A story about the love between two damaged young women, their revenge against those who abused one of them, and, more generally, the intense pain of human life, Martyrs is a horror film, certainly, but one where the horror stems from a profound existential despair. Director Pascal Laugier takes his subject matter, his actresses and the audience’s preconceptions as far as they will go and beyond, and if the film does not always succeed, it is because it so fearlessly jumps into the unknown. Opinions have been fiercely divided and Martyrs has been beset by controversy ever since its screening at the Cannes festival last year. It was hit with a rare and prohibitive 18 certificate on its release in France, and although the decision was quickly reversed and the certificate downgraded to 16, in the UK it only had a limited theatrical release at the ICA in London in March.
Virginie Sélavy: To describe Martyrs as a horror film seems too reductive, as it is so unusual and unpredictable. Was your intention to make a horror film?
Pascal Laugier: Yes, because I always liked the genre. In the 70s in particular, it produced very singular works, made by filmmakers who were using it to express very personal things and a certain vision of the world. We now see John Carpenter as an auteur, in the most European sense of the word. I modestly wanted to reconnect with that spirit and to make a film that, while using the codes and archetypes of the genre, would be as unexpected as possible. Horror film should be a space of freedom, a territory for experimentation. But what happens is often the opposite. I was fed up with formulaic movies that just copy the classics, I thought that the original meaning had been lost. The genre had become politically correct, as safe as any other genre, whereas its origin lies in fact in transgression. I tried to make an uncomfortable, unpredictable film. I don’t know if I succeeded but that was the intention.
VS: What motivated you to make such an extreme, excessive film?
PL: PL: I was going through a difficult time in my life. I was in a very sombre, pessimistic mood. Our epoch is not very glorious. There are no utopias, ideologies have collapsed and our faith in the future with them. I realise it’s not very original to say this, but I really believe that the Western world is sick. Individual anxieties are at their highest, everyone lives in a constant low-level fear, it feels like we’re going to crash into a wall, there’s something very deathly in our current society. Horror cinema allowed me to express this in a very direct way. Martyrs is almost a work of prospective fiction that shows a dying world, almost like a pre-apocalypse. It’s a world where evil triumphed a long time ago, where consciences have died out under the reign of money and where people spend their time hurting one another. It’s a metaphor, of course, but the film describes things that are not that far from what we’re experiencing today.
VS: At the heart of the film lies the definition of the word ‘martyr’, which explains the extreme suffering to which the characters are subjected. Can you tell us more about this?
PL: For me, the martyr represents the one who, having no other choice but to suffer, manages to do something with this pain. Of course it’s an extreme projection, entirely disenchanted, of what I was telling you about today’s world. Since we don’t believe in anything, since the world is increasingly divided between winners and losers, what is left to the losers but to do something with their pain? Deep down, it’s what the film is about.
VS: There seems to be a fascination for suffering in the film, whether physical or psychological, whether with those who inflict it or those who are subjected to it.
PL: It’s not really a fascination, but a questioning. The film is a personal reaction to the darkness of our world. And I like the paradox within horror film: take the worst of the human condition and transform it into art, into beauty. It’s the only genre that offers this kind of dialectic and I have always found this idea very moving – to create emotion with the saddest, most depressing things in existence. I’ve always felt that horror was a melancholy genre.
VS: There is also a lot of tenderness in the film between Lucie and Anna, who are very moving characters. How important is their relationship to the film?
PL: That was a crucial element for me. I didn’t enjoy making this film very much. Everything, from writing the script to editing, was, for different reasons, very difficult. What gave me the strength to tell this story, to spend two years of my life in such a dark world, was the love story between Anna and Lucie. It was what connected me viscerally to the film. It’s a love that is not shared. Anna loves Lucie unconditionally and this love will kill her. That’s something very real that we all experience: to fall in love with the wrong person, the one who, without consciously wanting to, will destroy you. Just because they are what they are. Anna loves in an absolute manner, and in that sense, she is a sort of modern saint. She gives all of herself and she will pay for it very dearly. The world and its trivial reality are fatal to people like her…
VS: Watching the film is a profoundly unsettling experience as we are led on the same journey of pain as the central characters. What sort of reaction did you want to provoke in the audience?
PL: I swear that to disgust audiences has never been my motivation. When critics describe the film as butchery, a display of guts and gore, it saddens me very much. I see my film as a rather reserved work, in fact. And I would like it to touch the viewers, to plunge them in a state of profound melancholy, just like mine when I was filming – because I think that Martyrs is really a melodrama. Hard, violent, very disturbing, but a melodrama all the same. I hope it will be a powerful experience for those who will see it because I put everything I had into it.
VS: What was the reaction of the public in France and elsewhere? Were you surprised?
PL: I knew that I was sending out such a blast of dark energy to the audience that I had to be ready for any reaction. It’s the rule of the game. I had some amazing experiences at festivals around the world. Some people insulted me and were angry with me; others reacted very warmly. Martyrs forces people to take a strong stand, and that suits me fine. Horror in my view shouldn’t be a unifying genre. It must divide, shock, make cracks in the certainties of the audience and their propensity to a certain conformism. Horror is inherently subversive. Otherwise, I don’t see the point.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy