The USAmerican remake of Martyrs was released on April 1st like a massive April Fools joke. For many of those familiar with the original French film by Pascal Laugier the remake was yet another example of remaking-blasphemy: take a foreign film that has subtitles and that possesses some level of cult importance, write and film another version that is palatable to an audience that might have never heard of the original. The argument that the audience can’t be bothered to read subtitles and so deserves a remake in their own language is asinine: the masses who lack access to literacy aren’t going out of their way to see niche horror films and, if they were, the technology of voice dubbing is far more advanced than it was in the past. Let’s be honest about these remakes: they’re cash grabs for an industry that, having lacked any unique ideas for a long time, seeks to plunder other industries in the hope of a quick profit.
I’m not a purist who thinks that remaking films is essentially wrong; I don’t think it makes sense to proclaim fidelity to an unqualified originality. Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu was a great film because it translated a silent film into the realm of sound. Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs was good because it took a shitty action film with an interesting premise and embraced this premise while refusing to be a shitty action film. I don’t give a shit about the upcoming remake of Ben-Hur because I don’t care about the original and have no desire to see the remake. John Carpenter’s Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly were excellent remakes because they departed so wildly from the originals, and in fact eclipsed them, that they ceased being remakes.
But there are those films that should never be remade, that the remakes are terrible copies, and that one wonders why so much money was spent making them in the first place. Like remaking Tarkovsky’s version of Lem’s Solaris: as much as Soderbergh pretended that he was just re-adapting the novel every critic who saw the movie realized it was influenced by Tarkovsky… And really, when it comes down to a choice between Tarkovsky and Soderbergh who are you going to choose? Or what about the recent USAmerican version of Old Boy: a perfect Korean film turned into a fucking asinine English speaking reinterpretation that worked so hard to outdo the original to the point that anyone who had seen the original knew they were watching a reference. When it comes down to remaking a film that was perfect in its own right you will either end up with a substandard copy or, in very very rare cases, something that is just as good because it’s mainly a shot for shot remake (i.e. as I’ve been told that Let Me In, the remake of Let the Right One In, is). The latter possibility is extremely rare.
As aforementioned, the justification for remaking even the great films is based on foreign films that English speakers wouldn’t watch – especially in the US where illiteracy is more commonplace due to their shitty public education system – but as I also pointed out above this is a weak excuse. Why spoon feed the supposed illiterate masses with remade versions of great movies when these same and supposed illiterate masses are more likely to attend a second showing of Batman versus Superman than a limited run of a remake of a French horror movie? More to the point: studios aren’t concerned about what the viewing public that can’t read subtitles is deprived of being able to watch because of the language barrier; they’re more interested in what is possibly sellable, because it was successful elsewhere, for people who hadn’t heard of the original. These are the same people that remake even English movies, anything where a pre-existing idea can be hastily redone, and hopefully quickly with as little money as possible spent, in the hope that because it was successful before it will be successful again.
Why the hell would anyone remake Martyrs anyhow? The original was never commercially successful: it was undermined by French censorship, destined for cult status from the moment it played in film festivals. Nor was universally beloved by critics: it is only now, almost a decade later, that it is being reconsidered as a critical masterpiece. The cult status it received was due to some horror critics realizing what it was trying to do, its unapparent avant-garde sensibility, that is only now – when faced with the shitty remake – leading some critics to declare it the greatest horror film of the 21st century. Indeed, the Guardian critics, who initially gave the original film a poor rating because they were so bemused by its content and form, scorned the remake for reminding the viewer of “just how much Laugier’s film had going for it.”
The fact is that, like all remakes that strive to capitalize for god-knows-what-reason, on brilliant films in another language, the USAmerican Martyrs is something I won’t bother watching because it has no reason to exist. Like a remake of Citizen Kane or Battle of Algiers or 8 1/2 it cannot justify its emergence. You only need to look at the trailer to realize it has immediately missed the point: the protagonists are white women instead of women of colour, an oversight regarding what the original was trying to do – comment on both gender and racism in the militarization of torture. Every review has pointed out how the remake broke with the discordance of pacing that was essential to the original and instead, as the aforelinked Guardian review points out, “cuts up each sequence like a Nine Inch Nails video to drive home the presence of its editor.”
In resistance to the remake I recently rewatched the original Martyrs with a group of friends, most of whom had never seen it. After the experience we spent over an hour arguing about the film: everyone, even those who disliked horror films, were impressed. One thing that was pointed out as essential to the film, and that the remake resists, was this change in pacing. There is that moment where, as my friend who saw it with me at Midnight Madness when it was first released pointed out, the viewer slams into a brick wall that is like the endless battering of the remaining protagonist. And as my friends in this rewatch elaborated, this was a moment where everything that made the film exciting in the first half was turned back on the viewer resulting in a split consciousness: you identify with the victim while at the same time being complicit, as a voyeur, with the actions of the victimizer because you celebrated certain aspects of the first half.
So what Martyrs does is provoke the viewer and draw a line of demarcation across the horror sensibility. When I first saw this film, during its premier at the TIFF’s Midnight Madness, the person on the other side of me from my friend cheered on the first half of the film but grew increasingly uncomfortable with the second to the point of muttering and swearing – he actually booed the film when it ended. Better yet, the director came unto the stage after the showing to mock traditional horror fans for their conservative commitment to violence and state that he intentionally made the decision to shift the film’s pace and tone to throw this commitment back into the collective face of horror fandom. This splitting of fans and critics alike is what makes Martyrs greater than those films that is beloved by every fan or every critic. Good films achieve a level of consensus amongst viewers with their 80-90% approval rating on, say, Rotten Tomatoes (like, for example, a piece of entertainment fluff like the first Avengers movie). Great movies might be those that provoke an agitational divide where critics and fans are completely split and the split is monumental. Better yet, they force reconsideration years later. For example Battle of Algiers holds a 99% rating on these aggregate sites now, but what would it hold on these same sites if they existed when it was made: critics were indeed split when this film was first made, when it threatened their understanding of the state of affairs. The demarcation has stood the test of time.
In any case, now that I have rewatched the original and am of the opinion that the remake should never be watched because it has no business existing, I feel it’s time to promote my old article – written back in the days when my other blog was just becoming popular – about Martyrs that has the distinction of being a wikipedia link for the New French Extremity “genre”: The Transfiguration of Horror. I’m sure it won’t be as painful to read as the remake is painful to watch.