I was pretty nervous before sitting down to view Martyrs—but not for the reasons you might expect. Sure, I'd heard about how intense and soul-crushing the film was and how people felt that you could admire it but really not "enjoy" it, but for me those kind of statements inspire a different sort of dread than what was intended. After spending over a decade writing about horror films (and nearly three decades watching them), I'm more scared when a movie comes so highly touted than I am that it might be too much for me to handle. I've been burnt by the hype machine in the past, and Martyrs was generating so much buzz that I couldn't shake the feeling that the actual film would wind up being a letdown. How could any film live up to the level of expectation created after the film premiered in France? What could possibly be so extreme as to set this film apart from other brutal French fare like Irreversible? Probably nothing, I kept telling myself. I was wrong.
I'll admit, it was touch-and-go there for awhile in the opening act of Pascal Laugier's Gallic gorefest. Martyrs seems incredibly familiar and predictable in the early going. There are moments where I would think "okay, I know where this is going" and the film would go there, but that Laugier is a clever guy—and every time you think you have Martyrs figured out and pigeonholed, it shifts gears. The kicker here is that for the first two thirds of the film it constantly lulls you into relaxing (if you can actually relax watching a brutal French horror film—most people can't) by letting you think "this is some pretty horrible stuff going on, but I see where things are headed and I can deal with it" only to then go so far afield in the last third that it's literally shocking. I thought I knew what this film was about at various narrative points, but I was being deceived by someone who may very well be a master manipulator. The moment where Laugier finally rips the rug out from under us is incredible—and it's what elevates Martyrs from the "torture porn" (we've really gotta come up with a better term for these films…) ghetto inhabited by films like Saw and Hostel and places it alongside more philosophically unsettling films by men like Michael Haneke, Pier Pasolini, and Gaspar Noe.
The struggle of writing a review of Martyrs is this: how do you describe it without revealing what makes it so amazing? I don't think it can be done, but I'm going to try. Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) has escaped from captors who held her hostage and tortured her. They are never caught. Naturally, said event leaves Lucie traumatized for life. With the aid of her childhood friend Anna (Morjana Aloui), she sets out to find the people responsible 15 years later—only to uncover something much more insidious in the process.
I'll tell you right now, that synopsis sucks. It's sort of what happens in Martyrs, but again, it doesn't come anywhere near to getting to the heart of what truly makes the film work.
What makes Martyrs work is the philosophical tone of the film—a manifesto on victimhood, religion, hopelessness, and despair—that emerges in the last act. It features a scene between Aloui and Catherine Begin (who plays a character simply referred to as "Mademoiselle") that works like the horror film version of a similar scene between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation and then follows it with a closing scene that will inspire debate amongst horror geeks for years to come as to what it all means (kinda like the end of Soavi's mesmerizing Cemetery Man). Because of this, Martyrs is one of those rarest of genre offerings—one that stimulates your brain while working your gag reflex at the same time. I wish I could say more about it than that, but ruining what is Martyrs greatest moment wouldn't be fair to people reading this review first and seeing the film second. I don't think knowing what's coming lessens the "weight" of it, but to get the full effect, one should see it cold.
Laugier has reportedly bristled at comparisons between his film and Haneke's Funny Games (both original and redux, one would assume), yet while the filmmaker may feel that Haneke misses the mark in both of his outings (not an opinion I personally agree with…) there are similarities. That being said, I think the most logical companion pieces to Martyrs are two Gaspar Noe films—Irreversible and to a lesser extent, I Stand Alone. The films aren't so much alike in the ground they cover, but rather in the tone. There's a nihilistic vibe that permeates all three films. Irreversible may still be the most distressing of the trio overall, but Martyrs complements its moments of philosophical hopelessness with a steady stream of human carnage that Noe's film doesn't have.
It's because of this that Martyrs is almost assuredly the best of the new wave of French horror films. It's as bloody and violent as the earlier offerings but the philosophical knockout punch that it delivers like an Ali rope-a-dope puts it ahead of films like Inside and High Tension. Laugier has crafted one of the most haunting and upsetting horror films in recent memory. I can't wait to see what he does with his next project, a remake of Clive Barker's Hellraiser. A filmmaker with a penchant for gore and philosophy working on a film by a writer with a penchant for gore and philosophy…sounds like a match made in Hell.
Regardless of how one feels about Martyrs as a whole (and there have been those who've hated it), I think we can all appreciate Laugier's attempt to break free of the traditional horror film mold. The audacity and ever-present aura of despair serve as a stark reminder of what horror cinema should aspire to be.
**** out of **** "Martyrs" is a true - and great - horror movie in the sense that it's not the kind that is best enjoyed with popcorn and soda. Today, the higher paying audience for this genre seems to be teenagers; so horror movies made for adults are essentially scarce, but Pascal Laugier has reminded me of what it is like to both see and feel the pain that is being inflicted to the various characters on-screen. You can't care about the wound if you don't understand it, … more
French horror films have been outshining Hollywood horror for the past few years. Writer/director Pascal Laugier's "Martyrs" is an ultra-violent, harrowingly brutal and disquieting film about human suffering; both mentally, physically and emotionally. At first glance, one would think that this film has religious undertones but no, it takes a different road as to how it makes its point. I've read that the film was rejected by a number of large French studios, and has been rejected by a … more
Prior to viewing Martyrs, I had come across many reviews which obviously I would ignore. After all, I love the Horror genre as lately French Horror films have really stepped up to the plate & delivered the goods. Martyrs isn't an exception to that rule although I believe this one may have surpassed even my expectations. Forget the slasher genre before watching Martyrs. I can go ahead & tell you this in advance. Irregardless of what glimmer … more
I'm a 36-year-old film critic who specializes in Horror and Cult Cinema as well as Asian films. I spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture quiz show, Beat the Geeks. I'm also … more
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