image courtesy of moviepilot.com.
This article contains pretty exhaustive spoilers from both the original and the remake of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs.
I’ve never been a great believer in the notion that a remake of a film can do anything to substantially harm the legacy of the original. I do my best to approach them with an open mind, but also accept that my affection for some films means that I’ll never really have any signficant interest in watching a re-imagining. For instance, my favourite film of all time, Juan Jose Campanella’s 2009 Argentinian crime drama The Secret in Their Eyes was recently remade with an American cast including Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman. When it showed at my local cinema, I weighed up my options and decided that I wasn’t going to check it out. This was due to a combination of factors (including a general disinterest in the casting choices, as well as the pivotal setting of the original against the backdrop of Argentina’s political climate, which I felt was too central to be convincingly tweaked), and while I concede that this effectively disbars me from joining the conversation on the subject, I don’t feel any worse off because of it.
It’s for this reason that I can identify with the people who outrightly dismissed the notion of a remake of Pascal Laugier’s landmark 2008 film Martyrs. Regarded more universally as a classic-in-waiting than any modern horror I can name (time will tell if recent critical darlings like The Babadook, The Witch and It Follows will join it), it’s a landmark of the New French Extremity movement in horror cinema that began in the 2000s, and remains one of the most intense, uncomfortable cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.
For those unfamiliar with Martyrs, it tells the story of Anna and Lucie, two girls who forged a friendship in an orphanage after Lucie escaped from years of abuse at the hands of unnamed assailants. As she attempts to adjust to her new life, Lucie is terrorised by visions of a hideously disfigured woman. At this point, the film jumps ahead in time fifteen years, and a seemingly ordinary family’s peaceful domesticity is shattered when a woman bursts into their house and murders them all. It’s Lucie, exacting her revenge on the family she holds responsible for her years of captivity. She calls Anna, who joins her at the scene and is horrified by the devastation. As the woman from Lucie’s childhood visions returns to torment her, Anna sees that the damage to her friend is self-inflicted: the figure is a manifestation of Lucie’s guilt from being unable to assist the other captives upon her escape. When revenge doesn’t free her from this burden, she kills herself.
Anna investigates the house and finds that Lucie was right, discovering another victim still alive underground on the property. Before Anna can act, she’s taken captive by a group headed by a mysterious elderly woman known only as Mademoiselle. Professing to be attempting to discover what lies in the afterlife, the society attempt this by subjecting their victims to intense physical torture, in the hope that the process will bring on a transcendental experience from which answers can be drawn.
Needless to say, what follows is extreme, uncomfortable stuff. Protracted physical abuse is inherently unpleasant viewing, but in Laugier’s film, it’s presented in such a blunt, emotionless fashion that watching becomes a whole other kind of endurance test. It’s unrelenting without ever feeling gratuitous in the context of the story, and this is where we hit upon the real reason why Martyrs made – and eight years on, continues to make – such a devastating impact on audiences. As I view it, the film proceeds with two main elements: the graphic violence, and the spirituality and philosophy of the film’s antagonists. The two are crucially interdependent on one another: without the violence, the motives of Mademoiselle’s society wouldn’t resonate. Without the spirituality, the violence would feel hollow and exploitative. Together, it makes perfect sense, and while Martyrs is a film that most are unlikely to want to watch more than once, its status as a horror landmark is well deserved, and there have been few that have matched it in terms of its intellectual impact, and its success in lending emotionally impactful context to its brutality.
Which brings us to the remake. The Goetze brothers’ 2016 reimagining of Martyrs stays mostly faithful to the original for its first half, save for the inclusion of one or two broadly nonsensical jump-scares that are a sad indicator of the kind of remake that we’re in for here. However, there are occasional flashes of directorial flair: enough to suggest that the blame for the film’s various failing should not be laid entirely at the feet of the filmmakers. The scene where Lucie murders the family’ daughter by shooting through the mattress as her victim hides under the bed is repeated here, but also provides the film’s best shot: a bird’s eye view of Lucie crumpling on the bed as the displaced feathers from the mattress settle all around her, whimpering her apologies as a widening pool of blood spreads into view from beneath the bed’s frame. It’s about the last genuinely interesting moment of the film – the kind of flash of ingenuinity of which Martyrs 2016 is mostly starved.
The remake falls apart entirely in its second half. The decision to remove the scene of Lucie killing herself in front of Anna is poorly-considered. It robs the film of vital emotional resonance, and undercuts the isolation that made the original’s bludgeoning second half so impactful. This seems to be replaced by attempting to instead amplify a theme of the enduring nature of friendships, as Anna (reduced here to spectator rather than victim, given the decision to keep Lucie alive) supports her friend through her ordeal like some bleak cheerleader. It’s a misguided choice, the consequences of which hit a depressing nadir when the two women share a whimpered rendition of Knick Knack Paddy Whack from either side of a cell door.
Regarding the scenes of torture, the film’s decision to pull its punches on the violence is fatal. The mission statement of Mademoiselle’s secret society is reprehensible, yes, but it lacks the potential to truly connect with hardened horror audiences without some visual discomfort to back it up. Some elements are handled well – no element of sadism exists here. As in the original, the perpetrators are coldly pursuing a goal and seem to take no real pleasure in the trauma they’re inflicting. However, when that trauma exists in the film mostly by implication, it has an undeniably neutering effect in this context.
We won’t expand here on how Martyrs 2016 departs from the original’s ending, but it’s an effective metaphor for the failings of the rest of the film. All bang and no bite, this a poorly-realised and hideously ill-conceived remake that will madden fans of the original, while also serving as a glaringly ineffective standalone. Martyrs with a kid-gloves approach to its violence is as bad an idea as Martyrs with downplayed philosophy would be: remove one, and the other doesn’t work. The synchronicity of these elements is the main thing that shouldn’t be disrupted at any cost, and it’s chiefly for this reason that Martyrs never really lended itself to being remade in the first place. The mess that followed was practically inevitable.
Martyrs is available on DVD and VOD now in the UK. Watch the trailer here.