France/Canada (in French, with English subtitles). 96 minutes. Directed by Pascal Laugier. Starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulsane, Juliette Gosselin, Xavier Dolan-Tadros.
When she was a young girl, Lucie escaped imprisonment from an abandoned slaughterhouse, where she’d been horrifically abused by her unknown captors. Fifteen years later, she’s finally tracked down her abusers, and she’s going to make them pay. It’s up to her best friend Anna to clean up the mess, and in the process she learns the disturbing truth about Lucie’s torture…
Much of what you’ve heard about Martyrs is probably true. It’s a brutal and gory movie, up-front and uncompromising in its portrayal of the abuse of young, vulnerable women. Most people will find the violence very, very hard to watch, particularly the final half-hour of the film, which pretty much consists of one long torture sequence. However, it’s also something that a good percentage of what I consider the target audience of Forced Viewing won’t flinch at. If you giggled all through Cannibal Ferox and consider Aftermath a popcorn movie, you’re not likely to be fazed by any image Martyrs offers up.
More important than the violence, though, is the bleakness. Martyrs is an exceptionally dark movie, even by horror standards. Its central message is that there are certain things that, once broken, can never be fixed…such as people. Revenge does not result in catharsis, does not bring closure and does not facilitate a sense of you-go-girl! feminist empowerment. We are not encouraged to laugh at stupid characters as they get bumped off in amusing ways. Lucie is not a charming, attractive (although Mylène Jampanoï, the actress who plays her, must surely be one of the hottest women on the planet), witty sociopath: she’s fucked-up, hysterical and psychotic. (Stripped down, Lucie is, at her core, a twentysomething problem child who’s throwing a huge temper tantrum with fatal results. Keep this aspect of her personality in mind when you watch the later scenes, because “regression to childish behavior” shows up as a motif in a couple of odd places.)
And once writer/director Pascal Laugier has placed all the cards on the table, we are in the realm of pure nihilism. There is no hope.
This is not entertainment.
If, however, you don’t insist that your cinematic intake be “feel-good” and “affirming” (if you do, why the Hell are you reading a horror blog?), you’ll find that Martyrs has a lot to offer beyond 30 straight minutes of bare-fisted beatings.
Beyond some of the fascinating ideas at the core of the story, the script is remarkably well-written. There are a number of plot “twists” starting about halfway through the movie, but they’re not just put there to create tension or to keep the audience off-balance. Rather, the nature of the movie shifts subtly with each twist, turning a movie that seems to want to be “I Spit on Your Grave, but in French” into a meditation on the nature of suffering, and then finally into…but, no, that would be telling. Let’s just say that Martyrs might just be one of the most genuinely Lovecraftian films I’ve never seen, not in terms of monsters, but themes. The only real flaw with the overall storyline is that Lucie and Anna spend too much time (narrative time, not screen-time) in the house.
Similarly, the characters are uniformly well-written. Lucie and Anna are not heroines, anti-heroines or villains, but two potentially ordinary women who got dealt shit hands and are forced to deal with the consequences. Lucie, in particular, might not necessarily be symapthetic or likable but by the end of the story, her motivations make sense even if they’re not exactly justified. There’s a very slight amount of glorification in the violence in the beginning, but that’s about it. Anna’s sense of resigned obligation will be familiar to anyone who’s put a significant amount of effort into cleaning up other people’s messes.
The look of the film is also very impressive. There’s some great juxtaposition between the bright-and-sunny suburban life of the family Lucie seeks revenge on, the squalor of the secret torture chambers, and the clinical appearance of the buffer zone between the two. I feel the makeup could have been a bit better—some of the more extreme effects were, to my eye, obviously latex and body-stockings—but enough reviews have praised the effects, so maybe it’s just me.
However, when it comes to a movie like this, you can take an amazing script and produce it with great sets and a genius cinematographer, and it won’t mean much if the ensemble can’t sell it. Which means the real triumph here belongs not to Laugier or to production designer Jean-Pierre Carriere, but to Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui, who plays Anna. These two actresses display bravery and emotional honesty at a level that is rarely seen in any motion picture, genre or no. It’s all too common, nowadays, for glorified cosmetics-company spokesmodels to muss up their hair and doff frumpy clothes and win Oscars for their “brave performances.” Unfortunately, Aloui and Jampanoï will never be recognized outside the genre-fan community for their amazing work here. That’s not to say that the rest of the ensemble isn’t excellent—especially Catherine Bégin, who plays the clinically philosophical “Mademoiselle,” the closest thing Martyrs gives us to a conventional villain. But Aloui and Jampanoï own this show.
Are there other problems? Certainly, but in the end, it’s all nitpicking. None of those flaws detract from the pure power of Martyrs. It is one of the most intense—not just in terms of violence, but in terms of emotional power—cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen. It sets out to to push buttons, to upset, and it succeeds magnificently. This is what horror movies are for.
Moment of Zen
The last line of dialogue.