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.