A young girl named Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) is found running half-naked down a country road after having been missing for over a year. During this time she had been held captive and subjected to a steady regimen of torture, both mental and physical, before she was able to to make her escape. Officials are able to locate the abandoned slaughter house she had been imprisoned in, but aside from evidence to support her claims, the building had been evacuated and her abusers were never apprehended. Lucie is placed in an orphanage where she eventually forms a bond with another young girl who resides there, the persistent Anna (Morjana Alaoui). Fifteen years later Lucie and Anna have remained together and Lucie thinks she has located two of her initial captors via a picture in a newspaper. With Anna warily in tow, Lucie pays a visit to the couples home with a loaded shotgun. She hopes by exacting some revenge that she will be exorcising a creature that plagues her, a creature in the form of a girl she left behind at the slaughterhouse and who takes delight in cutting Lucie to shreds at any opportune moment.
That about summed up my feelings immediately after watching Martyrs as well, and I still feel that way almost a day after seeing it. The film defines the term “gut punch” when describing a movie, and sitting through it was not what I would call an enjoyable experience. Director Pascal Laugier (House of Voices) has delivered a film into the New French Extremity genre, a genre that contains films like Frontière(s), Haute Tension and À l’intérieur. These films are often extremely violent and taboo breaking, and I am comfortable stating that Martyrs bypasses them all by pushing the boundaries and crossing the lines set by these past films. First screened during the 2008 Cannes Film Festival at the Marché du Film, it sharply divided critics and viewers with its content, some applauding it while others deeming it misogynistic and vile. Most of the controversy comes from the second half of Martyrs, after it veers off into an unexpected direction.
The first half deals mostly with Lucie, Anna and the events that lead up to (and a bit after) finding the people Lucie feels are her past abusers. This portion works well as an extreme type of revengehorror film; operating a bit like Peter Jackson‘s Heavenly Creatures meets À l’intérieur. The majority of this is from Lucie’s point of view and detailing the abuse she suffers at the hands of the creature that continually manifests itself to slice Lucie up with razors, as well as her uncannily strong bond with Anna. This bond is a believable one complete with sexual undertones mostly stemming from Anna’s side, showing the lengths these two will go for each other, even though it is apparent that each of them are severely damaged and in this union for entirely different reasons. But midway, as Martyrs story unfolds to reveal more of the bigger picture, the film takes a dramatic shift and switches to Anna and a new chapter. It is also at this point in which the majority of people who watch the film become divided and come away loving it, or absolutely loathing it.
This second half is not enjoyable by any stretch of the imagination, and the amount of pain and torture inflicted is long, repetitive and unrelenting. I would not label it as cruel or worthy of the “torture porn” moniker, as none of the torture is performed for the sake of torture, and the reasons behind the actions are revealed in the final moments. The purpose behind all the pain may seem like someone tried to turn some high school, stoner philosophy into something profound and deep, but there is a purpose nonetheless. It will be up to the viewer to decide if the reasoning given merits watching a young, defenseless girl get punched in the face over and over and over and over again until she is completely unrecognizable. For the most part, I thought it did and even succeeded at making it a bit interesting.
Pascal Laugier has made statements about this film detailing human pain and its meaning, relief from suffering and transgression. He states that he, like a lot of horror movie lovers, has become bored with the lack of originality in modern horror, and that the bottom line seems to not just be an important aspect of the horror film, but the ONLY aspect. The ability (or need) to get under the skin and to frighten has been lost in a sea of mediocrity and regurgitation, few wanting to step up to the plate and make the next Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist. So taking all that into consideration, along with strong performances from the cast and some OUTSTANDING effects work (gorehounds will be pleased), count me in as one who is applauding what Laugier has created. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt in regards to his intentions in making this movie, and not labeling Martyrs as nothing more than blatant exploitation disguised as something more meaningful.
I may not love the film entirely, but it has done something for me that a horror film has not done in a while – it got under my skin and it made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of watching Irreversible for the first time – when I realized I was watching a film from an area beyond the line it crossed. Martyrs definitely raised the mark for extreme horror makers and I have no doubt that in the future, it will be the film that all others like it will be measured.
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