Martyrs has me conflicted. I actually thought it was good, but I can’t really recommend it without a caveat or even watch it ever again. Most times it’s easy to distance yourself emotionally from a movie; however some films grab you and shake. I felt that way the first time I saw Taxi Driver, The Shining, and Requiem for a Dream, among other films. This movie had the same effect on me. When it ended I didn’t want to talk to anyone for awhile. I needed some time to try to wipe off the lingering feeling. The second it ended I took it out of the DVD player and had to step outside. I know a lot of people might disagree with me on this movie, but it’s what I felt while watching it. I need to say that I don’t want to reach into the realm of hyperbole, because I don’t think this is the scariest movie or the best horror movie or anything like that. It’s not even close to the sickest thing I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot worse gore in many other movies. I wouldn’t even rank it anywhere in my top favorite horror movies list. But it is a movie that feels dangerous, a movie where you aren’t sure if the director knows what he’s created and if he does know; how far is he willing to take it?
This movie is horrific, depressing, and bleak. You won’t find any moments of comedy to break the tension. There’s barely any moments of calm. This is a serious film and the movie starts off dark and only finds its way back into the light during the last 3 minutes. I don’t know what happened in France over the past couple of years, but between freedom fries and cheese eating surrender monkeys, I think the French got pissed. I did find out unfortunately that this movie is already in the works to be remade in the US. Why is it that all the good horror movies we grew up on are getting remade into crappy carbon copies, and now the new ones are getting remade just because people can’t just read subtitles? I was devastated when I read that ‘Let the Right One In’ was being remade. If people can’t be persuaded to go beyond their comfort zone, or god forbid, language barriers then they don’t deserve to see masterpieces like Oldboy or Pans Labyrinth. But I digress.
Martyrs is written and directed by Pascal Laugier, who is slated to direct the Hellraiser remake. After seeing this movie I can understand why they chose him to helm that film. The violence in this movie is never meant to titillate or look cool. It’s brutal and realistic. Laugier’s directing choices in this film, especially in the last half of the movie, are brilliant. Even when things are out of control, he has a firm grasp on the picture. His knowledge of when to show something and when to suggest is superb. Also, his choice to make two completely different films within one is a bold decision that pays off better and more true to the story in this than Nightmare on Ursa Minor Street or as its officially know, Sunshine (which I think is 2/3rd’s of a great great movie).
The opening shot of the movie is of a young girl running out of a dark building into the street. She’s disheveled and barefoot. And as she runs she just starts to scream. We learn from a police file that the girl, Lucie, was kept in a building for years, chained to a chair and kept in the dark. The people at the orphanage notice that a little girl named Anna has befriended Lucie and they use her to try to find out what exactly happened in those years she was held captive and who took her in the first place. One night we hear Lucie screaming and Anna runs in to find her badly cut up. We don’t see at first what hurts her, but when she suffers another attack, we see this gnarled creature sitting at the end of Lucie’s bed. The movie then jumps ahead about 10-15 years later. We see a well-to-do family at breakfast. The mother chastises the older son for not knowing what he wants to do with his life, but they praise the younger daughter. They banter back and forth like a normal family until the doorbell rings. The father is immediately shot when he answers the door by Lucie. She then, one by one guns down the entire family. Lucie calls Anna and tells her that these were the people that had put kidnapped her as a child, so Anna races over to help clean up the aftermath. Anna starts to question Lucie’s motives. We see Anna taking in the reality of the situation an outside observer. She has always taken Lucie’s side and wanted her to get some kind of retribution for what was done to her, but when she sees what that means, she is almost unable to handle it. Something feels off and you wonder if Lucie is living a false memory of these people as she only recognized them from a newspaper clipping. Anna has always been a protector of Lucie and now she realizes that she is an accomplice. She sees the woman that she spent her life trying to help only to come to the conclusion that her problems are much deeper than she is able to handle. The monster comes back in a horrifying scene in a locked bathroom. The monster looks like a gnarled woman, covered in wounds whose movements look like limbs breaking, and unlike most creatures this one is actually terrifying. It keeps coming back to attack Lucie even though, she thought that by killing the family it would quiet this demon. It turns out that the mother is still alive and Anna tries to help her, thus relieving some of her guilt by association and again assuming the position of protector. Lucie finds this out and kills the mother with a hammer. Lucie relives the story of what happened to her. When find that during that time her captors would come to her, force her to eat some horrible substance, beat her, among other things. She was able to escape but before she left the building heard screams from another room. When she went we find out that the monster was a woman also held captive, but Lucie was too scared to save her. The monster was nothing but a manifestation of her own guilt and her wounds were self inflicted. In a lesser movie I could see this being a cheap device, however I think it’s plausible that someone who would suffer the trauma of an experience such as that, could conjure up a monster. If we can believe shadows in the darkness to be creatures waiting to devour us, than someone under complete duress could suffer the delusion of something just as real. Again, this is only in the first half of the movie.
Going into the second half, I feel it’s my duty to warn you that I’m going to talk about the ending of this movie. If you don’t want to know and go into it blind I completely understand if you stop reading this now, but I just wanted to give you a heads up as to what lies in store.
