As the name suggests, New French Extremity is not for everyone. Coined by critic James Quandt in 2004, the term refers to a crop of French films released around the turn of the century that depicted sex and violence in a visceral, extreme manner. Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs,” one of the most famous — or infamous — of these movies, remains a controversial example. In it, two young women, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui), are captured by a cult looking to prove the existence of the afterlife.
The cult uses torture — calling their victims “martyrs” — to unlock the secrets of the afterlife. Anna survives longer than any of their other subjects and reaches the study’s final stage, being flayed alive. She survives the torture and whispers something to Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin), the cult’s leader. Mademoiselle tells the other cult members to “keep doubting” before killing herself with a gun.
Viewers aren’t privy to what Anna told Mademoiselle, which leaves the ending’s meaning open for interpretation. Did Mademoiselle kill herself because Anna proved the existence of the afterlife, or because she didn’t? Either way, it’s one of the most disturbing climaxes in horror history, dividing viewers. “I just finished watching Martyrs, and I regret watching it,” Redditor u/_endorstoi wrote. On the other hand, u/Xinsects argued that “The ending of Martyrs (2008) offers one of the most brilliantly ambiguous endings I know of.” It’s hard to feel indifferent towards a movie that’s so, well, extreme.