I was intrigued by the initial buzz surrounding Martyrs in late 2008. It played, I believe, at the Toronto film festival and was purported to be one of the most singularly devisive films to screen there that year. I debated, in writing this review, how much to divulge about the actual plot of the film. Pascual Laugier, writer and director of Martyrs, urges his audience to approach the movie unspoiled, so to speak, and I tend to agree with why he would say so. The movie absolutely hinges on the final 15 minutes, and the viewer’s interpretation of those events, telescoped back onto everything else that has occurred, make or break the film on an individual level. Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi each turn in intense, brave, and unfettered performances as the film’s two leads.First off, a strong caution. This film is marked as unrated, but in effect, it is an NC-17 for its horrifically graphic violence. Indeed, I was barely able to sit through parts of this, specifially in the last segment of the movie. Laugier’s lens is unflinching. Be forewarned – if you do decide to watch this and can’t stomach the first 12 minutes, you will likely regret watching any further. It’s strange to recommend this as an excellent film while at the same time warning a majority of potential viewers away. In terms of violence, this movie is absolutely not in the vein of the recent “toture porn” films, for which I have NO stomach or admiration. Basically, that genre of film turns violence into something that is a) celebrated and b) presented in such a way as to unintentionally or intentionally lessen its impact. The Hostel films are a notable example. There’s a fine line, I admit, between “fun” horror, like a zombie flick, and the deplorable variety. Everyone’s tolerance will be different, but for me, the gleeful and cruel (I think that is key) celebration of the degradation of a human being is a automatic no-watch. Martyrs is unflinching, horrifically violent, and cruel while never letting the audience forget that the acts being seen are exactly that. Laugier never breaks the bleak tone of the film, never allows for a laugh. We never, as viewers, revel in what we’re shown.
The film concerns the life of Lucie, who spent some time being tortured as a young girl for unknown reasons. Anna, a friend she meets in the institution where she ultimately ends up, remains her closest and only ally. Lucie never mends psychologically from her wounds. She is tormented and broken. When she finds the people she believes responsible for her imprisonment and torment, she takes swift and bloody revenge. Anna comes to Lucie’s aid and helps her to clean up what is now a crime scene. But this isn’t as simple as this being a revenge story and from here, I won’t divulge much more. Anna falls into the hands of the same folks who tormented Lucie and finally, we learn what it is these people are doing and why. The very final scene of the movie left me so furious I can’t even describe it. It colors everything that has happened with such an overwhelming sense of futility.
I saw an interview with Laugier wherein he discussed Martyrs as being a product of a dark time in his life. I had that in mind as I watched the film and as an expression of inner torment, it is astounding. Most especially with Lucie, whose inner demon(s) manifests itself as this grotesquely mutilated woman, barely recognizable as human, who attacks Lucie and stalks her. Clearly, Lucie is harming herself. But the idea of one’s anguish taking form (and indeed, the movie is a treatise on anguish) was intriguing, given that Laugier freely admits that the movie originated from his own suffering.
If you can, come to this film as unspoiled as possible, especially with regards to the third act. Laugier has been tapped to direct the reboot of the Hellraiser franchise and I will be fascinated to see what he does with Clive Barker’s material.