Martyrs (2008): France/Canada – directed by Pascal Laugier
Not rated by the MPAA – contains extremely disturbing material, violence, gore, and grotesque nudity
Martyrs opens with a young girl running, covered in blood. She’s trying to get away from something, it becomes apparent. Cut to a little while later, and she’s in a home for sick children. She can’t talk about anything that has happened, or at least not to the doctors. But she has a friend and the two of them have become quite close, even though she has not revealed all of the details, such as who or what continues to torment her daily.
Martyrs is the continuation of a line of new French horror films. They tend to be very dark, very bleak, and quite bloody. High Tension was the first high-profile film to burst on the scene. Inside [review here] is more recent and more prone to drawing comparisons to Martyrs. But Inside is tight and simple, while Martyrs meanders for a while before becoming overwhelmed with a complex plot and then devolving into a Guinea Pig [review here] clone. There may be a few minor spoilers ahead, in case you are interested in seeing Martyrs fresh-faced and fancy free.
Fifteen years after the opening events the tormented girl, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), is still with Anna (Morjana Alaoui). Lucie is determined to uncover the fiends that kept her locked up for so long, driving her mad. Frequent flashbacks provide clues to how Lucie was tortured. In the present, however, Lucie is intent on taking revenge for the wrongs committed to her, even going so far as to murder an entire family as they eat breakfast. Her torment, though, is not relegated solely to emotional and mental problems; she has a demon woman that likes to pursue her, slashing and stabbing her with anything sharp.
Anna is a little more stable-minded and soon realizes that Lucie might be going a little overboard. That is, until she discovers that the family’s house might have a few secret hiding places. Pretty soon she starts to uncover the secret of why Lucie was tortured, secrets that involve an underground organization and some rather twisted minds.
Some of the greatest horror films are very simple in their execution. Halloween focuses on a single small town and a few key characters. Inside never leaves a single night in the life of a pregnant woman. Zombies can never make a plot complex. But Martyrs, after spending a great deal of time with explosive violence and demented visions of a naked demon woman, decides to make everything complicated and try to tease some deep and meaningful themes out of the torture. A lengthy sequence toward the end plays out like Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment, with no dialogue and nothing but torment and torture. The final sequence attempts to make some important points but the film has little credibility left at this point.
Some of the themes are rather obvious; the cruelty of the world is manifested in everything, especially by faceless prison guards. Other themes are vague and ambiguous, especially the most important concept revolving around the creation of martyrs. Martyrs, in the film, are those who are witness to something. Great suffering must be endured to reach this point and very few people are strong enough to survive. But the film takes so long in introducing these themes that they seem tacked on and not-so-serious. It is almost as though they crafted a lengthy trailer, bleak and bloody, and then received enough money to make it into a feature. They then added some more random plot points and extra torture to make it long enough for the exploitation market.
The first half is rather engaging, as the mystery deepens. There are moments of extreme violence that, while not anything like Inside, are still rather graphic. Few of the moments were terribly shocking, but perhaps that’s because I had a feeling what to expect. Also, by the time the mental and physical torture was more fully explored, I cared so little about the film or any of the remaining characters that it was hard to be emotionally involved. The additional plot elements and characters diminish the effectiveness and horror of the first half, where it is never quite clear who is right, who is wrong, and who is attempting to slash whom. Martyrs looks rather nice, with a desaturated and bleak atmosphere that highlights some of the more violent moments. Technically the film is perfectly adequate, and the lead actors do a fine job replaying the final fifteen minutes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Narratively the movie is confused and disjointed; too much time is spent exploring avenues that lead nowhere before the actual themes and characters are introduced.
There are better horror films out there, and better French horror films out there. Inside is so relentlessly intense and violent that it leaves the viewer battered and shaken, while High Tension does a similar job playing with the audience. But those films are simple and well-made, and therefore horrifying. But Martyrs doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be until it is too late and the audience no longer cares. Is it a movie about mistreated children? A revenge drama? A psychological/hallucinogenic thriller? A conspiracy/spiritual horror? I’m not entirely sure, and I’m not entirely sure that I care.