Directed by Pascal Laugier 99 minutes / Weinstein Co. DVD / Anamorphic 1.85:1 Widescreen
(spoilers start at paragraph beginning with "Martyrs")
A badly wounded girl is seen frantically running from an abandoned warehouse. Fifteen years later, shotgun blasts sound in a family's home on a Sunday morning.
This is roughly the synopsis I read long ago somewhere online. That short and sweet. I was intrigued, but baffled by production stills featuring a scarred and horribly malnourished woman with a steel contraption over her eyes. Figuring it would arrive on an English-friendly DVD (or Blu-ray), I quickly forgot about the film until this American DVD was announced. I've finally seen it and this little review will delve into spoiler territory. It would be nearly impossible to dig into this piece of work without doing so.
Martyrs is a challenge, both to moviegoers and the horror genre itself. There is no clear sense of morality to be found in any of the characters--even the roles of the leading actresses. Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) is the spurn victim who escaped her captors all those years ago. Inner demons haunt the young woman and push her to commit horrid acts even on the innocent. With the character, the traditional perception of the puritanical, innocent victim is jumbled with dramatic and dangerous trauma. Her lifelong friend, Anna (Morjana Alaoui), will walk to the bloodsoaked ends of the Earth for Lucie, but a nagging sense of mercy still lingers with her. Even the abductors aren't quite painted in an entirely negative light, being presented so mundanely yet faceless that it's chillingly easy to view anyone being secretly as cruel. Everyone trades in varying degrees of treachery against their fellow man and the film seems to spit in the face of arriving at an identifiable protagonist to get behind.
This film strives to not only surpass shock expectations, but also boldly breaks with storytelling convention. The arcs of Lucie and Anna are mesmerizing in that they oppose each. We initially met Lucie at her most downtrodden and see her exit after realizing effectively her life's goal. Anna is at her strongest at our introduction and is grounded down to a shell by the conclusion. There's no release from the bleakness here and the film confronts the viewer directly with a heady dose in the destruction of its leads. As a little touch I loved how Anna is never in the frame when Lucie is directly interacting with her terrifying trauma-induced construct.
The theme of torture is used not just for the spectacle of timed "traps" or to childishly infer Northwestern Europe is a fucked up place. As the title of the film alludes to, torture is employed as a means to an end, not as justice, revenge, or for some sicko to get his jollies. In a world filled with an an ever-growing sense of differing, almost occult influenced faith, the thought of a group comprised of the elite attempting to utilize martyrdom as a way of peaking into the after life seems frightening plausible.
The shift in tone in the latter half featuring a captive Anna is jarring. The intimacy of her enslavement and the crushing routine made of such inhumanity is absolutely painful to watch. The process feels like it'll never end, but when it does, there's a perverse catharsis that settles within the viewer. This is where most of the outrage from critics most likely stems. The wanton violence on display is one thing, but forcing audiences to blankly walk into this utterly unsettling feeling is a potential powder keg.
Time will tell whether this film has the longevity to be deemed a "masterpiece", but to the credit of everyone involved this is an outstanding example of Horror. It's an advanced seminar of the boundless nature of the genre. Refreshing to those long frustrated by cookie-cutter and a lesson to filmmakers hopefully adopted worldwide. It stomps on a raw nerve with cold precision and will stay with you long after memories of Jigsaw and Eli Roth fade. See it as soon as you can and director Laugier--be damn proud of this accomplishment no matter what anyone says.
Film: 9.5/10 DVD Picture: 8/10 (quite good, but this screams for Blu-ray resolution) DVD Sound: 8.5/10 (French Dolby 5.1 w/ white subtitles)