SaintMartyrsFans of David Lynch and Takashi Miike should appreciate this extremely well-crafted French-Canadian exercise in surreality, though I suspect most everyone else will be annoyed by it.

This 2005 Quebec production was the feature debut of the talented writer-director Robin Aubert. It made a minor splash in its native Canada but to date has never been released in the English speaking world, where it remains largely unknown. For that matter, SAINT MARTYRS OF THE DAMNED (SAINTS-MARTYRS DES-DAMNES) is now quite rare even in Canada, where it was released on DVD, briefly, by Christal Films.

Two tabloid journalists, Flavien and Armand, are dispatched to a rural town to investigate a series of suspicious disappearances. The town is a seriously creepy place, a fact that becomes evident when Flavien stops their rental car to avoid hitting a little girl Armand can’t see. Later that night Armand disappears, and so the hapless Flavien must deal with the increasing weirdness of the town and its residents on his own.

The people of this place all seem hostile to various degrees, including a mechanic who wears a freaky mask and extorts money from Flavien at gunpoint, an apathetic whore who runs a sleazy diner, her retarded son who converses with a teddy bear, and two young toughs who drag Flavien before the town mayor, who resides in a church and makes it clear that Flavien isn’t welcome. Flavien perseveres, however, determined to find the missing Armand.

It’s the whore who cryptically fills Flavien in on the weird secret at the heart of the town, telling him how the residents are all awaiting “their turn” for something. We get an idea what that “turn” consists of when we’re shown inside a nightmarish farm-based factory where Armand is being held. Also present in the factory is a man resembling Flavien, wondering who the other person who looks so much like him is and why he’s there.

From there we’re inducted into the town’s secret underworld, which involves a makeshift cloning factory, white slavery and a disgusting stitched-together mutation with hundreds of roving eyes—and it all somehow involves Flavien and his family.

This is a first feature, but doesn’t play like one. In its stylistic brilliance it showcases a mature and confident filmmaking talent. The deliriously oft-kilter rhythms of the dialogue and gradually building sense of supernatural apprehension prove this film was crafted by a master. It also looks damn fine with its sumptuous dark-hued cinematography. I’d go so far as to say SAINT MARTYRS OF THE DAMNED is easily one of the most assured and impressive Canadian films of the past couple decades.

That praise, however, applies solely to the filmmaking, and not the story or characters. Mind you, the script isn’t bad, just loose and uneven. Writer-director Robin Aubert errs in inserting a sappy romance into the film’s middle (complete with a pukey French love song on the soundtrack), which slows things down considerably (although Aubert does pull off an awesome floating lovemaking sequence, an effect I expect other filmmakers will imitate in the coming years). A couple of lengthy TWIN PEAKS-ish dream sequences also break up the action, adding nothing to the film overall but gratuitous weirdness (admittedly not an entirely bad thing!).

From a dramatic standpoint Aubert doesn’t quite pull off the climactic switch from surreal drama to science fictionish horror. Aubert was evidently less interested in what was going on in the factory, which in the end is left hazy and only partially explained, than in the oddness occurring in the world outside it. I realize for some viewers this will be enough for a satisfying viewing experience; others, however, will come away wanting far more.

Vital Statistics

Max Films/Christal Films

Director: Robin Aubert
Producers: Roger Frappier, Luc Vandal
Screenplay: Robin Aubert
Cinematography: Steve Asselin
Editing: Michel Arcand
Cast: Francois Chenier, Isabelle Blais, Patrice Robitaille, Monique Mercure, Monique Miller, Alexis Martin, Hubert Loiselle, Mathilde Lavigne, Alec Poirier, David Savard, Renaud Lacelle-Bourdon, Michel Forget