French Extremity in Film: Martyrs vs 13 Tzameti (4/30/12)

30 Sep

Making a claim like gore being pivotal to social commentary in a film would’ve been bold years ago, and to be honest, probably wouldn’t have caught on. While there were works like Un Chien Andalou that exposed gore possibilities early on, there are a slew of directors that have been described as French “extremity.” This essay will explore this notion of extremity by deconstructing two films: Pascal Laugier’s Martrys and Gela Babluani’s 13 Tzameti.

            Martyrs systematically and deliberately comments on the idea of a majority race, that white people have created an oppressive economic situation. Essentially, I believe the film tries to drive home a savage and capitalistic greed and the idea that distribution of class has become a sort of slavery with a stock and trade of human lives. There’s a specific scene where Lucie wakes up in her captor’s house after savagely gunning down the whole family with a shotgun and she calmly looks around at the several awards and ribbons in the one son’s room. Lucie’s past of abuse while kidnapped contrasts directly with the carefree ignorance of a bourgeois teenager – where Lucie was starved, Antoine is seen eating expensive organic food; where Lucie was beaten viciously by her captors, Antoine was given the freedom of pursuing higher education.

            The basic plot of the film is split down the middle between the two main protagonists – both young non-Native French women. The first, and easily most psychologically disturbed of the two, is Lucie, who is desperately trying to take revenge on the people that captured and tortured her as a child. After being kidnapped and tortured, Lucie escaped but was placed into an orphanage where she meets Anna. The two of them grow close to the eventual point where Anna falls in love with Lucie out of more than just friendship. After they have become adults, Anna drives Lucie to the place where she was kidnapped and Lucie takes her revenge with slow-pan shotgun blast after slow-pan shotgun blast. In trying to cover up the bodies for her psychologically insane friend and love interest, Lucie can no longer take the pain of her past and the horrors of the crimes she committed and kills herself. Anna takes her body inside, wraps it in a sheet, and places her on the couch as if to conserve her dead body. She even cleans Anna carefully as if to present her at the same level she loved her.

            After a while of dealing with Lucie’s suicide in the home of the murdered family, she investigates a sound heard through the wall. It turns out Anna discovers a stairway to an underground structure. There is a scene during this discovery where Anna walks down a pristinely shiny silver hallway with mounted pictures of dead women along the wall. All of the eyes of the dead women are open, but their life has ceased, creating a haunting depiction of a woman stripped of her power. Anna discovers a woman chained, gaunt, covered in wounds and with a metal mask nailed onto her face. In this way, she discovers that Lucie was telling the truth. Here still is another un-named victim of the people that lived in this home, after kidnapping and torturing Lucie, they’ve had several victims.

             I think the fact that the family that worked in this cult-like organization was upper class, white, and natively French is significant here. The director has purposefully chosen immigrant races, such as the film’s Italian and Asian main protagonists, to portray as victims to French oppression and even suggests France as responsible for murder and torture. A very old woman walks on camera and delivers a speech about what she deems ‘martyrdom.’ She has been capturing and torturing young women systematically in hopes of getting them very near to a viewing of the afterlife – essentially showing how much a woman can take before giving up and dying. So, in a way, even though the film shows the victimization and torture of women, this goal of the organization to test the strength of women in hopes that she withstands the trauma suggests a feminist strength. There is an additional meaning explained at the end of the film, essentially that their financial support for the torture came from a group of old high class whites with the desire to hear a vision of the afterlife. This desire to see the aftermath of death is universal so the director implicates every member of the audience in their desire to know. The duration of the film becomes Anna after her capture, and she is given the same treatment that all of the victims including Lucie was given – chains, beatings, barely edible slop food.

