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July 1, 2009

Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs arrives with a fearsome reputation, and even before the credits we’re in shock.

As a young girl, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) has been kidnapped, tortured and abused. It is emphasised that this trauma is physical and not sexual, but it is physical in the extreme, and on her escape Lucie is clearly an unreachable and isolated individual. The doctors and psychiatrists at the institution that takes her in cannot contact her; in the end they rely on another patient, Anna (Morjana Alaoui), who seems to have gained some level of trust, to make contact with her.

We jump ahead 15 years and witness a happy nuclear family life. Mom, Dad, two grounded and intelligent kids, all sitting down to a chatty and natural Sunday breakfast. When there is a knock at the door the Dad answers, only to be presented with a hooded figure holding a shotgun. He dies immediately. The killer enters the house and sets about slaughtering the rest of the family. As the hood falls down we realise (for – odd as it may be to say this – she’s a strangely and uniquely attractive girl) this is the grown Lucie, and she is convinced that these are the people responsible for her horrors as a child. It is an extraordinary scene, utterly chilling in its relentlessness, a young woman filled with murderous determination but at the same time wracked with doubts and fear, shooting and reloading, fumbling with dirty bloodstained fingers at the cartridges.

When she is finished she calls Anna to tell her what she’s done. We are just 10 minutes into the movie and have hardly had a single frame without blood,

As Lucie waits for her friend she hears a noise and is thrown into a paroxysm of terror. There is something other than her in the house, and it terrifies her.

When Anna arrives there is an extended period of intense recrimination. As she tries to come to terms with her freind’s actions, Lucie continues to be tormented by the cruelly disfigured woman whom only she seems able to see. From this confusing and chaotic mess there is no release. Anna is forever trying to make sense of things, but Lucie’s actions become ever wilder and more unpredictable. She hits and stabs herself, crashing her head repeatedly against the walls and driving a knife into her flesh. We wait in vain for a bloodless moment.

Something has to give, and it does, at precisely the half-way mark. The screen blackens and the movie wakes into a new story line that even the most jaded cinephile will not have expected. And at this point, Martyrs decides to become not just horrific, but an actual physical test in just how gruelling cinema can make life for its audience. Alarmingly, and as I sat there hands held up ready to admit defeat I did not imagine I would be saying this a day later, it is worth the effort to watch.

Martyrs is three films in one. Firsty it is a thriller from the Audition or Old Boy side of the tracks, a sticky and spiky slice of unrelenting in-your-face grimness, chock full of unflinching detail. Second, it is a ghost story with the same dislocated sense of reality as, say, Ringu. Although it doesn’t take too long to realise that the monstrous creature haunting Lucie is her guilt and shame manifest in the form of a ghoulish female victim, for a brief period it is genuinely unsettling and eerie. Third, it’s something else, possibly a sophisticated flight of fantasy, or a bizarre brutal romance, but one thing it’s not is Torture Porn. It is sad to reflect that in all the tens of thousands of words written about the film since it’s stunned reception at Cannes, the obvious and most often cited reference points are Hostel or Saw. Sure, by Haute Tension out of Baise-moi; a nod towards Wolf Creek and Ichi the Killer, granted, but it’s as far away from Eli Roth’s and James Wan’s pathetic efforts as they are from Babe and The Railway Children.

It helps that the performances (Jampanoï’s Lucie is as uncomfortable a depiction of madness as, dammit yes, Forest Whitaker’s Amin in The Last King of Scotland) are exceptional and grown-up, but there’s so much more to it than that.

There is no titillation in Martyrs at all, no clever-clever ways to kill or dissect people. In many many ways much of the horror comes from Anna’s attempts to undo the nastiness. It is, no less, a sly criticism of (Hostel in particular) the laziest of such efforts. As the brutality goes up a notch in the last third the camera lingers on the violence and dares to say that it is bored with it. After a 40+ minute scene at the start, we descend to innumerable vignettes of blandly repetitive cruelty. The images fade in and out. This isn’t pretty, but it isn’t fun either, it isn’t entertainment. Laugier is goading us into thinking this is a good thing. It’s as if he’s saying he’s destroying this person by degrees, why would you think this is a good thing if that was all there was to it?

When the unexpected pay-off comes, Laugier takes the seriousness of his argument to another level, even going so far as to claim a near-spiritual tangent hidden away in there, a whole world away from Hostel‘s risible ‘for kicks’ MO. This is not to say that it is necessarily successful, and for some a high-minded treatise on suffering, art and other states, may seem a step too far, but when it comes, it’s hard to doubt the film’s scope and ambition. For a brief moment, Martyrs really does just about manage to have its cake and eat it. There is, and I’m sorry if you can’t believe it to be so, a greater meaning here, something actually beyond what is presented. Ultra-violence with a purpose. Shit, whatever next?


Much much interest in this post today, whch I’m flattered to see. As you’ve taken the trouble to come along (thank you) I would recommend the Divinations review of Martyrs to be found here. Not only is it considerably more elegant and erudite than mine own, it also goes beyond my effort into areas that I would have only managed to spoil. Please click on…


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    October 12, 2010 3:35 pm

    Well done. Noted your humble, yet gracious comment(and subsequent equally gracious reply) at the Divinations blog and found myself here. You slight yourself… as you’ve also given voice to a quite an insightful interpretation of this difficult film. Perhaps (as likely do many) I am finding a degree of comfort in the thoughts of others as I continue to process/internalize this most affecting film.
    All the best…

    • October 13, 2010 10:10 am

      Goodness, thank you Peter. Your comments are very much appreciated.

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