A Note on Disconnecting From Horror

Earlier this week I sat down to watch Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, a monumentally tough movie which came high on the recommended list for this year’s foreign language releases. Now, I’ve long considered myself a horror fan—not for nothing do I include, for example, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, USA) in a personal list of my best films of all time—but am I an evangelical horror fan? To answer that one I think you need to have seen and possibly owned the notorious video nasties—titles like Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980, Italy) and The Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979, USA)—and have a firm grounding in a range of national subcultural cinemas, of which a fine example is the thriving subgenre of Japanese mutant-horror-sci-fi; see Meatball Machine (Yamaguchi Yudai and Yamamoto Jun’ichi, 2005, Japan) and Tokyo Gore Police (Nishimura Yoshihiro, 2008, USA/Japan). The point being that, while I have seen one or two of these films, the evangelical fan does at least have a more connoisseur-like understanding of the field and knows the repertoire of formal and aesthetic innovations that gripped niche horror audiences worldwide since the seventies. The distinction is important because my response to Martyrs has everything to do with the fact that I haven’t seen many of the more notorious Video Nasties and am wholly, humbly, dependent on the works of, say, David Cronenberg or Clive Barker as my main reference points for body horror.

Martyrs pushes the metaphoric medium of representation for violence. It creates an artificial realm in which female characters are the victims of slasher-style violence, then withdraws into another world entirely—more private, less predictable, a realm in which violence seems irrational but is not

Martyrs is a provocative work that I intend to revisit at some point in the future, but for the purposes of this post I want to record the fact that I turned it off at a very specific point in the plot development and I haven’t since rejoined it. This isn’t because the film is poor (on the contrary I think it’s very thoughtfully produced with a clear and reachable goal in mind) but because it really isn’t easy. Really isn’t easy. Alongside Alexandre Aja’s Switchblade Romance, another French horror film which incidentally I think stands head and shoulders above the litany of US mainstream pap that Raw Nerve and Twisted Pictures are churning out and Lionsgate are distributing, Martyrs brutalises its characters and is simultaneously brutalising of us. The very point of the film, for me, and the reason I was drawn to it in the first place, is that it pushes the metaphoric medium of representation for violence. It creates an artificial realm, a threatening world in which its female characters appear to be the victims of slasher-style violence, then withdraws into another realm entirely—more private, less predictable, a realm in which violence seems irrational but is not.

It is in this context that Martyrs paints a world as in desperate need of meaning. It’s entirely apt that a film which should have anything to do with the testimony of martys—that is to say with the traditional act of bearing witness to events either within or outside one’s personal knowledge—should place such a heavy emphasis on the metaphoric representation of violence, blurring the divide between objective reality and subjective vision. Here, the horror-violence means nothing and everything; to be a witness means nothing and everything.
I confess it was impossible to stomach on my first viewing, which is why I give way unreservedly to others on this one. The moment of disconnection for me came in a scene that involves rivets. No one was beaten or experiencing torture; the scene was quiet and tender, just a girl helping another girl, and yet I could not stand to be there with them. I needn’t say more—but it isn’t easy, and this is the first time in a film that I’ve said no, I need a break from this, I know where you’re going with it and I can see the throughline in the narrative but I must take a run at this another time. I’ve also suggested above that I sense and am assured that there is something profound and perhaps universally touching running parallel to the story, and I’m very interested to finally learn how and in what ways the filmmakers dramatise what I believe to be a transcendent/spiritual dimension against something so terrifyingly real. As a writer this idea that somehow a revelatory end is not only theoretically possible in horror cinema but is actually there in the film itself—in film form outside of dialogue and story and character motivations—interests me. For transcendence is an interesting cinematic problem: it “exists” outside our conception of thought, beyond consciousness; the transcendent moment cannot be explained or made to mean, nor can it be embraced or rejected. It is transcendental, a nothingness, hence it is beyond our meaning. So I am keen to learn what imagery is used in a grammatical sense to conjure the central protagonist, i.e., Anna’s, inner consciousness in the film’s final act. I sense it will be a profound moment in modern horror cinema, a sublime moment.

11 October, 2009


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