Martyrs

Martyrs is like one of those chandeliers made of human bones. It’s grizzly and horrifying yet strangely beautiful. It is also a film that engages the viewer because just when you think you have it pigeon-holed, it changes tack and leads you in a new direction.

Martyrs takes us on a journey that starts with a young girl (Lucie) escaping from a disused abattoir where she has clearly been the victim of prolonged torture. She leaves behind others in her bid to flee her personal hell. Eventually she is taken in at a children’s home where she befriends another girl there called Anna. Some time in the future, as young women, Anna attempts to help Lucie who has tracked down accomplices to her previous tormentors. From here Anna experiences the suffering of Lucies past, and uncovers a new nightmare of her own. The film builds to a conclusion that you won’t see coming and will leave you to speculate as to its meaning long after the film has finished.

On first viewing one never knows what is going to happen next, this in itself is unsettling and exciting – two key elements to any horror film; but Martyrs is hard to classify. It is not really a horror film, but is certainly horrific throughout and genuinely scary in parts. It is also an effective drama and a nerve shredding thriller. It mixes perfectly-executed intrigue with uncomfortable violence. The feelings we share for the protagonists plight, and the motivations that put her there, are quite unlike in any other genre movie. All this is done in a manner which makes the film a thing of beauty, it is exquisite yet brutal.

I have to admit, I did get confused with the movie at roughly the half way point – and, as often the best films do, it definitely benefits from repeat viewings. Perhaps something was lost in the language barrier, but equally the film is one of those treats in an age of Hollywood dumbing-down that does not spell out every last detail, some aspects of the film are not as literal as they first appear. There are certainly head-scratching moments, but none of this detracts from the overall power and accomplishment of this excellent piece of film making.

There is a current trend to use the awful phrase “torture porn”. This is often utilised by those who did not like or appreciate a particular film. I suspect that the intention of such a term is to be condescending without giving justification, but if it means gratuitous violence for the sheer enjoyment of it, please be assured that this term does not apply to Martyrs.

Martyrs does have many challenging scenes, as a film it is an assault on the nervous system and the mind – but it does not employ cheap tricks and buckets of gore. Where some films might show you hacked limbs, Martyrs makes you cringe at the dull thud of a punch to a defenceless face. We feel the resignation of someone forced to endure unrelenting attacks, knowing that there will be no mercy from their tormentors. Just at the point at which the film invokes the viewer to consider their motivation for watching the suffering on screen, it delivers with a payoff that was as unexpected as it was a rewarding cinematic experience.

I am fully aware that it is slightly pretentious to call a film “challenging” as I did previously, but the experience that Martyrs gives is indeed a challenge in every way. It forces us to endure vicariously with Anna’s suffering, it challenges individual beliefs and it forces us to think for ourselves about how the film ends. Pascal Laugier, the writer and director, could have wrapped everything up for us with a little bow but he would have been letting us down if he had done so. The ending of Martyrs is what elevates it to being one of my favourite ever films.

It is to be expected that some people not familiar with this style of film-making will find a movie such as Martyrs too much to cope with. It is human nature, therefore, to want to attack the very thing that has made them feel this way. If they can belittle it they do not have to confront what it has stirred inside them. It is for this reason some may wish to patronise Martyrs for having a depth beyond a “plot by numbers” approach. Why can’t a film such as this carry a message? Why can’t it provoke thoughts and conjecture in excess of the basic movie experience? Just because a film has offended or upset in the build up to its conclusion does not mean it is unable to leave valid questions in the mind of the audience, indeed it is more likely to have done so. Fans of extreme cinema will know that to appreciate the payoff, they must endure the ride to the end. Martyrs beats you up until it leaves you raw and receptive to its final scenes.

Martyrs is one of those films that if you allow yourself to enter the world the director has created, and let him tell you a story, you will be thinking about it for months and years to come. Those who cannot see past its cruelty, and the reasons for it, will unfortunately see only that. It is a gem of extreme film-making and I strongly urge you to experience it for yourself.

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7 Responses to “Martyrs”

  1. Why do you insist on belittleing people who do not enjoy this type of cinema? Not everyone wants to be confronted by newborn rape and torture etc. What is the message in this type of cinema anyway? That shit things happen, that human nature is depraved? That people either do, or dont survive life? OLD NEWS
    What message can these films offer to justify thier cruelty?

