Everything is quiet. Everything is too quiet in the Odeon West End cinema at London’s Leicester Square. Suddenly, the screening-room doors fly open. Two ashen-faced women come tumbling out. They rush for the nearest toilet sign. A gentle-looking man watches bemused in the lobby.
Total Film sits among a hushed sell-out crowd at FrightFest, the UK’s biggest horror film festival. Hundreds of wide eyes are locked on the screen. It’s first public showing of the most controversial horror movie of the decade. It’s a bad time to be thinking about lunch.
After the credits roll, that same gentle-looking man is seen chatting happily with fans. Is he the cinema manager, handing out refunds? Or a counsellor, perhaps? In fact, French writer/director Pascal Laugier the man responsible for impromptu redecorations of screening rooms and toilets across the world.
“Yes, it’s true,” he tells Total Film. “The same thing happened at different times in different countries In Sitges, a man collapsed. In Toronto, a woman collapses in the middle of the screening room and she puked in the middle of the screening room. But my intention was not to disgust the audience, so it didn’t really please me. The reaction has been as extreme and as radical as the film itself.”
What makes Martyrs shocking? We can’t tell you. Not because we don’t want to risk you flip-flopping your breakfast on to your lovely new copy of Total Film. But because, right from the first frames, Martyrs’ power lies in its surprises as much as its violence. Arriving a decade after Saw and Hostel first chained audiences to their chairs, Martyrs appears to have taken the torture-porn subgenre from the grindhouse to the arthouse by nailing its ultraviolence to Big Ideas.
We can tell you this. Bruised, dirty and dressed in rags, a young girl runs screaming through a deserted industrial complex. Who is she? Who has she escaped from her? What have they done to her? Fifteen years later, the first question is answered. Her name is Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) and something terrible is still stalking her. With her best friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui), she sets out to find the people who imprisoned and tortured her as a child. Our second two answers come in brutal style.
On the last page of the script, Laugier pinned a photo from Carl Theodore Dreyer’s scorching emotional silent The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. Can’t imagine Eli Roth doing that. “The very expression ‘torture porn’ comes from the genre culture that I come from,” says Pascal. “So I have no problem with people saying my film is a variation on torture porn. But I wanted to make a very different and personal movie: horror mixed with empathy, violence mixed with sadness. I wanted to talk about the reasons for suffering we feel more or less constantly in our everyday life. The film is a kind of strange depiction of pain. Things you don’t usual see…” Like what, exactly? “Like 25 minutes of seeing a girl being tortured on a daily basis without a single second of humour.”
“You think that’s the most shocking thing?” ponders actress Morjana Alaoui, when Total Film quizzes her later in Paris. She’s almost surprised. Alaoui thinks hard. “Mmmm… I don’t know which scene is most shocking…” So much to choose from. “I would say… Um. I don’t know… I don’t want to give away a spoiler.” Long pause. “Maybe when ‘they’ come back and find her… Maybe the girl in the bathtub…” Another pause. “Oh, I know! The most shocking scene is when I pull the metal nails out of her skull. It’s so harsh and horrifying.”
Alaoui would know. Starring in only her second film, the young French actress bears the brunt of Martyrs most gruelling scenes. But the intense, powerful performances by her and co-star Jampanoi are what us gripped even in the film’s most hideous moments.
“The first time I read the script, I was just like, ‘Wow. I have to be a part of this,’” she remembers. “After Pascal cast me as Anna, I started rereading it and every page I was like, ‘Oh my God. How am I going to do this? I’m gonna die…’” For a few seconds during the shoot, Pascal thought he had killed her. “I was walking on the first floor on the studio and as soon as I put my foot on it, it just collapsed,” remembers Alaoui. “I fell three metres and I broke three bones and we had to stop shooting for a month and a half. It was a nightmare for the producers, but we needed a break.”
After rehearsing the torture sequences for two months, Laugier kept his actresses isolated from crew during the shoot. The only person Alaoui really spoke to was her torturer. “He was a great guy,” she smiles. “I think it was more horrible for him than anybody. He cried on set! Yes, once he thought he might hurt me and just started crying.”
He wasn’t the only one. Co-star Mylene Jampanoi found Laugier to be a torturer of equal talent. “Every night when I went back to my room, I just cried, because I was so physically and psychologically tired,” she says. “All my scenes are violent. When I chose this movie, my agent told me maybe it’s not a good choice as an actress. You should maybe start with a comedy! But the script was amazing, really amazing. I knew this would be a film that people would either love or hate.”
Jampanoi was dead right. Martyrs has hacked hardcore horror fans down the middle, along with festivals goers and critics. Carefully constructed for intelligent cinema-goers, it’s a film that invites hot debate about movie violence. “You know, the film plays with the limits of every single member of the audience,” say Laugier. “I know the film doesn’t deliver what some people want it to. Some people were very pissed off with me for having done this movie. A lot of people told me that for them the film was really moving.”
“Oh you know, in the last act, a lot of people couldn’t take it,” he says. “When you understand you’re going to witness the daily life of a martyr, a lot of people can’t take it. And I lose some members of the audience by doing that. But I knew that when I was shooting the sequence. I told my crew, here we are shooting stuff that will make some members of the audience very, very opposed to the film.”
Surely, here lies the danger for Martyrs. Are Laugier’s themes too soaked in gore for us to see them? Put another way: if we’re puking, we’re not thinking. “I understand,” he nods calmly. “But I’m trying to ask questions and bring new feelings to the audience. Trying to be compassionate with such a disgusting, horrific thing creates some very opposite feelings and I like that. The way the mass media talks about our lives, this is what kills the real idea of human beings. You may hate my film, but you can’t say it’s a cynical movie. It’s a love story with real emotions. It just goes really, really wrong.”
That, it turns out, is something one of Martyrs’ stars knows plenty about. “Did you know, my father tried to kill my mother?” says Jampanoi as our interview is about to finish. “So this something I can understand. During shooting, I would get violent flashes from my own life… Sometimes reality is more scary than fiction!”
Publication: Total Film.