Since its premiere in the Marche du Film at the Cannes Film
Festival last May, Martyrs has been throwing genre fans into a frenzy. As of this moment, the film is touring the
festival circuit which is probably the only way to watch the film before the
censors butcher it. It’s been reported
that the Weinstein Co. has purchased the North American distribution rights, so
it will probably go straight to DVD, a la last year’s Inside. While it’s a shame that not every genre fan
will get to see it in theatres, it would have been even more of a crime for it
to be censored beyond recognition; for it would be heartbreaking to see Martyrs
in anything but its original form.
Simply put, Martyrs is a film I never want to see
again. But not because it’s a bad film
(on the contrary). Furthermore, I
wouldn’t say I enjoyed the film; “enjoy” being the wrong word to describe the
cinematic punch to the stomach that the film packs. Writer/director Pascal Laugier is a madman,
there’s no other way to describe it.
He’d have to be in order to come up with an idea such as this one. Child abuse, brutal torture, creatures
shrieking and crawling along the floor wielding blades, a woman wearing a
metallic face plate stapled to her scalp… this is all disturbing stuff,
executed with panache. But Martyrs
does something different. Something that
makes it stand out compared to all the rest.
With that in mind, it’s one of the best horror film I’ve seen, on par
with The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby; but one so powerful and emotionally
draining that the viewer can only take one viewing.
It’s easy for a filmmaker to gross out the audience with
gore. It’s something else entirely to
create an emotional connection between the audience and the main character; in
this case, I am talking about Anna, the potential martyr of the tale. In order to discuss Anna’s character, I have
to talk about the structure of the story.
Like Psycho did years ago, Martyrs focuses on one character, before shifting
focus halfway through and focusing on someone else entirely. It opens with a little girl named Lucie
escaping from an abandoned warehouse.
Through a montage we discover that she was tortured, but nothing more is
said due to her being so traumatized by the experience. She grows up in a home for abused children and
quickly becomes friends with Anna, a girl with her own share of scarring
experiences. Soon the two become
inseparable. Unbeknownst to anyone,
however, Lucie is being stalked by a creature in the night. Something that cries, snarls, and is covered
in bruises and sores. Its eyes reveal
pain and suffering. Endless, excruciating suffering.
Cut to fifteen years later. A normal looking family is eating breakfast in
their extravagant home. There’s a knock
at the door. The father answers and is
blown to pieces by a shotgun blast to the chest. Lucie, older but still suffering from copious
amounts of emotional pain, proceeds to slaughter the family. She has found the man and woman who kidnapped
her years ago and tortured her. Now she
wants revenge. But are they really who
she accused them of being?
Without going into too much detail, from that point on,
Lucie’s story gradually becomes Anna’s story.
The change in narrative is done in such a way that it increases the
emotional impact of the characters, as well as our connection to them and their
plight. And to be honest, the change
felt so fluid that I didn’t even notice until the end credits began to role.
Martyrs strives to be more than just another genre film
and, surprisingly, it achieves most of its aspirations. It combines a number of different storytelling
methods that leads to a shatteringly emotional and daring climax. The film frighteningly paints a disturbing
picture about what it would feel like to live a life full of trauma and
self-inflicted pain (both physical and emotional).
Therein lies the secret to what makes Martyrs such a memorable picture. The filmmakers are more interested in focusing on the emotional pain as opposed the physical. For in the end, our perceptions and our
imaginations can make or break us; while we can become prisoners in our own
mind, we can also break free.
While Martyrs is far from an “entertaining” film, it is
one that makes the audience think. Easily
the most polarizing film to come out of the horror genre in a long time (and
one that lives up to and even exceeds the hype), to get such a reaction from
the audience can only mean that the director did something right.
7 out of 10