            Director Pascal Laugier could be accused of a number of things in this film. He makes the human body into a science experiment and the construction thereof is very technical and scientific. Anna’s captors routinely beat her, feed her, and then clean her. When she has still not given up and died from abuse, they skin her alive careful to leave the face and open eyes. When the skinning process is complete, Anna still has a pulse and the female leader of the cult is excited to hear what Anna could whisper in her ear. Laugier chooses to use music that pairs a piano and guitar softly, suggesting hope while the film carries on in direct denial of that hope. For Anna, she is skinned and doomed to death after becoming a test rat. Her captors, a white French syndicate, are dying to know if an afterlife awaits them. When the leader finds out, she must be overcome with joy because she rushes off to kill herself before relaying the message from the afterlife on to the rest of syndicate. A very nihilistically-edged commentary on immigrants and death, Martyrs emphasizes the eyes of the victim. Laugier will strategically use the camera to linger on Anna’s eyes throughout the process for long periods of time, placing us on the chopping block as victimizers. This desire for others to seek knowledge of this other world – a passing world – as I stated earlier sympathizes with our own common desire to know such things. The film even ends with an on-screen definition of “martyr” as “witness.”

            I believe Laugier is challenging the audience in making us witnesses to this torture and bodily trauma. Using his definition of martyr as “temoin,” or “witness,” the audience becomes martyrs. Laugier suggests that we witness the poor treatment of immigrants on a daily basis whether that is discrimination from jobs or general favor from society. He causes the viewer to question French governmental intentions and uses bodily trauma to jolt his audience into action. Much like several other cinematic works of French extremism, gore, rape, and other gut-wrenching imagery is used to shock the audience into recognizing a greater picture. These writers and directors are seen as extremists – unable to swallow certain growing trends in culture, specifically French culture, and expressing that discomfort through breaking visual taboos. Since rape and violence are traumatic in real life, this reaction carries over to the screen and these directors depend on this unease in their viewers.

            13 Tzameti is more subtle in its suggestions and reads much more as in arthouse film than a sleeker version of grindhouse. Since it is filmed in black and white, the audience immediately connects to prior decades in film – essentially turning it into a classic even though it’s recent. However, the plot is anything from something that would’ve been discussed in classic cinema. Victims are used against each other in a horrifying game of circular Russian roulette. Each participant, turned on to the proposed “contest” by a prize of money, is given a certain number of bullets – starting with one for each person and then growing by one bullet per “round.” Each contestant stands in a circle and points their gun at the back of the person’s head in front of them. The event organizers, largely a cult of high class gamblers and often obvious racists, bet on which person will remain standing at the end.

            In fact, each participant is “backed,” so to speak by a “sponsor” of sorts – a specific better that can both place and accept placement of bets. Because of this, the organization becomes a ring dealing directly in the lives and deaths of the participants. As I suggested previously, 13 Tzameti is much more of a psychological thriller, working as a stylized deliberate criticism of the effects of a class system on the lower working classes and immigrants. In many ways, director Gela Babluani is more censored than Laugier, achieving similar commentaries on racism in much more viewer-friendly ways, specifically without the use of explicit gore. However, Babluari is much more calculated in that he’s presented himself with a challenge – depicting his characters in black and white and using shadows to emphasize their facial expressions. Our protagonist, Sebastian, follows instructions intended for someone else and eventually wins out by luck in the competition – watching and participating in the deaths of all the other “contestants.”

            Matt Smith, a name that couldn’t be more generically American, used the Hostel films as a focal point in an essay approaching recent horror films entitled “Confronting Mortality.” He views good horror as a work that “desires to see every bodily taboo broken on screen” (1). James Quandt, largely considered the godfather of the term “new French extremity,” displayed a similar sentiment that a good work should “wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement” (1).  Similarly, when these “gross-out” works first appeared in the Cannes film festival, critic Joan Hawkins wrote “this isn’t your father’s hoity-toity snooze-fest; this is the new, improved Cannes, baby” (21).  Lastly, Ben McCann explains that these trends in modern French horror “suggest that the physical destruction of the body allegorizes fractures in the national body politic” (227). For everybody dismembered or assaulted in recent French horror, there is indeed meaning behind it, as opposed to recent American slasher film which has done little more than promote abstinence. Oddly, the trend has been killing girls that lose their virginity, and more often than not, they are slaughtered in the sexual act.

