16 Sep

TIFF ’08 coverage. More French brutality. Martyrs.

Posted by Russell Johnson | Tuesday September 16, 2008 | Reviews

France has been putting out a number of surprisingly good horror films in the past few years, and I was happy to get a chance to see Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs this year at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Martyrs begins as a combination of psychological horror and revenge. A young girl named Lucie escapes from a cellar where she has been kept captive, chained to a chair and tortured. After she makes her way to the authorities and is placed in a home, Lucie bonds with another girl named Anna but never really recovers from the trauma; she sees a demonic dead girl and refuses to talk about what happened to her. The police find the house where Lucie was held captive but never find her abusers.

15 years later, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) tracks down the people she believes held her captive. Anna (Morjana Alaoui) isn’t so sure; the only thing Lucie has to go on is a picture from the paper and old memories.

If Martyrs had stuck to this plotline it would have been a fairly standard revenge film, albeit a very vivid and effective one. The violence feels very real, and all of the people involved in the first portion of the film are humanized before things start to spin out of control. When the bloodshed begins there’s a tangible sense of impact.

Director Pascal Laugier was not content to stay within the confines of a standard horror or revenge film, however. Martyrs shifts partway through to something very different, and becomes more of a meditation on human suffering, pain, and the limits of what a person can endure. This section of the film is likely what earned Martyrs an initial 18+ rating in France (the equivalent of an X or NC17 rating), and it’s not a lot of fun to watch. After a protest by France’s Society of Film Directors the rating was reduced.

The second portion of the movie is also where Martyrs is likely to either garner praise for being brilliant and different or criticism for being sick and depraved. I felt alone in the audience when I remained relatively unmoved by it either way. That’s not to say that it was pleasant to watch, but I have seen things in this vein before.  They may not have been quite so drawn out and perhaps didn’t have quite the same spiritual note to them, but I didn’t find it strikingly new.  The director apparently had a very personal point to make in taking the audience along for such a punishing ride.  It would be painful to sit through this part of the movie if it didn’t lead somewhere—and it does—but I suspect the payoff will vary dramatically from viewer to viewer.

Martyrs is not anywhere near as simplistic as cheap gore or “torture porn” and people looking for those kind of thrills probably won’t enjoy it. During the TIFF Q&A session, Mr. Laugier said that while he loved the horror genre and its stereotypes he was a bit bored with them and wanted to do something different. Although I don’t believe that it’s a brilliant piece of work, he’s certainly succeeded here; Martyrs is different from most current horror.

The TIFF description included this note about the film: “While many genre pundits immediately compare the two films, last year’s French shocker À l’intérieur is an amusement park ride compared to the effect of the brass-knuckled sucker punch thrown by Martyrs.” I think that this description may have drawn some people to see the film, but I did not find the description to be accurate. While Martyrs isn’t an enjoyable film, I didn’t find it as disturbing as À l’intérieur. Your mileage may vary. The two films are really nothing alike, and I believe it’s a mistake to compare them at all.

Recommended for fans of extreme cinema and horror who are open-minded and who want to see something different. While I didn’t find Martyrs as shocking as it was hyped to be, it did cause at least one viewer at TIFF to “lose their popcorn” and another to pass out . . . so it’s definitely not for everyone.


  1. September 17, 2008 6:08 am


    That sounds very interesting, especially your points about the film making a personal statement and it being different from most contemporary horror are very promising for a film I was afraid would be just another piece of torture porn (somebody should trademark the phrase).

  2. September 17, 2008 9:35 am

    Russell Johnson

    The brutality isn’t just there for entertainment purposes; that might be too fine a distinction for some people to make when watching it, because it’s really quite brutal.

    TIFF might be putting some of the videos of Q&A with the directors online, and I hope they do; this one would be well worth watching after seeing the film. It’s rather hard to discuss much about the film without spoilers, unfortunately, but I believe it’s one of those films people will want to discuss after they see it.

  3. September 30, 2008 9:15 pm

    Eden Log | lurple.com

    […] soundtrack is also excellent. It was done by the same group that handled the soundtrack for Martyrs (which was also at TIFF this year), and they’ve done a great job adding to the feel of the […]

  4. March 14, 2009 2:54 am


    why did the old woman commit suicide???

  5. May 16, 2009 12:02 am

    Bryan White

    I finally caught up with this movie after a couple of week’s worth of vacillation. My fear was that I would be confronted with something as intense as Inside and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go there again. France has been responsible for some fucking downright unpleasant movies of late and while Martyrs is no exception, I found that I agree with Russell’s review. It’s not that kind of horror movie. It’s actually quite a lot more. Unfortunately, it also failed to move me in any particular direction.

