled, one who wears her trauma on her face like a mask. She shoots every member of the family, mother and daughter in the back, pausing only once to ask the teenage son if he knows what his parents did before shooting him in the chest. It is a shocking sequence that feels wrong in every sense. We don’t know what is going on in Lucie’s head as she murders this seemingly innocent family, but we know that she is remorseless. She goes to the mother and screams at her – How could you do that to me?! Lucie then calls Anna (Morjana Alaoui), who is waiting impatiently at a payphone. Lucie is wild on the other line, she tells Anna that she has found them.
While waiting for Anna to come to the house, Lucie is alone in the house with the corpses, but is soon visited by her spectre. Seen clearer this time, the woman’s pallid skin is torn into pieces, hanging off her body. She is naked but sexless, she bleeds and growls and screeches as she attacks Lucie, who all the while is crying out, trying to show the woman the family, trying to tell her they are dead.
The woman slashes at Lucie’s back, ripping her skin, relentless in her onslaught. The viewer will know what this woman is, what she represents, before they are shown the flashback of the woman that Lucie was forced to leave behind at the time of her escape as a child. But that knowledge doesn’t provide any reprieve from the cruelty that Lucie’s ghost inflicts upon her. When Anna arrives at the house, she is obviously shocked at the scene, both the massacred family and Lucie’s bleeding body.
The viewer is as incredulous as Anna is. While Anna also grew up in the orphanage, she did not suffer the same trauma that Lucie did. Anna has been able to feel, to love, to mature, while Lucie remains stuck in that place, that warehouse in the middle of nowhere, with only her ghosts and the everlasting images of the people who tortured her. Lucie’s trauma has conceived this skeletal remnant as a constant reminder of her past. The viewer has yet to fully understand the extent of her abuse, but the manifestation of her guilt over leaving the woman behind and the depths her mind has been forced to go in order for Lucie to continue living with the memory of her past will not let Lucie go, even after she has finally eliminated the people she believes to be responsible.
During their time in the house, Lucie and Anna speak very little to one another. Anna wants to believe Lucie, but all she has to go on are bodies and Lucie’s word. There is a moment when Lucie realizes that Anna doesn’t believe her, and her look is one of not only betrayal but heartbreaking loneliness. She can’t say anything to Anna that will convince her, not that the woman exists or that she killed the right family, she is wholly, unbearably alone. Jampanoï’s portrayal of Lucie at this moment is one of the truly breathtaking performances in film history. The realization that the only person she has ever loved could never understand what she is going through, has gone through, and her rapid loss of will to live is shown in a glance, right before Lucie slits her own throat.
Anna races toward Lucie, through rain and mud, catching her as she falls to the ground. Their story is over. Their love for one another will never be realized, they will never have a day of joy, Lucie will never smile.
From this moment on, Martyrs becomes something different. With forty minutes left in the film, the viewer no longer has their main protagonist, the lifeline has been cut, and it is at this moment that a hole in the structure of the film is opened. Anna is now alone in the house, the bodies have been buried but the blood remains on the walls. She discovers a basement door that leads down further, into a sort of high tech laboratory area in the depths of the house. Lining the walls are blown-up images of women being tortured, on their deathbeds, eyes turned toward the heavens. It is here she finds her own ghost – a woman chained to the floor, a metal helmet nailed to her eyes and skull, rawboned, scarred, and terrified.
Anna realizes in this moment that everything Lucie told her, everything she couldn’t believe, is true. Everything that Lucie has done becomes justified, for the viewer and for Anna, but the damage is irreversible, Lucie is gone forever. Anna directs her sadness and guilt over not trusting Lucie into helping the woman. In a horrific and visceral scene, Anna puts the woman in a bath – what must be excruciatingly painful with the open sores on her body – and proceeds to detach the metal plate from her head, one huge nail at a time, before removing the whole thing, scalping the woman in the process.
These scenes of extreme gore contribute to Martyrs’ reputation, and out of context the scenes are truly stomach-turning. But in reality, the moment before Anna removes the metal plate is beautiful, and shows Anna’s compassionate and empathetic nature. Most people would be terrified to see this shell of a human being screeching and lashing out, but Anna only sees a woman in pain. It is this aspect of her personality that makes her fate all the more devastating, because Anna could have left at any time, but it was her concern for Lucie, and then for this woman, that kept her in the house, what would ultimately be her demise.
In a fit of panic, the woman bursts from the tub and begins to violently rub her head and body on the walls, scratching, then smashing her head over and over before a single gunshot silences her forever. A woman grabs Anna, drags her downstairs, locks her to a table. And before long a regal older woman dressed in black emerges from the shadows. Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) proceeds to tell Anna of the plight of her secret philosophical group who are determined to uncover the mysteries of the after life through the systematic torture of young women. She points to the photos on the wall, all women at the edge of sanity, on the brink of death, martyred and made witnesses. Mademoiselle claims that through torture anyone can be a victim and descend into madness, but only a special few may transcend to martyrdom and see beyond the veil. The madness, she says, manifests itself in ways within the women – the woman Anna tried to help felt bugs all over her skin, Lucie’s woman beat and cut her.
Anna is then imprisoned and tortured, taking the place of the woman she helped escape. After everything the viewer has been through, this hits the hardest, because everything that Anna has done up to this point has been in service of others. But it is this fact that, in the eyes of Mademoiselle, makes her the perfect candidate for the process. Anna is beaten beyond recognition, her hair is chopped off, she is fed gruel. At first she fights, but as time goes by, the amount of which is unknown to the viewer, her resistance wanes, she grows weaker, and then, one night, she begins to hear Lucie’s voice. It is faint at first, but soon grows stronger, Lucie is there with her, telling her it is okay, telling she doesn’t have to be scared, to let herself go.
While Lucie’s trauma manifested itself in a way that caused violent self-harm and unrest, Anna has the gentle voice of the person she loved the most lulling her into a state of acceptance. Through the pain and never-ending torment, Anna has found peace.
One last agonizing step in the process shows Anna flayed alive, invoking the image of martyrs such as Joan of Arc, as well as those suspended in the photos on the walls of the torture chamber. Laugier pushes the camera through the iris of Anna’s eye as it gazes upwards and into a storm of other-worldly clouds and lights, an unimaginable sight signifying that Anna has transcended, and has truly seen what lies in the “other world.”
Martyrs feels different from many other films in the extreme horror genre. While there is intense violence and gore, it isn’t exploitative. There is the underpinning of a real love story, the portrayal of truly unconditional love. The film has a beating, bloody heart, and it is that heart that makes it so hard to watch. The creative narrative flowing through the study of victimhood and martyrdom is solidly and carefully written. It is a highly personal project for Laugier and the lens through which he explores the theme cuts deep. It is transgressive and painful to watch. It throbs and pulsates. The sound design is incredible, immersing the audience in every manner of the horrors both on-screen and off.
Along with many other films of the New French Extremity, Martyrs forces the audience to look at the wound that is opened by societal turmoil. It delves into the depths of the darkness that lurks under the surface and lingers uncomfortably long on the images of women in pain. Torture and brutality is on full display, but it is the bleak nihilism of existence that the film ends on. We are forced to acknowledge the truth within the nuanced discussion of religion and the terrible acts inflicted under the guise of the search for knowledge – all in an effort to overcome our inevitable demise and our fear of death. Martyrs is a brilliant representation of the manifestation of trauma and how a life is forever altered by unnecessary violence and cruelty.