            Surprisingly enough, 13 Tzameti wouldn’t quite fit into American trends or anything that these commentators have defined French horror to be – seemingly a fringe effort to empower social minorities and give them the cinematic opportunity to dismember and defile their oppressors. Money seems to be directly at odds with the protagonist in 13 Tzameti and even after he “wins” by being lucky enough not to die, he is shot on a train by an opposing gambler and his money is taken. This prize money was the only chance he had to possibly pay for an operation for his father or move his family into a better place. For the lower classes, money becomes a vehicle to escape oppression and financial hardship; for the higher classes, money becomes entertainment, gambled and wasted more often than not. Again, in the last scene of the film, we are struck with protagonist’s eyes, suggesting that the audience reiterate to themselves what they’ve seen. The camera pans back and forth between Sebastian’s eyes and the gambler’s eyes who is on the train solely to kill Sebastian and take his money. When Sebastian realizes it, his gazes turn more proud. Even though he is obviously afraid of his impending death, his eyes are raised from being cowered in shadow to affirming themselves in a beam of light from a train window. Then, he is shot and a greedy capitalism has won out again. The audience doesn’t see the murderer arrested. We can assume he was, yet in reality, he probably wasn’t. The man escaped, and the train went on to the next station.

            In Martyrs, the closure is very different. As I mentioned before, Anna has been skinned and put up on display in her last moments on earth in a disgusting attempt by her captors to hear her testimony on the afterlife. When the old and rich collect in a living room to hear that testimony, the proprietor commits suicide never to reveal the secrets. The audience is left with the suggestion that these “martyrdom experiments” continue and that are quest to know what’s beyond death has essentially victimized others, specifically minority races. I’m sure similar “tests” were taken on someone – say a slave or a Jew – by white majority. In this way, Martyrs comments on zealousness and greed but also on the power of the minority female, who as I previously stated, shows her strength under capture by not dying until well after she is skinned. Granted, if Laugier let her survive and escape, he would be making a larger point about feminine strength. However, I’m not so sure this would’ve been achieved. Martyrs is circular in that we are given Lucie, an escapee eager for revenge at the beginning, who achieves that very goal of murdering her captors. This “success” is not enough for her mind to return to sanity. She is still haunted and disturbed by her past of abuse to the scene where she commits suicide. So, in that way, I’m not so sure as to whether Anna would’ve been better after escaping if she could have. Laugier exposes his own nihilism in this circular narrative device. Oddly enough, Martyrs also ends by focusing on the eyes. In this case, however, these eyes of Anna have transcended into the space between life and death. The camera begins slightly out from the skinned body and slowly moves deliberately toward Anna’s right eye, then eventually the eye’s color is distorted and the camera passes through the eye and into the blackness of the credits.

            Both films pertain to what we witness, whether those sightings are in films themselves or more importantly in the real world around us. While Babluari’s 13 Tzameti uses noir film style and orchestral music to emphasize disconnection between classes, Laugier’s less traditional, blood-splattered Martyrs retains a stylized commentary on the effects of class as well. As already explained, Laugier is part of Quandt’s “New French Extremity” while Babluari is part of the art-house trend. Laugier appeals to gore hounds, but unlike American films concerned with solely splattering blood, he is trying to expose greater meanings as in implicating us on the all in wanting knowledge of the afterlife. Babluari works more as a thriller that dissembles class in a calmer manner. Whichever style “floats your boat,” so to speak, there is no question that foreign films – specifically French – are entirely more deliberate and mentally entertaining than most on-the-surface American films.


Works Cited

Hawkins, Joan. “Culture Wars: Some New Trends in Art Horror.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media.
              12 Mar. 2009. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.<;.

McCann, Ben. “Pierced Borders, Punctured Bodies: The Contemporary French Horror Film.”
              Adelaide Research Library. The University of Adelaide, 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.      

Quandt, James. “Flesh & Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema.” Find Articles.        
             Arts Forum, 25 Feb. 2006. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.        

Smith, Matt. “Confronting Mortality: The New French Extremity, the Hostel Films and Outdated            
           Terminology.” The Split Screen. Word Press, 28 June 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. 
           <    extremity-the-hostel-series-and-outdated-terminology-part-2-of-3/>.

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Scholarly Essays/Responses


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