Tells the story of Anna, once a missing little girl, found wandering a year later on a country road virtually catatonic after suffering some sort of physical abuse. She grows into a comely young woman, but she's got serious issues. She also has a close friend, Lucie, who she ultimately calls after she finds herself in an unusual house in the middle of the forest. There's something very disturbing about the Bauhaus-esque home, something Anna can't quite put her finger on.
Watching MARTYRS is like staring into a blast furnace. Pascal Laugier’s film is a smoldering cell of anger and heat and hate and marvel. It’s difficult to watch head on and downright painful to endure over time. To be honest the experience is one I hesitate to recommend. However, one must be impressed by the effect of it, impressed by its ability to inflict such engineered torment, impressed that the film can survive its own extreme internal pressures. Laugier’s is an escalation game, vying not to push past boundaries, rather to set up residence on the border itself. The squirming endurance comes not from how far past the line his content brings the viewer, instead how long Laugier can chain a viewer to the line.
I’d find it a stretch to refer to MARTYRS as entertaining or any derivative there of. Intriguing is the word. Films like this urge me to explain HND’s somewhat arbitrary rating system. I’ve always opted for the A to F grading system all once students in the US should be familiar with. I’ve never felt that all films adhere to an ordinal ranking system of identical criteria transferable to a number. I do, however, think that one can surmise what the proverbial assignment was when watching a film. Any objective person should be able to gleam what a filmmaker was going for. The A-F grading schema operates on this assumption, which should help explain why I consider both LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and NIGHT OF THE COMET A grade material. I’ve no idea whether many pay attention to these grades, I preface this only to account for why MARTYRS lands in the blood red B+ range while simultaneously hesitating on a recommendation to even the most iron willed icehearted horror hounds out there.
I’d also like to issue one final qualifier before heading into the review proper. I do so in a hope to stem the hype MARTYRS gained on the festival circuit last year. I’ve no doubt that many walked out of screenings or that Pascal Laugier gave one or two humble folk such a gut punch they vomited in the isles. Just know that far worse footage exists out there. What makes MARTYRS so brutal is not the extreme makeup but its commitment to never provide a glimpse of salvation. What makes MARTYRS so disturbing is how casual Laugier is about beating the spirit out of his two lead females. These are not heroine’s overcoming an ordeal. These are two complete strangers who got dealt a shit hand, a hand feverish with psychosis.
MARTYRS is the pressure point to INSIDE’s sledgehammer. Anyone reading this site can stomach the sights within this controversial French film, sights of deep self mutilation and cruel devices. Understandably not all of us can nor should stomach the sight of a woman repeatedly being stomped like a bass drum, a repetitious segment of the film that takes up nearly the entire final third of the run time. In its defense, however, there is a method to the film’s rage. It stokes the fire, each vignette of pain notching the temperature that much higher until the furnace is full blast, our faces invisibly red with the burn.
A brief history about a tortured girl who escaped her confines segues into a present day catch up with said victim on the morning she’s exacting revenge on the people she holds responsible. She and her double barrel shotgun have marked the heads of a household as the source of her kindertrauma. Little is spoiled in saying a few blasts later and the entire family has been put down considering the film plays her spontaneous slaughter with an incredulity mirroring the viewer’s own doubt. Lucie’s sanity is further tested when she starts to see a naked woman with an absurdly scarred frame chasing her throughout the home. She then calls upon Ana, her sole childhood friend. Thus the mystery kicks off with the seemingly sane Ana arriving at the side of the assuredly insane Lucie.
I was afraid that Laugier would attempt to maintain the precept of his ‘is Ana insane’ mystery throughout but fortunately he does not. A mini resolution is reached at which point the film takes an even darker turn towards the onyx recesses of the human mind. I’ll not spoil where he goes or what the ultimate plot is, but I will confess my surprise. Laugier’s script provides a demented justification for the desecration of mind, body and spirit that is unexpected and unique. There are alternative directions that would have provided a more meaningful meditation on the extremes, but Laugier’s path yields a reward that helps soften the exhausting 100 minutes what came before. Still, it’s a smart script in the end, easily more intelligent than the other recent entries in French viscera (INSIDE and FRONTIER(S)).
Benoit Lestang’s effects work is stunning to say the least. I’ve no doubt that the film’s final eye opener is what got Pascal Laugier on the short list for remaking HELLRAISER. It’s certainly selfish and callous of me as a fan of the genre, but its heartbreaking to know Lestang commited suicide before MARTYRS release, thus ending what would have been a perfect marriage of talent and material. Sigh.
Brilliantly offsetting the accurate savagery is the production design. Laugier has set his minefield inside a dream home that holds delicately furnished secrets within its antiseptic modern design. Most of the horror takes place in catalog perfect rooms brightly lit with natural sunlight, a welcome illumination that helps stave off the darkness yet to come. And when the darkness does come and the house’s secrets are explored, well, its actually some of my favorite horror photography of 2008.
The score is minimal and underplayed save for a few key sequences, which helps keep viewer focus on the powerful performance of its main lead, Morjana Alaoui, whose every quiver shudders with dedication. Laugier puts her through the gauntlet and the deliverable the comes out the other side is remarkable. The lasting impression of MARTYRS is that of a one woman show, a deceptive quality brought out by the strength of Alaoui. The remaining players are all perfectly cast, from the captors whose face we rarely see to the figurehead behind the operation. Everyone sells it.
As mentioned, the film’s climax takes a route that justifies, in the mind of the film, each and every act of bile perpetrated on both Lucie and Ana. It’s an original turn and I respect that, however I can envision a route that would have better ruminated on why we the viewers also bore witness to the horrors of the film. Perhaps I’ll save that spoiler heavy alternative for a separate post, though, as that was obviously not Pascal Laugier’s end game. He makes no attempt to apologize or justify why he made such a violent film and why there are people who watch such violent films. That wasn’t his agenda and for me to pretend it was would be moronic. His agenda was to tell a story whose bleak heart was wholly contingent on mankind’s capacity for absorbing the evil of the world. I don’t think even the film’s most ardent detractors could attest his goal went unreached.
Does that mean we should all sign up for the ride? No, of course not. I can recommend MARTYRS no more than I recommend Nacho Cerda’s even more disturbing short film AFTERMATH. Both are calculated experiments in film, inspired feats of cinematic engineering I’m obligated to respect, but both are also isolating films that burden nothing resembling enjoyment.