Martyrs since its release in 2008 has become less of a movie and more of a dare. It’s infamously known as such a shocking piece of cinema, it remains this challenge to see if you can stomach its contents. As a lover of horror, I’ve always been aware of its menacing reputation and the word of mouth spooked me enough to avoid it. Just seeing the poster of two frightened women, I could speculate that they probably endure so sort of physical and/or sexual brutality which I wouldn’t call a good time. Rape is an immediate turn off from a film with the exception of The Last House on the Left for reasons concerning some tonally inconsistent bumbling cops. I’m someone who thinks anyone that likes Irreversible is a monster. If you’ve never seen Martyrs you’ll be happy to learn the movie is completely rape free. In fact, that’s even highlighted in the dialogue as if it’s an achievement to be so depraved without that horrid act. I’m finally getting around to this movie as always because of a podcast, in this case Faculty of Horror, which will be dropping their New French Extremity episode this month. It’s scheduled to include discussions on the stated film as well as the more obscure 2004 back woods thriller Calvaire or The Ordeal. Only two scholarly Canadian podcasters could motivate me to watch such deplorable cinema and while I still love them in my heart, I’m quite conflicted of what I had to sit through.
New French Extremity is a film movement that cultivated in the early 2000’s with the prevalence of art house horror coming out of France. It conjunctively rose in prominence with the American genre coined “torture porn” with franchises such as Saw. Out of all of these that I’ve viewed from both side of the pond, definitively I can say Martyrs earns that “Extreme” title. The plot follows two girls, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) who escapes a mysterious torture ring as a child and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) her lifelong friend and protector. Fifteen years after Lucie’s traumatic incident, the two hunt down the captors and uncover more than they intended. No doubt, Martyrs lives up to the hype but what I realized as I settled into what would be an upsetting hour and a half, it dawned on me that I had never questioned if this was a good movie. I’ve known it to be notorious and never questioned if that translated to meaning “good” or “bad.” There’s a reason why its perception as one of shock and astonishment rather than one of criticism. I’m still torn about my feelings because I almost want to review it in two parts. You could break these 90 minutes down to two halves, the first being this home invasion/paranormal/People Under The Stairs thrill ride and the second a numbing, exploitative Hostel rip off. Each isolated I would give widely different ratings.
What makes the first hour so captivating is it’s genuinely unpredictable. I couldn’t name the last time I watched a movie especially horror in which I couldn’t foresee the formula or any projected twists and turns. From the introduction to the ten-year-old girls wherein as they sleep a lumbering, mutilated woman attacks Lucie, I was immediately disoriented (but in a good way.) Director/writer Pascal Laugier throws in such unimaginable elements to keep you unsure of what’s around the corner. When the time jump occurs you meet this nuclear family having breakfast with siblings arguing about school and post-graduation prospects. Right at the moment, you think your TV must have switched over to French All In The Family until Lucie rushes in with a shotgun and shows no mercy as she mows down the pseudo-Bunker clan. This whole section is filled with these jarring moments which are so exciting. It’s dark, sadistic and assuredly fucked up yet uniquely creative. Anna attempts to clean up the mess as Lucie is consumed with the residual trauma and mental illness personified as the horrid woman we saw previously. From the mass murder, the plot never stops escalating as we move between the actual physical battles between Lucie and her personal demons to the near escape of the shotgunned mother to the eventual discovery of the underground lair. The set up is so abundantly rousing and extraordinary that there’s no way they can produce a satisfying resolution and that in itself becomes the point of the whole movie.
After a full day inside the house of the crime scene, the secret organization arrives to shut this chaos down. They’re too late for Lucie who slit her throat during a violent frenzy but they kill another freed prisoner who was in the thralls of a similar outburst. What is a glimmer of hope for Anna becomes a nightmare as her saviors are now her captors. Here is when we get the explanation as to why this dungeon of pain exists. It’s a provocative concept that the Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) dressed as a gypsy from the 40’s, lays out for Anna, that this underground society believes that bringing someone to the brink of death brought on by constant cruelty will cause them to see the beyond. The idea that the affluent would commit unspeakable acts to learn about the existence of an afterlife doesn’t sound that farfetched. It’s the sadistic shit we all assume the rich do. Where the film takes a fatal turn is that we are subjected to witnessing this martyrdom process. Up to this point, the movie has been over the top but here it’s excessive. We’ve already seen flashbacks to the same instances of beatings, force feeding and cutting off the hair inflicted on young Lucie, now its repeated exorbitantly with Anna. It’s a double-edged sword because while I’m complaining that it’s too much, the whole point of this genre is being extreme and up to that point you’ve been dying for an answer to Lucie’s past so they give it to you ten fold. I’ll give it that it’s consistent with its unpredictability because as the cycle of beatings continues in the isolated metal room, I kept thinking “she must get out somehow.” I should have foreseen her bleak demise considering Lucie was disposed of so early but till the final scenes I kept expecting her escape. Alas, the title of the film is upheld and even still Laugier finds a “fuck you” note to end on.
My ultimate feelings towards Martyrs falls somewhere in the middle. I respect and enjoy the clever way the narrative subverts my expectations. The entire movie thrives on being unexpected. Anna is an unconventional final girl, strong until the bitter end but still perishes. I’m fascinated by the premise and that they make the shadowy collective more than just black robed Satanists. It comes down to the gratuitous violence committed towards Anna that is way too self-serving. The story could have gotten its point across without having to endure watching her pain. Plus the sequence is visually derivative of Hostile in a way no other part of the film has been. It’s a relief to have this film done with and check it off my bucket list. I recommend listening to Faculty of Horror because they’ll have even greater insight to this contentious feature. Pairing it with Calvaire is interesting as that one is more conventional with its remote location and imprisonment themes but their twist is that the final girl is actually a boy. That film has a rape scene which I will sight as my immediate trepidation towards a film so the fact that there isn’t one in Martyrs automatically puts it in my favor. But does lack of rape make for a perfect feature? Hell no. And would I recommend this to people? Probably not. It’s only worth it for the iconography it’s made for itself in the horror genre. You see it to say you’ve seen it and hopefully leave not regretting all your life choices. All that’s left is A Serbian Film. Oh god, I hope they don’t cover that next…