    I think it’s an extremely well made movie and Laugier is a very talented filmmaker. My problem was that it took way to long to get to where it was going and takes a sharp left turn in the second act, almost as though the script underwent a considerable rewrite. I liked what it became quite a bit as it suddenly descends into Jodorowsky territory with a surreal examination of spirituality but this entire aspect is in such stark contrast with the rest of the movie. Where the hell did this come from? I was immediately consumed with wanting to know about these people who see fit to torture someone to the point of ecstasy. Of course, I’ll never know this, which makes me crazy.

    A lot of people are already dismissing it as torture porn but it is anything but. Torture porn implies that the violence is the main attraction but the violence in Martyrs is not torture porn violence. Martyrs is, in fact, remarkably restrained for such an ordeal. Because of Laugier’s restraint in this area, the violence becomes that much more unpleasant.

    I’ll probably never watch it again. Not because it was too hardcore or even because I was bored but because I took it in, already. No point in revisiting this baby. I get it. Interesting ideas, nice execution but it left me with no lasting impression.

  6. May 16, 2009 12:05 am

    Bryan White

    And to address jhette’s question: Mademoiselle killed herself because of what Anna told her. We’ll never know what she said, of course, but what she told her was either too much to bear, not fit for the people waiting to hear or something she absolutely needed to see for herself.

    Did that really need explaining? Is it really that unclear?

  7. May 19, 2009 7:18 pm


    It’s one of those films that I wouldn’t say I enjoyed, although I thought it was a good film. I don’t feel any need to watch it again either.

  8. May 20, 2009 11:19 pm


    I watched Martyrs tonight and walked away with a similar feeling. It’s well made and disturbing, unpleasant but intriguing. Ultimately, though, it didn’t totally deliver. It felt like the end of one movie and the beginning of another movie smashed together. The first half of Martyrs is all actions and answers – by the time the movie reaches the halfway point, (excuse the vague language here, as I’m trying to avoid spoilers) you’ve got some definitive answers about Lucie’s past and her mental state and all that. But when things turn and the spiritual element is introduced, it feels like a new movie entirely (more specifically, like a sequel–sort of a “Everything you thought you knew about ‘Martyrs’ was wrong!” situation, where plot points are clarified and brought into sharper focus). Both halves worked on their own, but they didn’t hold together–a little more connective tissue between the spiritual questions posed at the end and the visceral violence at the beginning might have helped.

  9. June 3, 2009 1:27 pm


    Martyrs is an interesting film, disturbing and thought provoking. As a horror movie, it has done its job–which may be the most one should ask of a horror movie. After all, what is the purpose of the horror genre? To be shocked, startled, reviled, disgusted in the safety of one’s family room or the local theater. Entertainment.

    However, it is odd to me how some people seem to find “greatness” in Martyrs. This is not a great film. I do like the acting, the camera work and editing are technically competent, the sound and music good–which quite a few horror films lack! Martyrs is a well-crafted movie in the Hollywood style. (It IS made in the Hollywood style–Media Studies majors get over it…) But, the grand epiphany that supposedly comes through intense and prolonged physical pain as seen in the photographs of other tortured people throughout history, although intriguing, is not supported well enough in the script to overcome my willing suspension of disbelief. The cellar hallway scene, of course, with the Cult’s leader explaining to the main character the need for torture with the photo album (despite the fact that the same larger photos are on the wall next to the actors) is almost comical in its brevity. The film would have been creepier had it delved into the occult and the mysterious efforts of alchemists…or, say, if the secret organization were financed by the Vatican. We’re not told, and I think to the film’s detriment. How can martyrdom be talked about without religion. On the other hand, how can torture be rationalized without some self-serving (most would coin this kind of enterprise as evil) intent? Of course, anyone thinking that the male torturer and the others are just “doing their jobs” would probably find “the whole Nazi thing” to be no big deal….

    No. What horrifies me about this kind of film is that it glorifies a false intellectualism that treats graphic torture in a relative light. I’m not as worried about “American Rednecks” loving this film as much as the mildly educated 20-somethings who think that they have stumbled upon something deep in this “wicked Euro-flick”–which they’ll probably buy and place next to their TOOL CDs….

  10. July 24, 2009 7:39 pm


    I didn’t think the violence was without a point, I just thought it wasn’t a point worth making.

    It dances around subjects like theology & existentialism without ever fully engaging you. It is, for the most part (or all of both parts) a bloodbath. The danger is that many people who go in for these gore fests aren’t bright enough to see that the second act, where it starts thinking it’s a far more intelligent movie than it is, is really just a flimsy attempt to add some weight. And as for leaving you with questions? That’s all it does. It leaves almost the entire film up to speculation.

