Martyrs (2008) by Pascal Laugier is a disturbing, terrifying, but intelligent and fascinating film that isn’t afraid to twist conventions of the genre and emerge as something that is startlingly unique. A lot of people have said this is one of the most brutal movies of the last decade and I would say I have to agree on some level. I must be a masochist because following my viewing of A Serbian Film, I felt I had to see another offering from the dark corner of cinema if only to see if there is truly any merit to be found here or if it’s all like that execrable bit of nastiness I reviewed last time. That and I still love horror. This film is still in the extreme and is actually a poster child for the New French Extremity movement but it is an example of horror done well. Let me say that I liked this film a lot. That’s not to say I enjoyed it. It is very unpleasant and in some parts soul wrenching. Would I suggest it to the average viewer or even the average viewer of horror? No. Not in the least. If you think Hostel or Saw is intense, don’t bother with this one. I’ll reiterate: this is an unpleasant and jarring film. The last hour or so is going to crawl right on top of you if you aren’t ready for it and chances are you aren’t. Then again, I get the feeling that you’re not supposed to be. This isn’t a movie that is just stuffed full of blood and gore and sex (there’s actually no sex in the movie which makes for a refreshing change of pace) or about blood and gore. Rest assured, it’s there and when it hits, it is intense and nasty but the worst of this movie comes from the up close and personal depictions of pain and suffering, both mental and physical. But it’s also, in a strange way, about transcendence. In contrast to A Serbian Film‘s mindless nastiness, this film is about something and leads the audience to ask questions about metaphysical issues that are actually interesting.
Before beginning, I want to make a note of saying that there are some spoilers, especially the middle twist and towards the end, including the ending itself, that deserve talking about and that need to be talked about in order to review the plot, but they will be marked out ahead of time so you can avoid them if you wish. So here we go: Martyrs.
Martyrs primarily follows Lucie and her best friend Anna. We first meet Lucie as a child as she runs screaming from what looks like an abandoned factory or industrial site. She’s obviously been abused and traumatized and we have no idea what is going on. From there, she is placed in an orphanage where she meets Anna who befriends her and begins to connect with the withdrawn Lucie. But something from Lucie’s experience in the industrial ruins has followed her to the orphanage, an emaciated, scarred creature that haunts her. Cut to fifteen years later, and we find that Lucie, played by Mylène Jampanoï, has been looking for the people who tortured her as a child. Anna, played by Morjana Alaoui, is still with her and is called to clean up Lucie’s mess after she believes she’s found those responsible and punishes them in what might be one of the goriest and most disturbing shoot-outs I’ve ever seen. What follows is a decent into multiple strata of madness, pain, regret, and incredible cruelty and suffering. And, believe it or not, something that may verge on the sublime.
On the technical end of things, this is an incredibly shot, edited, and scored film. It is a very polished film for sure with some really great shots that serve the atmosphere of a scene or add to the horror and unease we feel. The good use of angled shots leads to feelings of vertigo and dread and tight shots create some very uncomfortable and claustrophobic moments. Some of the later cinematography in particular catches the eye and lends well to the sense of otherness and otherworldly. The sound design is absolute fantastic. I’d like to give a lot of credit here as the sound does a lot to create a tense atmosphere. Even when you think things are safe, the ambient sounds can convince you otherwise. Then there is the shoot-out and shotgun blast sound effect. Rarely have guns been done so well. This one shotgun manages to make me cringe in a way that no Hollywood shootout has since I’m not even sure when. Every time that gun goes off, you’re going to feel it and no, it doesn’t feel good. For a horror movie, it’s very well lit with scenes of horror playing out sometimes in broad daylight and sometimes in well lit surroundings. I really thought playing with this convention that the monsters only come out at night does a lot to strip away any illusion of safety and add even more fear to the viewer. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the special effects. All of it is practical and done on camera as far as I can tell. The effects here are very well done with blood and gore effects feeling particularly nasty but not over the top. The makeup work on the creature is very convincing and does a lot to make it something you will have trouble getting out of your head at night. The other makeup effects that come later in the film (more on that in the spoiler section) are truly unsettling but unsettling in a way that feels realistic. So often movies go for the familiar reds of blood and viscera and forget about the blacks and blues and swelling that actually occur when tissue undergoes trauma. This movie gets it and so actually makes scenes more disturbing by not resorting to the typical blood and gore (though something on this level does end up coming up later.). But the effects are subservient to and serve the story and highlight the actual human pain and suffering taking place. In other words, as unpleasant as it is, I didn’t get the sense it was exploitative. On that note, what could have turned into a familiar gory scene of torture actually becomes something more (and possibly more frightening) as we don’t see what is done. What follows though is truly grisly and a fantastic piece of prosthetic work. The other thing that really adds to the fear is how natural and believable the acting is and the fact we care about these characters.
