The original 2008 French Martyrs shot to the top of my favorites lists before the credits ran. That film shatters expectations and flies out there on the edge of storytelling and filmmaking. Eachmoment when I thought I’d figured out where the movie was headed, the story turned in a new direction. Every shift elevated the suspense and upped the stakes. More than gore, more than overall dread, the film wrapped me into a complete experience. Like all great art, the film changed me. Enlightenment had dawned and crushed my soul. Jason and I even podcasted about it here:
I came to this American remake with some skepticism, but honestly, for the most part I kept an open mind. For my troubles, this lame attempt crushed my spirit.
Okay, so I enjoyed the first quarter. Drawing out the relationship between Anna and Lucie worked well. Not better than the clever way the original sped through this front matter to deliver us into the heart of the film, but I’ll call this opening a draw.
The first killing spree really sparked my hopes. I figured that if the Goetz brothers had the pluck to murder the whole family, then they just might deliver an awesome remake all the way through.
But the movie quickly fell apart.
First of all, Anna needed to shut up and stop crying. That worked my nerves. The movie meandered through too much, What are we going to do now? for my taste. Here the American esthetic started tearing through the careful weave of writer/director Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film. It’s never enough to show peril and let the characters struggle—let alone show fortitude. Lots of moaning and groaning and pointed conversations about Do you believe me? I don’t know if I believe you. That back-and-forth added nothing. That’s the film equivalent of a bad writer “telling” instead of “showing”.
But let’s get to the underground chamber, shall we? It’s what we’ve all been waiting for.
Anna finds the imprisoned young girl, Sam, and the weight of American clunkiness buckles the foundation of Laugier’s elegant original film. Remember how you felt during in the 2008 film when you saw that poor woman, hardly even human anymore? She’d been broken by inexplicable torture. The steel restraints had dug into her head so badly that we had that incredible Cabin Fever moment when the removal of the metal peels off the skin. Were you as off-balance at that point as I was? Not in this remake. Little Sam is none the worse for wear. Chained in a room with some smudges on her face. How kind of these nameless torturers to pad the restraints so the metal doesn’t chafe her wrists.
Things devolved from there.
The original evoked a sense of despair, of utter desolation when Anna finds herself alone, captured. Her good deed in helping her friend has damned her. No one will rescue her. But this redesigned film muddies all those pure emotions. We have three young women in peril now. Without a single heroine, our allegiances are divided. It’s horrible what’s happening to Lucie, yet we feel relief that Anna is unharmed, though imprisoned. And nothing at all is happening to little Samantha. So the visceral and immediate horror instilled by the original has been erased.
Laugier’s film took us through every step of the cult’s enlightenment ritual. We felt every punch, every humiliation just as Anna felt it. Her captors had no rage, took no pleasure from the beatings. The torture was a job, efficient and methodical and all the more horrible for it. In this new version, a mishmash of terrible things happens to a character at least partially removed from our sympathies—because Anna acts as a filter for the experience. We are not allowed to experience the punishment.
Being an American film, Martyrs 2016 needs to feature a rescue attempt. Are we so fragile that we can’t handle nihilism? Empathy formed the basis of the original’s success. We felt Anna’s hopelessness. This version, like almost all American movies, is propelled by hope. American endings are either relief as the hope pays off, or cathartic despair as the hope fails (and you’ll only find that in independent films). I suppose that’s a reflection of our American dream. Beginning in earlier childhood, hope is kindled in every American’s heart—work hard (or at least find an edge over the rest of the suckers) and get rich, move on up, be successful. Foreign films have the upper hand here, as their writers and directors understand the concept of hopelessness. I daresay that Europeans have a richer and tougher history. Just about every country’s national consciousness includes years of conquest. Generations struggled and died under tyrannical rule. As a result, Europeans seem to have a concept of happiness with being who they are, where they are. Steinbeck once said that the American poor “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” That hopeful-to-the-point-of-delusional mindset translates into our films, and it’s just not the correct philosophy for darker films. That’s why so many American horror films are trash. It’s like none of us understand the concept that life doesn’t get better. Again, in independent film we can find more realistic despair because those filmmakers know about poverty and struggle. They don’t have a budget of millions of dollars and paychecks whether or not their film succeeds.
The French Martyrs features a climax and denouement of meted-out revelations, each more shocking than the previous. The American Martyrs has a shoot-out. The subtlety of the original is corrupted; the integrity disregarded and shat upon. The French film’s coup d'état is shorthanded into frenzied bloodshed. The delicate final moment of the film is blurted out by a minor character, lost in the confusion of violence.
Martyrs 2016 shows everything that is wrong with American cinema. There had to be the sense of a buddy-film. The rescue attempt. The final shoot-out. The sensibilities of the French version are ignored. The emotional impact is thrown aside in favor of a big finish. Instead of pointed, deliberate violence we have the typical American presentation of throw-everything-at-’em. Such a disappointment. Stay dark my friends... and stay away from this one.