Written and Directed by: Pascal Laugier
Starring: Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Could you imagine what there is after death?
In recent years, it would seem that France is the go-to place for horror that's both brutal and insightful. Films like High Tension, Inside, Them, and Frontier(s) all garnered significant buzz among horror fans. Filling the void this year is Martyrs, a film that garnered even more attention when writer/director Pascal Laugier became attached to the upcoming Hellraiser redux. The film was first screened at Cannes last year, and it's been brought to North America by the purveyors of all things related to French horror, The Weinstein Company. It was about this time last year that the aforementioned Inside was given a rave review by my colleague, Wes R. Will history repeat itself this year with Martyrs?
The film begins with some documentary footage from the early 70s that details the abuse suffered by Lucie, a girl who was missing for a year before miraculously escaping her tormentors. As a young girl, she is understandably reticent about recounting the abuse, which entailed being bound to a chair, leaving Lucie unable to leave the freezing room where she was kept. While her body showed no signs of sexual abuse, it was clear that she was psychologically and physically tormented by being beaten, deprived of food, and other basic sanitary needs. After escaping, Lucie is placed in an orphanage where she befriends Anna, who becomes Lucie's only confidante. Soon, the two girls begin to harbor the awful secret that Lucie is still tormented by a mysterious creature that leaves her battered and bruised. The film then skips ahead fifteen years to find Lucie hell-bent on exacting justice against those who tormented her as a child; however, it will be Anna who will unwittingly uncover the depraved truth behind their childhood.
Narratively speaking, Martyrs is an unusual film in that it takes quite a few twists and turns, and the film ultimately feels far removed from its starting point. While this might sound like the film is a bit meandering and disjointed, it really isn't--it feels cohesive enough as a whole, but I can see it being off-putting if you don't your films taking a hard left turn about midway through. Therefore, be prepared for a film with two distinct halves that ultimately come together to form a very interesting, thought-provoking experience. Though Martyrs has become somewhat notorious for its gore, its questions and ambiguous answers are ultimately more haunting.
In a sense, Martyrs is somewhat similar to the original Hostel in that it's unfairly been branded with the "Torture Porn" stigma; however, there is a decided method to the madness here as Laugier explores the more depraved corners of the human mind. Once they're finally revealed, the villains and their motivation are extremely intriguing, unique, and downright chilling at times. That said, there are some extremely violent sequences in the tradition of the raw, brutal violence of the aforementioned French films. One sequence involving a family was especially chilling in its bluntness.
With a film that's ostensibly focused on two leads (Lucie and Anna), it goes without saying that the actresses' performances are key for the film's effectiveness. Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï are respectively charged with the difficult task of portraying Anna and Lucie, and the two deliver. One truly has the sense that these two characters are completely dependent upon each other and have been so for fifteen years. It's ultimately Alaoui who steals the show as Anna, the character who becomes the sympathetic center of the film. Believe me when I say the film's entire effectiveness is contingent on the audience's sympathy for Anna, and Alaoui delivers.
The film is held together by Laugier's focused direction and the film's photography. To be such a violent film, Martyrs really looks beautiful, as the entire film seems to have a layer of sheen and polish that works for the film. The first half the film is especially directed well, as Laugier blends the horrific visions of Lucie's past with the present to allow us to understand her shattered psyche. For the most part, the film is paced well, save for one lengthy stretch that involves a girl being subjected to various types of torture. While Laugier may have wanted to drive home the relentless nature of her tormentors, this sequence ultimately drags a bit too long, and I was actually worried that the film had actually degenerated into simple torture porn. However, the last ten minutes save the film from that fate by delivering one of the more ambiguous, thought-provoking endings in recent memory.
Like Inside before it, Martyrs is another solid French horror hit. Not surprisingly, an American remake is in the works, and it'll be interesting to see how the film's final few moments are handled there. Likewise, it will be extremely interesting to see where Laugier takes Hellraiser, as it would seem that Martyrs shares both visual and thematic similarities with Barker's opus. If you're going to check out Martyrs (and you should), The Weinstein Company has delivered an excellent presentation. The film's transfer is as slick as you'd expect, and the 5.1 surround track is atmospheric and dynamic. The main special feature is an hour long documentary on the making of the film, and the disc also contains two trailers for the film. Beware, however, as there apparently is an rated version out there, so make sure you snag the right disc. This an excellent film that has some frightening and nihilistic things to say, and it's one that should find its way into your collection soon. Buy it!
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