CAPSULE: MARTYRS (2008)

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,

Still

seek revenge on her one-time captors, in this unusual, 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)

2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: MARTYRS (2008)”

  1. This post was lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010. Comments recovered from Google’s cache are reproduced below.

    Eric Gabbard says I was disappointed with this film. It may be due to the fact I had watched a great French horror film a few night previous to watching this one…Inside (2007). While both movies are brutal, Inside does everything right in getting the balance between violent shock and dreadful suspension that never lets up. With Martyrs it becomes, as you say, “tedious”. The movie Inside is not what I would call weird, by any means, but a well-done horror film that comes highly recommended. Along with these 2 films and including Calvaire and High Tension, at least the French are trying to expand on the Americanized onslaught of torture filled horror. The Fourth of July “smoldering novelty snake” analogy was quite humorous and accurate. The film Inside is at least a bloody roman candle.
    October 11, 2010, 8:01

    Kat says I’ll go out on a limb and say that I quite enjoyed this. I did think the first half of the film was better than the second but then considering what the mystery group are searching for the writers did set themselves up for an anticlimax. I don’t want to be too specific in case folks want to watch it. But if, for example, you make a movie where people are searching for the meaning of life, what are you going to give as the answer? I think the writers of this asked a bigger question than they could answer and this resulted in a messy, anti-climactic ending. I thought the beginning was excellent though, and I loved Morjana Alaoui. All in all I came away thinking it raised interesting questions, but wasn’t as big and clever as it thought it was.
    October 12, 2010, 7:47 am

    Cassie says I find it interested that all the sources that I respect don’t have much good to say about this film. I personally loved the ending, and the fact that it didn’t serve up hard and fast answers on a silver platter for the viewer, but instead allowed you to think independently once the film was over. Perhaps I just need to watch it again?
    October 12, 2010, 11:09 am

    Cassie says also the moments in the film that everyone else seems to label as “tedious” i found as uncomfortable but addictive as the tactics deployed in “funny games”.
    October 12, 2010, 11:11 am

    sebastian says I liked this movie a lot ! I though it had a different approach then conventional horror movies. The ending left me quiet moved in a mistical sense. No surprised hollywood asked the director to do the ‘Hellraiser’ Remake (Though I think he turned it down ) Oh and hear this , Hollywood wants to make a remake of Martyrs !!!!!!!!!!! argghhghg let’s see how they butcher this one !
    October 16, 2010, 3:25 pm

  2. I’ve been a bit disappointed by this recent stream of ‘Nouveau-shock’ movies from the French. I’m referring to Haute Tension and Frontiers in particular. They’re well crafted and nasty, but don’t build much on the narratives of horror films that have been around for years. Haute Tension even has a twist that could have been an idea by Charlie’s brother in Adaptation. I found Martyrs superior as the weird metaphysical turn it took was – like – pleasantly surprising. You spend 20 minutes watching this poor girl getting tortured and wondering why. Why I am I watching this and how does it serve the story? You know, it kinda does in the end. We should be there to witness her suffering and it’s not cool and it’s not titillating (unless, perhaps, you’re BTK or some creep like that). And I found the very ending both shocking and moving. I also love the ‘apparent’ psychosis of the girl who ‘confronts’ the family at the beginning. We are convinced that she is nuts and has gone looking for arbitrary targets. Heh. Also, that scene with above-pictured ‘female gimp’ is ****ING freaky and disturbing and worth a look if you enjoy a challenge to your stomach contents. BTW, the 2 girls in it are very good. It’s not perfect but it’s a really good film; recommended to horror afficionados.

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