Every once in a while a film comes along that takes a genre by storm. These films instantly find themselves regarded as classics by critical and popular masses alike, and their name becomes a firm part of the cinematic lexicon. Martyrs, a 2008 French horror film, rightfully finds itself with this reputation.
The plot sounds like nothing groundbreaking Lucie, a childhood victim of horrific mental and physical abuse, and her friend, Anna, find themselves on a mission for revenge that takes them to the darkest depths of human suffering. It’s a testament to the vision and skill of the film-makers that a movie such as this a resounding success.
Having already seen Martyrs three years ago I knew the plot, but even on a second viewing it really affected me; possibly even more than the first time round. It goes without saying that this film is absolutely stunning. Visually, thematically, and emotionally it delivers one of the most original, effective and complete cinematic experiences. The movie blends ambitious storytelling, exciting camera work and shocking brutality that teeters on the edge of ‘torture porn’, but all in a tasteful way that demands from and achieves the ultimate attention of its audience.
Right from the outset it’s impossible not to be engaged. The back story for the main protagonist is set up with archive news footage and then we are thrown face first into the action. The tone of the movie is established by the first decision made by Lucie; it’s brutality at its worst and it lets us know we are in for a violent ride. This tone then is upheld throughout the narrative, despite a shift from the revenge horror set up at around the halfway point. The brutality never lets up and some of the imagery is terrifying, yet the characters are drawn so well it makes the movie compelling as well as emotionally effective. Martyrs could have easily been cheapened by two dimensional characters, so the writer/director Pascal Laugier deserves major credit. We are made to care for the two girls and their story, and they aren’t just vessels of pain to titillate the audience. Flashbacks are employed to drip feed us a deeper understanding of their motivations and the way in which these are shot and edited into the present day footage is extremely competent and ambitious. Each of the modern day scenes has its own special set piece, all adding to the rich visual tapestry and advances the story at a violent pace; one of note involves a bed, a shotgun and some feathers, which is shocking but beautiful to watch. One of the greatest choices made by Laugier, and one which I respect him for immensely, is he never sexualises the two main girls, or any of the women in the movie. We see naked flesh on a number of occasions, but it is always secondary, almost unnoticeable, to the main intention of those scenes.
The themes tackled by Martyrs are one of the main reasons this movie burns itself onto your mind. It deals with the pain of remembering and the pain of trying to forget. The existential overtones towards the end of the movie are impossible to ignore which will have you questioning your very existence; it becomes a document of pain, suffering and how far one would go to understand what comes after ‘it all’. The ending itself is very enigmatic (some may say unsatisfying), but it will force you to engage your brain even after the movie finishes, which is extremely rare, especially among other recent horror outings.
Even second time round this movie is special. Regardless of how jaded one might be, it’s absolutely harrowing, difficult to watch, challenging and brutal, and is definitely not for the weak of mind and stomach. All that said, it’s something that should be watched. Martyrs is the film that I haven’t been able to put out of my mind for three years. It is smart, not replete with horror cliches, and the subject matter has enough twists and turns to keep you from blinking or breathing. It’s so ambitious that it could have been a complete failure, which is part of the reason it has such a unequivocal impact. I’m going to go on record and say that I don’t think it has been or will be matched in the horror genre for years to come. Go and watch this movie, but don’t be annoyed at me if you do.