An extremely well made, thoughtful and unique film, the French-Canadian MARTYRS (2008) is a good movie by most standards, but it’s also a profoundly fucked-up one. I admire the film’s uncompromising, thought-provoking thrust, but can’t say I much like it, nor can I in good conscience recommend it to anyone.
MARTYRS’ writer-director Pascal Laugier has claimed he made the film “in response” to Michael Haneke’s pretentious 1997 Austrian torture fest FUNNY GAMES and its 2008 American remake. Those films were marked by a glib depiction of violence and torture that had the torturers directly addressing the audience, and at one point rewinding the action to make things go their way. MARTYRS takes the old-fashioned approach, rending the sufferings of its characters in straightforward, non-ironic fashion. It stands in direct contrast to FUNNY GAMES, but also to modern horror cinema in general. There’s literally nothing fun or clever about this film, surely one of the most relentlessly bleak of all time.
It incited a veritable tsunami of controversy on the festival circuit, being among the most talked-about films of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It joins the recent wave of French-language horror fests like HIGH TENSION and FRONTIER(S), but outdoes them in all in offensiveness—and, for that matter, nearly everything else.
It begins with an apparently nice suburban family—husband, wife, teenage son and daughter—sitting down to breakfast in their posh home when a shotgun-wielding girl bursts in and shoots them all. Clearly Lucie, who was subjected to horrific abuse as a youngster, is totally insane. She believes an imaginary woman, a grotesquely emaciated torture victim she once glimpsed, is after her.
After killing the family Lucie calls her friend Anna and reveals what she’s done. She claims to have killed out of revenge, as her victims were her childhood torturers.
Anna hightails it to the house. There she assists her friend in disposing of the bodies, but is unable to stop the latter from killing herself. Anna does, however, stumble onto a vast underground chamber where a hideously abused woman is chained up. Anna tries to help the woman, but is stymied by a band of black-suited men and women who turn up–they’re the house’s other owners.
These folks were the real orchestrators of Lucie’s childhood torture. They’re obsessed with the concept of martyrdom, the deathless state achieved after intense suffering. Young women, they believe, make the most effective vessels—meaning Anna is about to experience first-hand the unspeakable torment Lucie escaped.
The first two-thirds of MARTYRS are a well made, if essentially unremarkable, home invasion suspensor a la the recent French-made over-the-topper INSIDE. Gritty handheld camerawork is a constant in these scenes, which work fairly well despite the fact that the shock-horror business isn’t all it could be; there’s none of the dark humor or roller coaster exhilaration of most good horror movies. Director Pascal Laugier’s heart just doesn’t seem to be in crafting a traditional scare fest. It makes sense, then, that the most effective and disturbing scenes occur during the final third, which takes an entirely different turn.
Here we’re given a torture fest the likes of which have never been seen on screen. While the film’s graphic content isn’t all that shocking (at least not by today’s standards), the unrelenting suffering undergone by its heroine, and its ultimate transcendent (albeit profoundly disturbing) purpose, is unprecedented.
MARTYRS is very likely the apotheosis of the so-called torture porn cycle. It’ll make you question why you bother viewing such films, and how such terrible things might happen in real life. Just keep in mind that in viewing this film you’ll be immersing yourself in a darkness so profound it makes such celebrated over-the-toppers as SALO: THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and IRREVERSIBLE seem like Disney movies by comparison.
Director: Pascal Laugier
Producers: Richard Grandpierre, Simon Trottier
Screenplay: Pascal Laugier
Cinematography: Stephane Martin, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky
Editing: Sebastien Prangere
Cast: Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi, Catherine Begin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne, Juliette Gosselin, Xavier Dolan-Tadros, Isabelle Chasse, Emilie Miskdjian, Mike Chute, Gaelle Cohen, Anie Pascale