    • Thanks for visiting my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I’ll attempt to address your points:

      “Why do you insist on belittleing people who do not enjoy this type of cinema?”
      I wasn’t. If you were referring to the penultimate paragraph in my review of Martyrs, it was largely designed to address the views published elsewhere attacking the film for daring to attempt to have depth and meaning. Those people had their views, and I have mine. I’m sure we can all agree to differ.

      “Not everyone wants to be confronted by newborn rape and torture etc.”
      Indeed not, and as watching films or reading reviews are both voluntary activities, I’d recommend such people exercise caution. I would stress, however, that we are talking about fictional portrayals.

      Your comment suggests that you feel that people watching films such as the ones reviewed here find them “fun” in the way that one would a comedy, for example. That is not the case. Many people laud, quite rightly, films such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Zulu” as fine pieces of cinema. Both these films show the harrowing massacre of hundreds of people, in the case of the former quite graphically. Do people who like these films find this killing enjoyable? No, of course not – but it is part of the telling of a tale, they enjoy the film but do not endorse its violence or find it fun. It is the same with films such as Martyrs.

      Personally, I find the animated film “Watership Down” very upsetting to watch. Each to their own, I suppose.

      For clarity, as you have posted this comment in response to my Martyrs review and mentioned “newborn rape”. I would like to make it clear that Martyrs does NOT feature anything of the kind. Perhaps you haven’t seen the film, perhaps you are combining your comment in response to the A Serbian Film review as well as Martyrs.

      “What is the message in this type of cinema anyway? That shit things happen, that human nature is depraved? That people either do, or dont survive life? OLD NEWS. What message can these films offer to justify thier cruelty?”

      It’s interesting, whilst you object to extreme cinema there would be others who object to swearing. I suppose we all have our levels of acceptability. I wouldn’t want you to be censored any more than I would the makers of fictional films. If nothing else, perhaps I can claim consistency?

      As for a message, you couldn’t really expect an entire genre (and its many sub-genres) to have one over-riding sweeping message. Individual films carry their own meanings or not at all. Often in independent film making the creators of the movies would be inclined to leave some of the thinking to the viewer, as is perfectly exemplified in Martyrs.

      I wouldn’t concern yourself with “old news”: boy meets girl, they fall in love, have a problem, then make up and live happily ever after – has been doing very well as a plot line for centuries.

      I do genuinely appreciate your comment, which is why I chose to publish it (as the blog moderator the comments don’t go live until I OK them). I hope I’ve answered some of your points, I don’t for a minute think I will have changed your mind, we are not going to agree!

      As I said in my opening blog post, these films are always going to be polarising. As the comments under the reviews (more coming soon by the way!) are for discussion on individual films, and I sense that your issue is more with extreme cinema generally, could I respectfully ask that such discussion takes place on this post, as it is not specific to a particular title:

      https://transgressivecinema.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/it-begins/

      Other than that, the internet is a big place and all tastes and views can have a niche on it. Ultimately, this is a tiny bit that I’ve made to talk about the films I like.

  2. When I first saw this film I was somewhat disappointed, but on repeat viewings I have to agree it is a really beautiful and powerful film. Apparently it’s getting the American remake treatment already – such a travesty! Nice blog BTW 🙂

  3. Thanks Necrotic, it is indeed a shame that so many people can’t just enjoy the original work without it having to be remade for them.

  4. just discovered this site and i love it !!

    by the way, Martyrs is 1 of the best films i have seen in years !

  5. Hi Sawoffleg, I’m glad you like the site – and I agree with you: Martyrs is a fine film.

  6. Just discovered this site through your post on an IMBD thread about “Inside”.

    I’m a big horrorfan. And I do enjoy violent movies, as long as there is sense or it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But am I the only one who absolutely didn’t like Martyrs? I watched it in french and there can’t be much lost in translation, believe me.
    And I disagree with your opinion about the “torture porn” thing. (That’s what opinions are here for..) This is THE example of torture porn. There is NO sense in this movie and the end is just horrible. I was sooooo pissed off when the old lady, you know what, at the end. Maybe I was so disapointed because after the hype the film got I was expecting something special and I just go to see a girl beeing beaten up and skinned for nothing, as the end of the movie obviously stated. It just didn’t make me want to rewatch it.
    I actually liked “Frontier(s)” more, even if I call that torture porn, too 😉

    As for the remakes..wait and see, there is much being re-made right now in the us ( eg. Hello Ghost (original from S.Corea), Trollhunter (original from Norway) etc.) I actually DO get why they are making these US remakes, but seriously, you just can’t watch them (They KILLED “A Tale of Two Sisters”!)

    Cheers from Switzerland

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