Option (a) means that I can get into a discussion about what’s at the heart of ‘Martyrs’ and why exactly it has so much more to offer than most comparable (ie. uncompromisingly brutal) works. Option (b) means that I’ll have to discuss it in very general terms and skirt around a lot of things.
Chances are, when you come to the pivotal moment, it’s not difficult to divine which way Laugier’s going with it. But still, it’s a film that benefits greatly from approaching with as little foreknowledge as possible. Thus I’m going with option (b).
This is all I’ll say about the narrative: a young girl, Lucie, escapes from an abandoned industrial building where she has been held against her will and physically mistreated. She is taken to a care home where she gradually forms a close friendship with Anna. Lucie is plagued with visitations from a deformed creature who assaults her. Fifteen years later, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) sees a photograph in the paper and recognizes her tormentors. Convinced that Lucie is only going to surveil their house in order to confirm their identity, Anna (Morjana Alaoui) accompanies. However, Lucie takes the law into her own hands, a decision which has consequences for both of them.
I almost didn’t bother with ‘Martyrs’. Posters, trailers and the vague reviews I’d read of it online (kudos to all those bloggers who kept the details of the film under wraps) seemed to suggest that ‘Martyrs’ was firmly in the torture porn camp, albeit with a few more ideas in its noggin that the average example of this frequently tedious subgenre.
But a pattern emerged in the reviews I was reading. The film as metaphor. A commentary on religion/belief. Someone quoted Laugier’s assertion that ‘Martyrs’ is the anti-‘Hostel’. I’d seen ‘A Serbian Film’ by this point; I’d sat through the most disturbing thing I thought it was possible for anyone to put onscreen … and been forced to acknowledge its validity as a politically-motivated work of cinema. The idea of an anti-torture-porn torture porn, a sort of Ingmar Bergman does ‘Switchblade Romance’, just demanded to be seen. I added it to the rental list.
‘Martyrs’ is a fucking brutal film. Let’s make no bones about that. It’s gruelling. It’s emotionally and intellectually draining. The first half is awash with blood. The second makes you wish you only had blood and viscera to contend with. The second half is directed with such observational and clinical detachment it makes Michael Haneke or David Cronenberg look like Mel Brooks. What makes it even more powerful, even more challenging, even more difficult to process (particularly in a final scene which robs the audience of catharsis and hands it an uncomfortably weighty slab of questions to mull over on their own), is that it has a purpose. From its shockingly direct opening images of the young Lucie, tearful and frightened, fleeing through the abandoned industrial area, to the punch-in-the-solar-plexus revelation regarding the deformed creature that attacks her; from Lucie’s blood-soaked act of vengeance to Anna’s part in the horrific aftermath, Laugier knows exactly what he’s doing and why it’s so important to put his audience through everything his characters experience.
‘Martyrs’ makes for uncomfortable viewing. It also makes you think. Although it trades in much of the same imagery and narrative tropes, it’s as far from torture porn as you can imagine. The ending is, to put it mildly, divisive. On the one hand, Laugier seems to deny his audience catharsis or satisfactory explanation. On the other, he preserves the greatest mystery and warns how belief, misplaced, can be a prison and not just for the believer.