Martyrs

martyrs

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.

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Hidden (Caché)

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Hidden is the second film in our Haneke season and is infinitely more watchable than our first, Benny’s Video. As discussed previously, Haneke uses filmmaking to make a statement on socio-political themes, not just for economic reasons. Hidden takes some prior knowledge of French colonial history to understand the motivations of some of the characters, but because is such a brilliantly drawn thriller it is accessible for someone with no knowledge at all.

The drama in Hidden centres around a middle class French family in the suburbs of Paris that become the victims of secret surveillance. Videotapes of the family get left on their porch along with some sinister drawings, which lead to a hunt for answers by the father, played by Daniel Auteuil.

Everything in this movie is circular. It’s a movie about memory, social accountability and whether or not friendship is dictated by yourself or by your upbringing and social obligations. Hidden asks what is it like to be an Arab in France and asks how a native French citizen should feel about living in a society with Arabs. One has to remember that France, like all the colonial powers of the 19th Century, built great wealth and power by exploiting countries and Hidden demands its audience to consider now what are the responsibilities of these nations and their citizens.

The movie itself is constructed perfectly; the tension and whodunit type of plot are executed well, and as per Haneke’s style, there are a couple of shocking scenes; one in particular will definitely leave mouths agape. Everything builds up to a crescendo, and the ending is one of the most enigmatic in cinematic history. If you are a person that presses stop before the credits, I will advise against this for Hidden, as you may miss the crux of the story.

Everything is closer to home than you think, even if you’ve forgotten or chosen to forget your past. This is something to take away from Hidden.

Benny’s Video

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Benny’s Video is a far cry away from Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour. Amour deals with unconditional love, loss and everything in between, in an honest but human way. It makes a statement but without Haneke’s usual ‘…f**k you, I don’t care what you think or feel, this is the situation…’ mode of delivery. Benny’s Video, a movie which is twenty years Amour‘s senior, couldn’t be further from it in every respect.

Benny’s Video movie deals with the age old meta-narrative that suggests violent imagery, such as movies, and heavy metal have a direct influence on young [male] adults’ perceptions of reality and the world around them. From the outset, Benny, played by Arno Frisch (who would later go on to star in Haneke’s Funny Games), is presented to the audience as a kid who is fascinated by moving images, whether its his video nasties or a homevideo of his mother’s family bolting a pig in the head. The main establishing-the-character scene is played out with a deliberately analogue home video look, which does not feel cinematic in the slightest and is clearly a method of alienating the audience and trying to cause discomfort.

Something that I found extremely problematic with this film is how Haneke’s presentation of Benny flip-flops halfway through the narrative. At the beginning Benny meets a young girl at his local video shop. They start talking and she goes back to his parents’ apartment. After some slow, strained conversation over baked beans, which is almost silent at times, Benny commits a heinous act. This is all played out for Benny’s camera, which is how we see him commit his crime, after which he goes into the kitchen to eat a yoghurt and drink some water; he’s flippant, almost sociopathic. His crime is recorded, and he becomes a star in his very own movie; he can rewind, fast-forward and pause, carry on with his life, and then get back to his movie. There is some commentary in here about our relationship with violence, but it is so uncomfortable to watch I feel the message gets lost.

Then the film does a switcheroo. Benny’s parents discover what he’s done, and the madness we all suspect Benny of is suddenly out-psychoed by the decisions the adults make in the movie. Benny is then a lost kid who has made a mistake and can be on the path of redemption, should he choose to accept. We see various scenes of bonding with his parents, a trip to North Africa, and some dinner pleasantries. Maybe I was expecting more horror aesthetics throughout, so my preconceived ideas of the film may have been tainted, but I don’t think it helps that the film feels lost within itself. All that is evident here is Haneke’s penchant for making films that are sometimes impossible to enjoy, but that always have a message to take away from your viewing.

Benny’s Video is definitely not one I am going to watch again ever. I found it extremely uncomfortable at times, and although I think Haneke has proved himself as one of the best directors of a generation (Funny Games, Hidden (Caché), The White Ribbon, Amour), Benny’s Video is a confrontational film that lacks Haneke’s later eye of engaging his audience with a mixture of subtext, thematics and stylistics.