Dir: Pascal Laugier
I’m a pretty big horror fan, and I like to think I can handle pretty much anything a movie can throw at me, after all I survived watching Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE. Aside from that memorable piece of unpleasantness though, Martyrs is probably the single most depraved, the single most impactful, horror film I’ve seen at a cinema.
Pascal Laugier’s second feature film has been sucked in to the debate around films like Saw and Hostel, the so called ‘torture porn’ genre. Martyrs is so much more than that, it’s a film that uses graphic and unstinting brutality, but the difference is that this film isn’t merely concerned with gore for the sake of entertainment, it wants to get under your skin. Eli Roth wants you to revel in his film's violence, to enjoy it, Pascal Laugier never asks that of his audience – it’s out to disturb, to disquiet, and it achieves that aim from first frame to last.
This is a challenging film to review because it takes several unexpected gear shifting turns including, two thirds of the way in, one that completely alters the film, and I don’t want to spoil any of its many profound shocks, but there’s also so much that warrants discussing here, more so than in most horror films. Laugier’s story starts out relatively simple; Young Lucie escapes from a place where she has been held prisoner and tortured for a considerable time. 15 years later Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) tracks down and takes her revenge on the people she believes held her captive. Lucie’s girlfriend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) arrives to help her clean up. That takes us only about a third of the way into the film, but I really can’t say more, because I’d be spoiling things.
Intensity seems to have been Pascal Laugier’s watchword in creating Martyrs. Even before the violence really explodes he creates an atmosphere of terror, with an early scene in what appears to be an orphanage where Lucie and Anna are growing up. The use of sound, and the way Laugier barely lets us see anything in this scene sets the audience immediately on edge, where they will remain for the next 97 minutes. It’s once we get into the house where most of the film will take place that Martyrs really comes to life. After five minutes of scene setting there’s a knock at the door and from then on out the film offers almost no respite from brutality and fear.
The 45 or so minutes of Lucie and Anna carrying out and cleaning up Lucie’s revenge are perhaps Martyrs most conventional passage. The beats are familiar, and an early twist very guessable, but its Laugier’s execution that really impresses. He’s got all the details right, most notably the blood, which seems so simple, but movies so frequently get wrong, the blood here is utterly convincing, and that makes the rest of Laugier’s illusion play. The special effects make up is simply astonishing, there is an especially wince inducing scene in which Anna sews up slices that have been cut into Lucie’s back, but all the make up is stunning, particularly towards the end of the film. These things help, but what makes Martyrs the intensely riveting thing it is is the sheer ferocity of it. Most movies, even in the horror genre, that feature violence don’t really look like they hurt. The violence of this film is so palpable that you almost feel it yourself, and that’s what really makes it effective, if extremely difficult.
The screenplay is pretty basic, light on dialogue, but Laugier gives his characters just enough substance, and hints enough at their relationship, to make them sympathetic. In this lies Laugier's true masterstroke. Most horror films get down to their final girl, the one you are rooting for, the one you want to see kill her tormentor(s) and escape from whatever situation she’s become trapped in. Martyrs forces you to have a completely different relationship with its final girl, to hope that she’ll die not because you dislike her, or because it will be cool, but because it would be the kindest thing, and her ultimate victory. This is a genuinely uncomfortable place to find yourself, and Laugier makes you live in it for a long time.
Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi both give strong performances, Jampanoi’s ferocity (particularly during one hideous killing with echoes of IRREVERSIBLE) dominating the film’s first half and Alaoui’s slow discovery of strength and resolve powering the second. Alaoui has the more shaded role, and walks away with the acting honours, but both give searingly memorable performances.
Laugier’s big twist will divide people. It takes the film into a different, perhaps slightly less believable, but ever darker, realm. It explains what has happened to Lucie in a way you’ll never be able to predict. Some will find it silly, and for a while I was unsure what to make of it, but it’s like John Doe says in Se7en, "you have to see the whole complete act." Without its third act Martyrs would be an impressively intense, well acted, and exceptionally nasty horror movie, with it it becomes something far more powerful, and more memorable. This third act is also, even by the standards of this film, unspeakably brutal. For about fifteen minutes all we see is one session of torture after another and then, just as you thought it couldn’t go to a place that was any more depraved and fucked up, the final act reveals itself. It is astounding, and remains burned into my brain.
I’d love to talk about Martyrs in more detail, but I fear that if I give away its twists and turns its incredible impact will be lessened. I’ll say this, don’t let anyone tell you that this is simply torture porn; it isn’t, as distressing and as violent as Martyrs is there are moments in it that approach profundity, which immediately marks it out as more than simple violence for violence sake. Martyrs, as I said to Pascal Laugier and Morjana Alaoui after the Q and A, is not fun, it’s not a film you’ll enjoy on any usual level, but it is a great film, one that any strong stomached horror fan should seek out, because it will get to you on levels that few other horror films even approach.