Monday, October 18, 2010

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Martyrs

Right then, ‘Martyrs’. This is one buggardly difficult film to write about. Immediately, I have to make a choice: do I (a) throw out plot spoilers left, right and centre and totally leave nothing for anyone coming to the movie for the first time to discover for themselves, or (b) keep shtum about everything, including director Pascal Laugier’s astounding mid-film curveball?

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.


stonerphonic said...

My GF turned me on to a lot of the new wave of foreign underground horror coming out of Europe atm, and I must admit this was def one of the better ones that struck me both for brutality & for thought provoking social commentary via an excellent storyline. with a twist....

great movie. great review.

Chris Regan said...

Awesome review - I loved this film too and you've picked out all the reasons why. It's great to see a horror film with some intelligence behind it.

The Film Connoisseur said...

This movie blew me away, dont know if you checked out my review for it a while back but I was flabbergasted with this one.

Its shocking on various levels, the gore, which is pretty high, and very much within the real of torture porn, the story, which grabs you from the first seconds of the film, right away you gotta know whats happened to this girl, and you stick with her and the story all the way to the end, and finally, the themes, which elevate this film into the "bravo filmmaking" stratosphere.

Awesome, daring, and relentless. My favorite of the new french horror.

Neil Fulwood said...

Stonerphonic - thanks for your comment. 'Martyrs' was part of the first wave of French extreme horror movies along with 'Switchblade Romance' and 'Them'. All of which have a social point to make, or take a deconstructive approach to the genre. 'Martyrs', for my money, is the best of them - it has a classic horror movie narrative but underpinned with real ideas.

Chris - absolutely. The intellectual/spiritual concept is what takes 'Martyrs' beyond the obvious genre trappings of so many similar films and makes it an edgy and provocative piece of cinema.

Francisco - it was actually your review that started me along the path of thinking that 'Martyrs' was something I definitely needed to see. I'm so glad that the bloggers whose reviews I read were respectful and responsible and didn't give anything away. I knew enough about the film when I approached it to steel myself for how harsh it is, but was still taken aback by that astounding stroke of legerdemain halfway through. Seriously, once the focus shifted from Lucie to Anna, my insides were crawling when I realised the ordeal that lay ahead of her.

Thanks for commenting, guys, and it's good to hear from people who took as much away from this challenging but brilliant film as I did.

Troy Olson said...

Been a while since I watched this, but I initially remember being a little miffed at how the beginning is something of a feint to getting to the second half of the film. Felt like a cheat to me at the time. Not sure if rewatching knowing what's coming will change my mind on that or not.

Really thought the ending was well done and very thought provoking, which I didn't expect to see out of what is ostensibly a torture porn film. It bugged me that it ending with a cornball "dictionary definition" though -- don't they teach you not to do that on day one of film school!

Neil Fulwood said...

Yeah, that dictionary definition - interspersed as it is between the last and second-to-last shots, is overkill. Anyone who doesn't get what the film is about by this point has probably already left the theatre or ejected the DVD.

James Nesten said...

Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (, and is currently debuting on Cable Video On Demand, including Fandor and snagfilms. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the Glam/Punk songs "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst", "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire" and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
before..." Film Threat
"A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
version of David Lynch. " IFC News
"Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
"Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque