Martyrs is like one of those chandeliers made of human bones. It’s grizzly and horrifying yet strangely beautiful. It is also a film that engages the viewer because just when you think you have it pigeon-holed, it changes tack and leads you in a new direction.
Martyrs takes us on a journey that starts with a young girl (Lucie) escaping from a disused abattoir where she has clearly been the victim of prolonged torture. She leaves behind others in her bid to flee her personal hell. Eventually she is taken in at a children’s home where she befriends another girl there called Anna. Some time in the future, as young women, Anna attempts to help Lucie who has tracked down accomplices to her previous tormentors. From here Anna experiences the suffering of Lucies past, and uncovers a new nightmare of her own. The film builds to a conclusion that you won’t see coming and will leave you to speculate as to its meaning long after the film has finished.
On first viewing one never knows what is going to happen next, this in itself is unsettling and exciting – two key elements to any horror film; but Martyrs is hard to classify. It is not really a horror film, but is certainly horrific throughout and genuinely scary in parts. It is also an effective drama and a nerve shredding thriller. It mixes perfectly-executed intrigue with uncomfortable violence. The feelings we share for the protagonists plight, and the motivations that put her there, are quite unlike in any other genre movie. All this is done in a manner which makes the film a thing of beauty, it is exquisite yet brutal.
I have to admit, I did get confused with the movie at roughly the half way point – and, as often the best films do, it definitely benefits from repeat viewings. Perhaps something was lost in the language barrier, but equally the film is one of those treats in an age of Hollywood dumbing-down that does not spell out every last detail, some aspects of the film are not as literal as they first appear. There are certainly head-scratching moments, but none of this detracts from the overall power and accomplishment of this excellent piece of film making.
There is a current trend to use the awful phrase “torture porn”. This is often utilised by those who did not like or appreciate a particular film. I suspect that the intention of such a term is to be condescending without giving justification, but if it means gratuitous violence for the sheer enjoyment of it, please be assured that this term does not apply to Martyrs.
Martyrs does have many challenging scenes, as a film it is an assault on the nervous system and the mind – but it does not employ cheap tricks and buckets of gore. Where some films might show you hacked limbs, Martyrs makes you cringe at the dull thud of a punch to a defenceless face. We feel the resignation of someone forced to endure unrelenting attacks, knowing that there will be no mercy from their tormentors. Just at the point at which the film invokes the viewer to consider their motivation for watching the suffering on screen, it delivers with a payoff that was as unexpected as it was a rewarding cinematic experience.
I am fully aware that it is slightly pretentious to call a film “challenging” as I did previously, but the experience that Martyrs gives is indeed a challenge in every way. It forces us to endure vicariously with Anna’s suffering, it challenges individual beliefs and it forces us to think for ourselves about how the film ends. Pascal Laugier, the writer and director, could have wrapped everything up for us with a little bow but he would have been letting us down if he had done so. The ending of Martyrs is what elevates it to being one of my favourite ever films.
It is to be expected that some people not familiar with this style of film-making will find a movie such as Martyrs too much to cope with. It is human nature, therefore, to want to attack the very thing that has made them feel this way. If they can belittle it they do not have to confront what it has stirred inside them. It is for this reason some may wish to patronise Martyrs for having a depth beyond a “plot by numbers” approach. Why can’t a film such as this carry a message? Why can’t it provoke thoughts and conjecture in excess of the basic movie experience? Just because a film has offended or upset in the build up to its conclusion does not mean it is unable to leave valid questions in the mind of the audience, indeed it is more likely to have done so. Fans of extreme cinema will know that to appreciate the payoff, they must endure the ride to the end. Martyrs beats you up until it leaves you raw and receptive to its final scenes.
Martyrs is one of those films that if you allow yourself to enter the world the director has created, and let him tell you a story, you will be thinking about it for months and years to come. Those who cannot see past its cruelty, and the reasons for it, will unfortunately see only that. It is a gem of extreme film-making and I strongly urge you to experience it for yourself.