    When David Lynch takes that kind of thing on, it’s fascinating. This to me was just plain insulting.

  11. October 25, 2009 4:40 pm


    I saw this film once, I got it as a present from a friend….It was a true cinematic adventure…but there is no way in hell I’m watching that ever again…It is truly the most traumatizing thing I’ve ever seen in my life…but I LOVED it…It was a brilliant work of art with a twist of events that makes you want to question if everything is really as messed up. And I checked the Director’s comment…that dude’s really somethin’ odd…
    Bottom Line: MUST WATCH FILM

  12. April 7, 2010 7:14 pm

    jane casler

    If we can get simple, what is the plot and the meaning of this film (which transfixed me).

  13. October 11, 2010 4:17 pm


    I felt compelled to note here that “Axle” has posted the same condescending comment regarding this film on nearly every horror blog that has offered up a review. Do you really feel that your thoughts are so insightful that you must plaster them verbatim upon any site that will let you insert your voice?

    Martyrs has a special place in my black little heart. I do not find it to be an enjoyable experience and I can not recommend it without reservations. It’s an important trip to take, though you are unlikely to want to repeat the journey.

  14. October 17, 2010 10:44 pm


    @nate- you’re right. axle is kind of a dick. i’m a 20-something mildly educated guy with a bunch of tool cds. i thought this movie was just plain disturbing. the last “stage” of the process made my mouth fall open and all my blood shunt away from my extremities. it was super intense, but i don’t think i’ll spend much time thinking about why these fictional characters did what they did.

    i don’t wonder why shredder was always after splinter.

  15. October 17, 2010 11:02 pm

    Bryan White

    Shredded killed Splinter’s sensei. It was kind of the other way around.

  16. June 20, 2011 1:47 pm


    The fact that only Lucy “sees” a dead girl (which is only in her mind in a similar fashion as schizophrenic symptoms) tells the viewer that obviously this is in her mind. The fact the the cult leader states that torture and depravation causes it’s victims to “see” things that are not really there tells the viewer that these things are of the mind. The mind is a powerful thing. . .a seemingly put together person can scare themselves by “hearing” voices when alone at home in the dark or “seeing things” out of the corners of their eyes when under stress. When Anna is in her final “stage” and she sees the white light, the viewer is supposed to notice that the “white light” begins and sits in her eyes – IN her iris. The viewer can actually see it themselves. I think, this is supposed to let you know that what she sees is within herself. It’s inside of her and no where else whether outside of the body or other-worldly.
    I myself like to believe in an after life as it seems to comfort me and give me a sense that things matter – that there is a point to life. I’d like to believe that Anna saw “something” but I don’t think she did. I think her body was overcompensating in a scientific manner – as if she was in shock and that’s it.
    I think the cult leader killing herself was really an unfortunate ending, because it seems not to make any sense. At first the viewer may think that she is killing herself because she wants to experience the afterlife (if perhaps Anna told her how blissful and wonderful it is if it were to exist). On the other hand, that thought is contradicted by the cult leader stating “keep doubting” before killing herself. The cult leader is an extremely selfish person in that she is willing to sacrafice and torture innocent people for her own needs, so perhaps she says “keep doubting” to her followers because she wants them to continue doing “research” to make sure there is an afterlife OR she doesn’t want them all to kill themselves so that she and only she can go on to experience the afterlife before them? That doesn’t really seem to make sense. I don’t think she kills herself out of remorse. . .for instance, if Anna states that there is no afterlife, I don’t think it upsets the cult leader into wanting to die (she wants to experience life ultimately). I think she kills herself because she realizes that their “might” be an afterlife and perhaps it’s better than this one, but she’s unsure and wants her “research” to continue.

  17. July 24, 2012 1:58 am


    You can slap lipstick on a pig, but you still got yourself a swine. Same with Martyrs. You can slap a perfunctory pseudo-intellectual french religious motive on torture-porn, but it’s still what it is. Young movie lovers will like that it is different, and that the french made this will lead them to accept it as art without question. But by film’s end, it has probed no more deeply into Martyrdom or the afterlife than would a filedtrip to an Iranian interrogation cell.

  18. February 11, 2013 9:29 pm

    Horror Movie Medication

    I like the point you make about the halfway mark. If they had stuck with the feral women, it would have been a standard horror movie plot, allowing the audience to just sit back and enjoy the beautiful visuals. Really though, it is hard for me to forgive a movie with a poor plot line.
    Since you seem to have this whole review thing down, I was hoping you’d check out my review of Martyrs at


    some feed back would be great

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