Both Jampanoï and Alaoui are exceptional actresses who sell this movie. If they hadn’t been up to the task of digging deep for these roles or if their characters weren’t so easy to empathize with, this would have ended up just another shock-fest. But because of these two, the film definitely feels more organic and more complete. Jampanoï as Lucie makes the viewer both uncomfortable, sad, and bewildered. Until about half way through the film, we’re not quite sure if she’s crazy or not. But what she most certainly is is tragic and often times pathetic. Returning to the previous shoot-out, even after she goes through with the slaughter and the director risks making her a completely unlikable character, she manages to show us how broken up she is and how profound her mental trauma is. We may not condone what she’s done, but her acting brings us closer to at least caring about her. Her mental anguish only gets worse and we learn about the unstoppable guilt that plagues her and drives her to do what she does. All of this is powerfully represented by Jampanoï who holds absolutely nothing back and manages to play between a nuanced and quiet performance and all-out psychosis.
As for Alaoui, she is the emotional, empathetic heart of the film and the person who ultimately raises the film to a higher level. Her character pretty much serves as a beacon of humaneness in the midst of all this madness and Alaoui does a commendable job of portraying a human being who does her best to cope with and alleviate some of the suffering around her. She also does a great job portraying the internal struggle of a woman who fears she is watching her friend sink deeper and deeper into homicidal mania and the tension between helping those who have been hurt as a result of that and staying true to her friend. Then there is what comes later in the movie. All I can say is Alaoui’s performance is heartbreaking and that she deserves some kind of recognition for her ability to portray this kind of a shift in a character’s mental state with such genuineness and humanity. This is as far as I can go without hitting the spoiler button so for those of you who want the full review and discussion, go past the spoiler alert banner to get the rest of the review. The end of the spoiler section will be marked and the spoiler free concluding section will follow. Heavy spoilers that spoil the entire plot follow so read at your own risk.
The film is mostly character based and in that respect, it is well served by the decisions the characters make. Lucie and Anna never feel out of character or like they are doing things that go against what they would do. To that end, Lucie’s rage and violence are given a deeper meaning as we learn the nature of her phantasm. When she escaped her captors, she left behind another woman who was being put through a similar torment. The guilt follows her and torments her, forcing her to cut herself and hurt herself, almost as a form of self punishment. Towards the middle of the film, she realizes there is no escape and she finally kills herself. After this, through a series of circumstances, Anna finds a secret passageway that leads to what is essentially an underground torture facility. In there she finds out that Lucie had been right and finds the family’s latest “victim.” She tries to ease the woman’s pain and puts her in a bath then in a grisly scene leverages out the nails that have been set into the woman’s skull that keeps a sensory deprivation mask on. Just when you think things can’t get worse, the story twists and a group of black clad people come into the house, shoot the woman, and bring Anna into the underground torture facility where she meets their leader, a woman called Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle explains what they have been doing is an attempt to create martyrs, people who have been subjected to enough pain and suffering that they see the other side and live to tell about it. And now, they have Anna. Through beatings and systematic degradation and psychological torture which includes force feeding and allowing her to think she can escape so that she can be caught and beat, Anna is reduced to a shell of herself. In an incredibly heartfelt scene, Anna “talks” to Lucie who tells her to, “let go” in order to stop being afraid. In the end, Anna does reach a state of what could be called enlightenment where she accepts whatever happens and is done to her. But there is one more test which is foreshadowed earlier. Anna is flayed alive and then left to either die or bring back an account of what she sees. She does have a transcendent experience and Mademoiselle rushes to her side to hear about it though we the viewers don’t get to learn exactly what is said. Later the “cult” for lack of a better term convenes to hear about this remarkable occurrence. Etienne, Mademoiselle’s aide, finds her in the bathroom and knocks on the door to tell her their guests have arrived. Through the door he asks her if it’s real and if Anna really saw the other side to which Mademoiselle says there can be no interpretation as she removes her fake eyelashes and makeup. She asks him if he’s ever tried to imagine what the afterlife is like or if he can. He says no. To which she replies, “Keep doubting,” then she puts a pistol in her mouth and kills herself.
A title card informs us that the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “marturos” which means “to witness.”
