Film review: Martyrs

April 12, 2009 by
Filed under: Film reviews 

martyrs_box_art_2d1This is the film that has caused a media-frenzy over the last few months. It was virtually banned in France, as the powers that be slapped an 18+ classification on it – although an appeal saw that reduced to a 16. Last year’s August Frighfest gave it a UK premiere, (which is where I saw it and originally reviewed it for Quiet Earth), and it’s about to receive a straight-to-DVD release in the US, having been picked up by the Weinstein company.

In the 1970s Lucie was abducted and held captive for a year in an abandoned slaughterhouse. The doctors could find no evidence of sexual abuse, suggesting something other than the instant gratification usually associated with abduction cases. After her escape Lucie lives in a care home, where she meets Anna, herself a victim of abuse, who becomes her best friend and confidant. But Lucie is haunted by guilt that violently manifests as the emaciated woman whom she left behind in order to save herself.

Fifteen years later, and Lucie has managed to trace those she believes abducted her. Alone, she visits the couple, who now have a family, and exacts graphic, unmerciful shotgun revenge. Anna arrives to help Lucie hide the bodies, harbouring doubts that these are the people who abused her best friend, but beneath the house she discovers a series of hi-tech rooms and whitewashed corridors, adorned with back-lit images of women, young and old, dying in various different circumstances.

Who do you go to build something like that? This set-up is a pretty specific piece of subterranean engineering with an obviously unwholesome intent. It soon becomes clear that the people Lucie has murdered were part of a larger circle; a secret society who have enough money to guarantee silence, and it’s in these pristine purpose-built surroundings that Martyrs sets off on a grim journey through extremely dark places to eventual enlightenment, as Anna becomes their next victim.

Martyrs will most likely be compared to the Hostel films, and those other French fancies: Switchblade Romance, Frontiers and Inside, but for all the wrong reasons. Yes, there’s a secret society that abducts, tortures and ultimately murders innocents, but the elderly patrons of this particular group have very specific reasons for targeting women only; and it’s via this shared and secret obsession that Martyrs transforms into a brutal quest for knowledge that, in the view of this particular sect, or cult, can only be gained through disciplined abuse and torture. The inference is that there is a close network of members and locations dotted throughout France, each with their own subjects, each subject being forced to go through the same unspeakable regime, towards the same end.

Martyrs delivers true hopelessness as Anna is subjected to an unrelenting programme of suffering. This fifteen minute sequence is astonishing and painful to watch. I just wanted it to end, and quickly, but for Anna, it lasts months and only leads to other levels of preparation for what she must face. This sequence is not meant to be enjoyed, on any level.

The sect’s quasi-religious thirst for the unknowable ultimately saves Martyrs from falling victim to its own gory excesses, which in the first two-thirds of the film are considerable, and on a par with the bloody events seen in the aforementioned films. But Martyrs isn’t a torture-porn film in the Hostel sense of the term, far from it. Those films, and Hostel especially, are about killing for the sake of killing. Martyrs has a reason for every piece of its protagonists’ pain.

You may love it or absolutely hate it; and almost without exception, Martyrs has divided the opinions of critics and genre fans. It’s not a film that you can or should enjoy on certain levels, but it is there to be experienced. Immediately upon leaving the cinema I sat not knowing what to write as I couldn’t get the taste of that prolonged scene out of my mouth, out of my head, it affected me that much, and I had to delay writing the review for a couple of days in order to gain a considered, rather than reactionary, perspective.

So, several months after viewing the film my opinion has not changed, but other scenes have come to the fore as I’ve thought about it: the violent haunting of Lucie brings to mind the desperate struggles for survival in The Descent, but played out in her irretrievably damaged mind; the unquestioning, uncompromising and ultimately brutal friendship that Anna and Lucie share is at once touching and bewildering; the oft-criticised raison d’etre behind the cult can make or break the film for the viewer; it made it for me.

And now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m ready to watch it again, this time as a fan of horror cinema, this time for a purely horrific, white-knuckled experience.

Pascal Laugier should be commended for giving us a film that is well-written, stylish and technically brilliant, thought-provoking and stomach-churning. Martyrs will become a genre classic, but as with The Last House on the Left,  it’ll be a long, hard and unforgiving road to transcendence.

Laugier’s now at the helm of the remake/re-imagining of Hellraiser, and, well, that seems like a good fit indeed.

Martyrs, 2008

Director: Pascal Laugier; Writer: Pascal Laugier


5 Comments on Film review: Martyrs

  1. themadblonde on Wed, 29th Apr 2009 5:19 pm
  2. Never seen it, WOULD never see it, but… doesn’t giving the torture a purpose attempt to justify SHOWING it? That’s the excuse Hollywood has given for years for showing violence, particularly toward women. “No, really, we’re not trying to titilate with this. It’s just illustrating how much danger she’s in.” Uh-huh.

    I will try to remember to check back in case you have a response, but I honestly have the memory of a seive these days.

  3. Mathew F. Riley on Wed, 29th Apr 2009 5:38 pm
  4. Yes, in a way such an approach does attempt to justify why stories like ‘Martyrs’ are told, and films like this made, and it’s how they get away with making them I suppose. For me, it’s not a movie that I’d enjoy on that level – or any movie come to that – I didn’t get the impression they were trying to titillate the viewer if I’m honest – however unfortunately I expect there are people out there who will probably enjoy it for absolutely the wrong reasons.

    There are definite horror elements to ‘Martyrs’ that are just downright terrifying – the haunting of one of the main characters for example – albeit an extremely violent and physical haunting – and very similar to the action in ‘The Descent’ (if you’ve seen that film), but these elements are less controversial because they’re two-sided, rather than the torture depicted in ‘Martyrs’.


  5. themadblonde on Wed, 6th May 2009 7:18 pm
  6. Hey, I remembered to come back. Eventually. 😉

    I did see part of “Descent.” Things, particularly images, tend to stick in my brain in extremely unhealthy ways, so I’m a bit of a coward & beg my husband “vet” a lot of films for me. He told me that I was NOT to watch the entire movie, but did show me a few scenes from it. Even from what I saw, & certainly from what he saw, we agreed that it was definitely of the “salivating” school. I can see something being more controversial, but if it’s more deliberate in its violence than that, I have no use for it.

  7. Fear - Issue 2 : {THE GREAT WHITE SPACE} on Mon, 1st Jun 2009 6:05 am
  8. […] I do hold out great hopes for the Hellraiser remake, seeing as it’s gone to the director of Martyrs, Pascal Laugier). But it’s nice to be able to comment upon them knowing what’s gone […]

    […] I do hold out great hopes for the Hellraiser remake, seeing as it’s gone to the director of Martyrs, Pascal Laugier). But it’s nice to be able to comment upon them knowing what’s gone […]

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