The recent crop of French genre films like Frontière(s) and À l'intérieur (Inside) has been both condemned and praised for embracing new levels of graphic content. Whether one is a critic or supporter of this trend, one of the most obvious questions to arise after watching these films is how far can these filmmakers go with hard-edged realism? Pascal Laugier's Martyrs answers this question in forceful fashion. In Martyrs, Laugier has created a film that is obviously rooted in genre conventions but transcends the boundaries of genre to achieve something unique and unforgettable.
Martyrs begins by exploring one of the main character's (played by Mylène Jampanoï) fight with post traumatic stress, and her attempt to exorcise internal demons that drive her every action. The narrative focus shifts midway when the source of this character's dysfunction is explored through the eyes of a new victim (played by Morjana Alaoui). As the title suggests, the entire narrative is tied together through a metaphysical theme. An implied sociological and political commentary is also presented, and is reflected in both the presentation of young women as victims and the nature of the perpetrators. Anyone who follows current news or modern history should be able to find significant parallels between the imagery and scenarios presented in Martyrs and the horrors of the real world. Such interpretations, however, are left to individual viewers, who can bring their own experiences (and traumas) to the film.
As to style, Laugier's influences are evident and even stated in the end credits. Unlike some of his fore bearers and contemporaries, Laugier has figured out something crucial: how to sustain suspense throughout an entire film. Martyrs is a film driven by the two main character's constant reactions to internal and external stimuli. When the film enters a lull, which is rare, the sense of normalcy is soon followed by its opposite. Even the film's red herrings are substantive. This unending tension, which is punctuated by extreme graphic violence and nauseating practical effects by the late Benoit Lestang, hangs over Martyrs like a black cloud. The effect is to force the audience to bear the weight of the character's mental and physical trauma, and even hardened genre veterans may buckle under this pressure.
To say that Martyrs is comparable to works like The Exorcist, The Devils, Salo or Straw Dogs is irresponsible. It is most reasonable to say, however, that Martyrs is in the same spirit as these landmark films. Martyrs is an effort to push the envelope of what can be presented on film, and explore the psychological effects that cinematic images can have on the audience. It will take a Herculean effort for anyone to surpass the intensity and psychological power of Martyrs.