Amongst we horror fans, there are those select films that stand out above the typical rank-and-file. In this case, I’m not talking about the accepted classics like the original Universal horror flicks or Hammer films, or even staples of most “must-see” lists like The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Halloween — I’m talking instead about those films that dwell in that gray area of our collective psyche, films that challenge us on levels beyond the visceral, largely polarizing we Fellow Fans into groups that either love them…or loathe them. Examples of this would be movies like Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, Human Centipede, A Serbian Film, or the original I Spit On Your Grave. I’m not making the argument for or against whether or not any of these are great films or horrible ones (in this vein of horror, subjectivity is at it’s most prominent), simply that they have the aforementioned effects on most audiences.
French filmmakers have made several such films in the last decade and a half — films like Irreversible, Haute Tension, Inside, Trouble Every Day, Livid, and several others crashed into the genre like a brick through a plate-glass window, forcing horror fans everywhere to take notice; brutality and way-the-hell-out-of-your-comfort-zone situations are the soup d’jour. As an audience, our endurance was tested not only with how much bloody, gory violence we could stomach (as we could get with a lot of lesser-quality horror films), but also with deep subtexts of emotion, sexuality, and even spirituality that crawled into our heads and wouldn’t go away.
One such French film from Pascal Laugier that stands out even amongst this distinguished list is the 2008 film, Martyrs.
We begin seeing young Lucie, frantic and bloodied, escaping from some dank, industrial-looking building. From a police video that soon follows, we learn that said building is now empty — clean. Perhaps the girl, in her youth and state of mind, pointed out the wrong building? Cut to the little girl now in a Catholic orphanage, another child, Anna, trying to befriend her. Lucie is very withdrawn, still troubled by her experiences, suffering severe night terrors and horrible visions, but the persistent Anna is still able to punch through the horror and becomes the sole confidant of the angst-ridden Lucie — but despite the bond that grows between them, Anna still isn’t sure how much of Lucie’s demons are real, or just imagined. As the pair grow up together, Lucie determines to find those that had tormented her so horribly, and when she does — nothing will ever be the same.
OK, so I didn’t give you good people a hell of a lot with that description, and that’s just how I want it; this is one flick that you really, really need to go into cold, knowing as little as possible. This is because, unlike so many horror films that rely on exploitation, putting we the audience in the role of voyeuristic spectator, Martyrs is done is such a way as to draw us into the experience — we’re taking the ride with these characters, for good or for ill. Masterfully taking horror film tropes and twisting them around to kick us with them, Laugier’s film pulls us in, toys with our sympathies, then mis-directs then redirects them. It assaults our senses with brutal, merciless abandon, then has the audacity to reveal carefully buried subtexts dealing with significant philosophical issues. These are unearthed in a carefully-paced, organic fashion, so that through our flash-blinded psyches we hardly realize that we’re being tested all along, our ideals and understandings challenged by the underlying theme. This is beautifully shot, even the violence and bloodshed handled in such a way as to be a kind of art — Laugier’s framing, lighting, and visual narrative being both wide-reaching yet somehow claustrophobically concise. The two lead actresses playing the older girls, Mylène Jampanoï (Lucie) and Morjana Alaoui (Anna) are impeccable in their portrayals, showing individuals pressed to the very edge of sanity and at times beyond, yet they never become caricatures. The effects are brutal and horrific — for all my jaded sensibilities, there are actually scenes that I found hard to look at — but there again, I attribute that to the investment I had in the film due to it’s incredible story and outstanding performances that made me believe.
This is not, despite what some feel, merely a torture-porn gore fest — it is, in many respects — but it’s so much more. Now I understand, there’s the audience out there that will not like this film; maybe they don’t “get it”, maybe the subtext is unwelcome, or maybe they just simply don’t care for it. As always, in any of these cases, I say more power to them — we can’t all like the same things.
As for me, however, I find Martyrs to be one hell of a horror film, and I mean that in the best possible way — the great story, direction, and acting causes the visceral reactions to the violence to be ever so much more personal, and the questions it raises over a great many issues in my mind make it one of those rare flicks that I find I can debate and discuss for years.
See it for yourself…there’s one particular question that’s raised at the end that I’d love to hear your spin on.
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