Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Of the handful of new wave French shockers to hit screens in the past few years (High Tension, Inside), few have arrived with as much advance buzz as the brutal bloodbath that is Martyrs. Most of this buzz speaks to the sheer savagery on display consisting of unrelenting assaults on both the flesh and the spirit of the characters onscreen, but much of the talk is reserved for proclaiming the film as a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of experience with no middle ground possible. While I agree with the assessment as to Martyrs‘ incredibly visceral intensity, I have to disagree with the idea that the viewer’s only responses to the film can be awe or utter revulsion. Some viewers may experience a mix of the two… I unapologetically love the first hour of the film, but I’m disappointed and bored by the final third.
Martyrs begins with a bloodied and bruised young girl running for her life. She’s crying and limping and we know absolutely nothing about who or what she’s running from, but the terrified expression on her young face hints at unimaginable horrors. Old news footage reveals that while Lucie suffered no sexual abuse at the hands of her captors, little is known as to what did actually happen to her. Soon Lucie is shown living in an orphanage where she’s befriended by another (more traditionally) abused girl named Anna. The doctors see Lucie as withdrawn and emotionally shut off, but what they don’t see is the emaciated, scarred, naked woman who stalks the terrified girl at night… Cut to fifteen years later and we’re introduced to a family of four at breakfast time. Dad, mom, and two young teens sit around the kitchen eating, joking, and talking until there’s a knock on the door. The father opens it and is greeted with a shotgun blast to the gut. Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) strides into the house, kills the mother, and pauses only briefly before blowing large holes into both of the children. She calls Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and tells her that she’s found the people responsible for the crimes committed against her as a child and that she’s taken care of them. Anna rushes over to help her sad and highly unstable friend, but not before Lucie’s visited again by the grotesque and twisted woman from her youth. And this time she’s wielding a straight razor…
That covers pretty much the first fifteen minutes of Martyrs and it marks the end of any plot details I’ll be discussing here. It deserves to be experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible. Bring on the accusations of hyperbole now, but Martyrs is a relentless barrage of blood-lust, grue, and intensity. A bloody guignol filled with characters and events that shock and surprise, a non-stop nightmare of terrifyingly vicious assaults and painful acts of survival, a cinematic revolution in horror… okay, that last one was intentionally exaggerated and over the top. But I stand behind the rest. The gore on display should more than satisfy fans of the crimson money shots, and the woman who haunts Lucie is all kinds of creepy. Think Zelda from Pet Sematary only naked, homicidal, and covered in fresh scars, and you’ll have some idea of how scary this lady is. It’s an amazing sixty minutes and it makes me incredibly excited and tingly to see what writer/director Pascal Laugier can do with the planned Hellraiser reboot.
But right about at that hour mark, five minutes after a drastic change in narrative and characters, the movie grinds to a halt. A few words are spoken by a new character and instantly the film’s ending becomes fairly obvious and predictable. (I don’t claim to have foreseen the precise details or final revelations behind it all, but I knew exactly what to expect from the denouement. And that sucks.) After the runaway hell-bound train that is Martyrs‘ first hour the shift in pace is jarring and at times downright boring. That in itself is an accomplishment as part of this stretch involves fifteen minutes of bleakness that you’ll keep hoping and thinking is about to end only to see it go on and on ad nauseum. Martyrs will draw unavoidable comparisons to so-called “torture porn” like Hostel, Saw, and The Girl Next Door, and this fifteen-minute session of abuse and beatings will be exhibit A. I’m no fan of those films, but I’m also not a hater (at least not for this reason). They’re the horror genre equivalent of Meet the Spartans and they have an audience, but Martyrs shares nothing but violent and painful deaths with those films, and even if it flies and falls like a blood-soaked Icarus it stands alone for the very fact that it tried something new. There’s a purpose to the scenes, a method to the madness, even if the effectiveness and success of it all is arguable.<
FearNet’s Scott Weinberg famously declared that Martyrs “makes Saw look like Sesame Street!” While that comment seems crafted mostly for use as a DVD cover blurb it does retain some truth. Characters in the Saw films are nothing more than puppets controlled by Jigsaw’s hand up their asses. They also have about as much depth and soul as Sesame Street’s felt creations do. Martyrs is a completely different beast. Lucie and Anna are given minimum histories, but the brave, strong, and at times heart-breaking performances by Jampanoi and Alaoui turn these characters into people you will cheer, hope, and fear for.
Martyrs can be a difficult experience due to the stress and duress these characters undergo as well as the film’s visuals, themes, and brutality. It’s a challenging film on several levels, some good, some less so, but whichever side of the discussion you land on you will be talking about it. And when’s the last time a horror movie managed that? The film and the ending in particular have moved some viewers to anger, some to tears, and some to cries of “bullshit!” but the point remains… it moved them. Suffering, survival, extremism, survivor’s guilt, faith… welcome to Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. Check out the trailer below.
Bottom Line: With an incredible bloody and unrelenting first hour that alone is worth watching, followed by a final third that aims too high and for too much before crashing to the ground, Martyrs is still a must see for fans of intense horror. Even though the ending will probably be a severe let down, it deserves credit for attempting something new and somewhat original. Laugier shows he has what it takes to reboot Hellraiser with buckets of style (and at least a pinch of substance). The acting and endurance on display by the two leads is at times amazing and commendable. And it doesn’t hurt that at least one of those leads is disturbingly sexy.