DIRECTED BY: Pascal Laugier
FEATURING: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne
PLOT: A girl ventures into unknown territory when she helps her lover, a former torture victim, seek revenge on her one-time captors, in this bloody tale of madness and sadism.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: You may have heard incomplete descriptions of Martyrs in the media or by word of mouth. Hushed references and whispered gossip might make it sound like a snuff movie, a sado-masochistic tableau, or a scandalous exploration of taboos. It is none of these things. While Martyrs is a heavy, very violent film with a grim story, it is not a snuff movie or a sensational expose of torture. It is an offbeat, horrifying thriller, and nothing more.
COMMENTS: When Anna (Alaoui) and her lover Lucie (Jampanoï) embark on a mission of revenge against Lucie’s childhood torturers, the situation quickly spirals out of control. The couple locates Lucie’s alleged abductors, but did they find the right people? Lucie is stalked and victimized by the spectre of the mutilated sister she had to leave behind, and Anna is not so sure where the truth lies. In the process of exacting retribution the landscape changes dramatically and Anna is swept into an incomprehensible morass of hell on earth.
I’m so underwhelmed! I was expecting a real stick of dynamite, but instead, I got one of those Fourth of July smoldering snake novelties. Movie site rumors and an ongoing debate over whether or not Martyrs amounts to little more than “torture porn” made me expect a wild ride. I had hoped to see the ultimate horror movie, or at least something mindlessly vulgar and sensational, but no dice.
What I got was an extremely well-shot, conventionally produced, offbeat story. Unfortunately, it consists of two loosely linked plot sequences which, once combined, don’t amount to a sum greater than their parts. Nor do they deliver any sort of soul stirring revelation. Ho hum.
I found Martyrs to be intriguing, but, well, kinda boring. Maybe even a little tedious in places. The movie would better lend itself to being made into a couple of twenty-three minute “Twilight Zone” episodes.
The film’s climax, while innovative, offers an opportunity for something highly imaginative and colorful that never comes. The idea revealed at the denouement begs for deeper elaboration and exploration. It turns out to be a discovery which is the very cornerstone of the movie, the justification for everything we have endured. This paradigm should be central to the plot; but instead, it is a parting note. Glossed over, it receives only a cursory nod of acknowledgment for having driven all of the action. It can be argued that the irony and surprise of the ending hinges on this idea being veiled in mystery, but really it was obfuscated as a writer’s convenience. The truth of this is apparent because the rest of the film is rather one dimensional otherwise, and can only be redeemed in context by the conclusion.
While horrifying at times, Martyrs is almost a drama, marginally a thriller—a slow, unsuspenseful thriller. There are a few realistic, graphic depictions of straight-forward violence that leave little to one’s sense of curiosity, but these are less horrific and gratuitous than what is now standard in many horror and crime movies. The violence in the Hellraiser movies, for instance, is far more excruciating to watch. By contrast, the blood-letting in Martyrs is not really the kind we want to see, nor does it provide a satiating thrill for the cruel at heart. Accordingly, I dismiss allegations that the film is “torture porn.”
There is the fact of torture and we see the results, but not much in the way of the actual act of torture. Martyrs is a dark, unusual movie that has a few spine tingling moments and flirts with a very wild, mind blowing plot concept, but then fails to explore it.
I would recommend Martyrs as a well-produced, refreshing change of pace from conventional Hollywood crap. The actors are interesting, the film doesn’t follow a hokey formula, and the sets are engrossing. Disappointingly, because Martyrs hints at something profound yet does not deliver, it never rises to its potential to be a truly innovative entry in the thriller or horror genres.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Up until the halfway point, the film is straightforward, if numbingly violent and deranged. However, it then takes an abrupt twist, becoming a bizarre, metaphysical conspiracy thriller blending Illuminati literature with peyote buttons.”–Al Kratina, Montreal Gazette (contemporaneous)