All in all, this film’s plot keeps you guessing as it evolves from one thing to another. But the amazing thing is it works. Everything is set up so that when the twists come, you can say, “Oh yeah, I remember when such and such happens,” or you could just say as I did, “What the hell is going on?” then be amazed as the movie turns into a completely different animal than what you thought it would be. I applaud how Laugier never allows us to become too comfortable with what we’re watching and this for me adds a lot to the sense of unease. We are not sure where we’re going to end up. All we can say or be reasonably sure of is that we won’t like what we find when we get there. But these twists feel like they belong there and aren’t there for just shock’s sake which says a lot about the storytelling going on here. The director has made a world that isn’t easy to wrap your head around just as the central reason for all this madness is an attempt to comprehend something that defies human comprehension, namely, the afterlife. Which brings me to contemplating the grisliness of this film.
As the director pointed out in this very interesting interview that I highly suggest reading, this is not a torture porn movie or even a movie about torture. It’s a movie about pain and dealing with it. In that sense, the violence in this movie is highly allegorical though that doesn’t at all detract from how disturbing a lot of it is. But as I said before, what is more disturbing is watching what constant pain and cruelty does to a human being. The special effects coordinator Benoit Lestang convinces us with incredible makeup work that Anna has been brutalized past human endurance. Her eyes are swollen shut and black and blue. Her nose is broken and her lips are cracked and split. All realistically. I find this realistic approach so welcome in a cinematic landscape that trivializes the human body. Part of what makes this film so damn hard to stomach is that it feels convincing enough that we believe we are watching this woman being turned into a shattered wreck. The same is true of the woman found in the family’s torture lab. It hurts to look at her and engages our basic empathy pathways in a way that other films that instead use the violence as a point of attraction don’t. We as the audience don’t want to see such believable cruelty which is truly sold by the stellar performances. As I said, part of what makes this film so horrible isn’t just the gore. That’s easy and we’ve seen movies like Hostel do it to much more excessive extremes. In fact, we don’t even see all the gore and violence. Some of the most shocking stuff happens off camera or is shot in an oblique way. It’s the way the performers act and react to their suffering that is probably the toughest thing to watch and that makes this movie so unpleasant in many ways. But when pain really is the main focus of the movie, there’s no getting away from depictions of it.
Interestingly, a movie about pain actually supplies its own answer on how to overcome it. One of the things that snapped to my mind during the film was Victor Frankl’s idea that the last human freedom is choice, something that Buddhism also deals with. The solution to fear and to pain is letting go. The scene in which Anna has a conversation with the now dead Lucie scene struck me as incredibly powerful but it also struck me how much it makes sense in the context of the film and in general. Anna was always the selfless one, reaching out to others with kindness. In the end, Anna completely lets go of ego and becomes something pain can’t touch. She exercises the last of her freedoms and makes the choice to simply let go. In a sense, I can’t help but feel that this movie, despite all its bleakness, is about a type of empowerment. When we can’t escape from our hells, we can alter ourselves to find our own small island of peace. Not that this glorifies the means used here to achieve such peace. Quite the contrary. Instead, unlike so many other films that depict brutality and violence, this is a movie that sits squarely with the victim. Of course there is one more stage she must go through and in a really visually interesting scene, Anna does see something and tells Mademoiselle about it. This leads to the massive twist ending that I described before.
In the end, I’d have to say for its audacity, uncompromising vision, and exploration of themes relating to life after death and the nature of suffering, this has become one of my favorite films. Did it lead to fear and revulsion? Yes it did. Did it lead to feelings of discomfort and restlessness long after the film was over. Yeah. But this is one of the few films that you can’t get out of your head not just because of how scary it is but also because it turns a mirror back on our own lives and asks us what we believe about suffering and death and what follows that. I’d actually liken this to Mama by Andres Muschietti or the work of David Cronenberg in its deep exploration and commitment to its themes in the midst of visceral body horror. However, the humanity and heart of the film is more akin to Mama. Nevertheless, don’t underestimate the brutality of this movie. It is not for the squeamish or the easily offended. While it may not be as consistently gory as some other specimens of the extreme horror genre, it confronts us with something that affects us on an even deeper and more primordial level by unflinchingly showing the all too human effects of brutality as it ravages body and mind. This is not by any means a “bro film.” By that I mean, you will not be saying to your buddies, “Bro, did you see that? I can’t believe how nasty that was!” This is an extremely somber film and I’d even go so far as to say it’s a depressing film. The last hour in particular is going to cement your opinion of the film. However, I commend it for being, in Laugier’s words, “the anti-Hostel.” You will not enjoy this film. I did not enjoy this film in the traditional sense. Instead, it is an experience or a film to be experienced which is in keeping with the existential current running throughout the film. If you can stomach extreme horror and violence then I feel I have to recommend this film as one of the smartest and most affecting horror films you will get to see.
The question now is: Do you dare become a witness?