The ‘New French Extremity” movement of the 2000s produced some of the most controversial and transgressive horror films this century. Not surprisingly then, North American filmmakers who ran out of 1980s slasher films to remake have begun looting these French horror treasures. One of the first Extremity films to get the remake treatment was Martyrs, a bold place to start for a remake. For this week’s Re-Animated entry, we set the American remake of Martyrs beside its predecessor and see how well it fares.
Martyrs is a gut-punch of a film; it’s powerful, disturbing, and unforgettable. A brief synopsis of the film is difficult to offer. In a nutshell, fifteen years after escaping confinement and torture at the hands of strangers, an emotionally damaged Lucie, along with childhood friend Anna, hunt down her captors to take revenge. Keep in mind, that synopsis barely does justice to Martyrs. Writer and director Pascal Laugier shifts gears on the audience multiple times over the course of the film, making it impossible to know where he will take you next.
The film is uncompromising in its violence, transgressing against multiple boundaries over its runtime. Laugier doesn’t attempt to stylize any of this violence either, never resorting to quick edits or loud music cues. While it may sound contradictory, Laugier is unrelenting in what he shows but demonstrates restraint in how shows it. As a result, the film’s violence is much more shocking that what most North American audiences will be accustomed to.
It’s the film’s final act that proved to be most divisive among audiences and critics. Laugier undoubtedly has something important to say; that is, unlike a host of violent exploitation films, there is clearly a subtext in Martyrs. If the violence that characterizes the first two-thirds of the film is shocking, the last third is an endurance test that will prove to be upsetting for most viewers. It raises difficult questions about abuse, trauma, and violence against women. However, Martyrs also begs the question of whether the extent and nature of its own violence serves or undermines its message.
Regardless of the controversy, there is no denying the powerful nature of Martyrs. In addition to its stark portrayal of violence and disturbing imagery, the acting and character arcs in the film are riveting. Both Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanol, as Anna and Lucie, respectively, are completely invested in their roles. Much of the focus on Martyrs has understandably been on its violence. Lost in the discussion of Laugier’s film has been Lucie’s heartbreaking character arc and its representation of trauma and abuse. Regardless of one’s personal opinion, Martyrs is the rare film that linger with you long after the final credits end.
Several weeks ago we did a Re-Animated entry on another New French Extremity remake, Inside, and all the same criticisms apply to the Martyrs remake. Arguably, Martyrs represented the apex of the 2000s Extremity movement, pushing the boundaries of its violent subject matter a little harder than its contemporaries. An American remake could have logically gone in two directions. The filmmakers could have tried to play a game of ‘one-upmanship’ and give the remake an even harder edge, which admittedly would have been difficult. Alternatively, directors John and Michael Goetz could have taken the original premise and taken it in an entirely different direction. As it turns out, the remake takes neither approach.
For the first half to almost two-thirds of the film, the American version plays out as almost a shot-for-shot remake of the original Martyrs. Unfortunately, the Goetz brothers may know the words but not the music. There is nothing in the Martyrs remake that is ever as remotely compelling as the original despite closely following the same plot beats. A lack of tension and urgency resonate throughout the remake. Everything from the film’s score to the acting registers as bland and generic. Lead actresses Bailey Noble and Troian Bellisario are noticeably flat in the film. Even veteran character actress, Kate Burton, turns in a surprisingly weak performance as the film’s main antagonist.
At the two-thirds point , the Martyrs remake finally diverges from the original, and what follows feels like the typical cop-out you get when filmmakers try to “Americanize” foreign films. The changes introduced by the Goetz brothers serve to either “soften” the edges of the original film or pick up the pace with more action-oriented set pieces. First, I’m not sure I understand the point of bothering to remake a film known for its extreme violence if you are going to soften the violence and some of the more transgressive narrative points. Second, the needless ‘chase and survival’ elements added to the remake feel inconsistent with the film’s story in terms of tone. What’s most confusing about the changes introduced by the remake is that it ultimately takes the audience to the same conclusion. Nothing is gained story-wise or thematically with the revisions introduced by the remake.
Don’t Waste Your Time with the Remake
The original Martyrs is not a film I would recommend unless I was very familiar with the individual’s personal preferences. It’s a difficult and divisive film that is more aptly described as challenging than entertaining. Yet Pascal Laugier had something important to say, which is more than I can say for the hollow and pointless remake. It’s only noteworthy accomplishing is filming a near carbon copy of the original while managing to capture absolutely none of its terror and tension.