The second half of this movie is going to split people, of that I have no doubt. To tell you the truth I totally understand why some people hated it. There is nothing easy about this part of the movie. I think most people weren’t prepared for where this movie goes. Before Anna leaves the house, she hears something clatter and fall through a little hole in the wall. When she looks around she finds a door. It leads down underground first into a room with pictures of people, eyes wide staring up to the heavens, while their bodies are ravaged. There is something horrible in the look on these faces, not of pain but of something much deeper, something that we can’t understand or sympathize with. Anna finds a door leading farther down which she is able to climb down into a room, not much different from the one Lucie was in as a child. We see a chain on the floor leading into the shadows, and what comes out is an emaciated woman, with a metal contraption screwed into her face. Anna’s protective and mothering nature comes out for this woman as it did with Lucie and she tries to take care of her and help her. But it is of no use. Whatever happened to the woman in that room has stripped her of all but the basic functions. The woman starts throwing herself into the wall until all of the sudden she is shot in the head by a group of people that come into the house. They take Anna down below and handcuff her to a chair. An older woman is brought into the room and explains to Anna what is going on.
There are a group of people who are trying desperately to find out if there is an afterlife and they have found when people are pushed to the brink, some are able to see beyond in moments of clarity. So they decided to recreate this with people to find out if there is an existence beyond this life and if so what it is. I think it’s an interesting plot twist. It goes against convention and actually adds a completely new subtext to the film. The next 20 minutes or so of the movie are filled with some very difficult images and this is where I have to add the caveat for the film.
I need to speak here for a minute about torture porn. I absolutely despise it. I think it’s a deplorable technique to use to get scares. What I find even more sickening is when it’s used to as a gimmick. I hate Hostel for the reason that it’s so sensationalized in the Grand Guignol way. People in weird masks going into theme rooms and adding sensuality to the mix. However, I think the Saw movies are much worse. Torture is a Rube Goldberg machine to these filmmakers. As bad as the first one was, it was at least original and tried to have a plot, but now it’s just an excuse to find the most horrible ways to kill people for entertainment. There is no gravity to these kills, you feel absolutely nothing for the characters who have this inflicted upon them, and to justify finding beauty in life by having to dig your eye out with a scalpel proves nothing more than a sick tactic to find appreciation. And now it’s become a tradition that every October people line up in droves to see the latest batch of grotesque devices. That being said, Martyrs features some of the harshest torture I have seen in a film, but this movie is not torture porn. There are no grand contraptions in order to dismember. There is nothing cool or entertaining or sensual about what happens to Anna, and it’s meant to be that way. The way these scenes play out are made to affect you and you don’t want to see anything happen to this girl. The actress who plays Anna plays this role so realistically it’s hard to watch. She is a woman with subtle beauty and to watch her deconstruction only serves to hurt you more. She is force-fed to sustain her but she can’t keep it down at first. Someone will come into the room, unlock her and hit her and then stroke her hair lovingly, hit her again, and chain her back up. Someone comes in and cuts her long hair to a short tangled mess. The movie never lets on if this goes on for weeks or months but you can see the toll it takes on her body and mind. Eventually Anna just lets herself go. She no longer struggles or even appears to feel pain as she gets beaten. She takes the food and beatings without resistance. By the end of this segment, she has a shaved head and her face is so swollen and bruised you can hardly believe it’s the same woman. This torture is less about pain and more about dehumanization. You can see the break of her personality. We as humans like to think we are in control, but in a situation like a hospitalization when you only rely on others you go through an ego death, and this shows the extreme of that scenario. Anna sacrifices herself figuratively as she had done throughout the whole movie for others, and now she does it for herself.
After Anna gives up, she is told by one of her captors that it will be alright and that she only has one stage to go and it will all be over. She is wheeled into a room and strapped to a table, while a man stands over her with surgical shears. We don’t see what happens, but only the aftermath. She is covered with a sheet and wheeled into a room and locked to a stand. They remove the sheet and stand her up and we see that all the skin on her body except for her face has been removed. It is a shocking image, and something that is not easy to push from your mind. We look into her eyes and she takes on the haunting look from the earlier pictures. The camera switches to her perspective and we see a vision which looks like a tunnel of swirling clouds with an ethereal glow. It looks like a Gustave Dore painting from illustrations from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The old woman is brought back in to speak to her, to hear the testimony of a martyr. We don’t hear what she says and that is a wise choice on Laugier’s part. The followers are all brought to the house to hear the news. The old woman waits in the bathroom while one of her followers speaks to her through the door. She asks him if he can picture Heaven. He says that he looks forward to her words but he can’t even imagine. The woman says “Keep doubting” and puts a gun in her mouth. The movie ends with a title telling us that Martyr is Greek for witness.
This ending is so ambiguous and must be left to many interpretations. Was the woman disillusioned by the message? What if Anna told her that there was nothing? What if knowing the answer took all reason out of life? I’m agnostic and I’m not sure what the afterlife is, if it’s anything at all. But we all at one point or another question what comes after death. Is it the golden city in the clouds or the colorful landscape where you can bring anything to life? If there is an afterlife or a heaven, I don’t think it will be like anything we can picture and if we truly knew what it was, how would we handle that information?
When the movie ended I felt sad and challenged by the film. It’s not something made just to show off, I truly believe it’s made to raise questions. It’s been almost a week since I’ve seen it and I’m still thinking about it. And that says something.
Like I said earlier in this review, I can’t really recommend it. Martyrs is psychological horror that reaches down to the places in us that we like to keep hidden in the dark. It tears open the wound of our preconceived notion that we have a handle on ourselves. It’s actually a movie that I find really hard to say I liked it, because I didn’t like it even if I thought it was good, it hurt to watch this and I don’t want to experience that feeling again soon. But what this movie is and why I’m giving it at least a chance is that it is an experience. It’s not a fun experience but it reaches for something much higher than most of the mainstream genre films reach for. If you rent this because of my review and hate it, I apologize and understand why you feel that way. However, if you are looking for something that is provoking and difficult, Martyrs is definitely that movie.