Review: Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS

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Review: Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS

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.

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More about Martyrs

dullboySeptember 27, 2008 12:27 AM

True. That's why I enjoy this site. However, I hadn't read one bad review about it before seeing it.

GarthSeptember 27, 2008 1:02 AM

What I hate about this site is that when there are dissenting opinions, people don't just down eachother's throats and insult their intelligence for not agreeing. What the hell is wrong with you people? Especially all you stupid people who disagree with me!

boomclownSeptember 27, 2008 4:49 AM

Rodney - the world hardly needs the film Martyrs to explain that "cultish" or "obsessive" behavior can lead to extreme behavior. Anyone that has a modicum of social awareness should be inherently aware of that fact. If you're suggesting that's the point of the film, then it fails miserably in making any sort of commentary on or advancement in understanding the phenomenon. Beyond suspension of disbelief issues, I was enfuriated by the insulting and stupid premise of the film. What enfuriates me even more are the reviews that continue to laud the film as thought-provoking and visionary. The only daring thing about this film is that it has the audacity to think it's clever or has any real artistic merit. I can quite honestly say I have never hated a movie more in my life.

Ard VijnSeptember 27, 2008 4:51 AM

Yes, how dare we keep being civil?
The count is 4 for the yays, 3 for the nays.

I swear, reading the Martyrs comments seems to be more rewarding (and certainly more fun!) than watching the film itself...

Rodney PerkinsSeptember 27, 2008 8:12 AM

To be more specific, I stand by every word of the review, and my comments in this thread. I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking through what I wrote (its been on the site for at least six weeks). A related piece might appear in the future (its been in the works for awhile) but that will be about it from me on this one.

boomclownSeptember 27, 2008 9:50 AM

Fair play.

The VisitorSeptember 27, 2008 10:15 PM

oh, forgot to add that that is also why i have no interest whatsoever in watching Martyrs.

bnl771September 29, 2008 10:02 AM

My take on all this is even though I can't say I really liked it and had major problems with it. I've spent the days since fantastic fest thinking - "Does the fact that I cannot stop thinking about this movie mean it had it's intended effect?" I mean, I hated HATED Seventh Moon and Repo! at Fanastic Fest but I have not thought of either of those movies. Even though I went straight from Fantastic Fest to the the ACL Festival, I spent 3 (hot) days in the sun with this movie in the back of my head. That has to say something about the "power" of the film - I can't point to anything in the movie to explain, but it's there.

What was the last movie to ignite this much discussion on Twitch??

IronyMarch 27, 2009 12:31 AM

I agree with "dullyboy" about the shitless rich people being useless and absurd in Martyrs (2008), that part of the film should have been omitted or should have been used differently. But nonetheless, this film is definitely better than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, The Ring (2002), Dark Water (2005), Friday the 13th series and other various films on the category of horror. It is also better because it attempts to experiment with the idea of suffering. It makes us aware of the limits of our bodies and the torture we can endure. It also manages to increase the importance of women actresses - in this case Anna and Lucie - as Ridley Scott and James Cameron did in their versions of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1987). Further, it explores the idea how ordinary human beings could be related to horrific events - the family that tortured Lucie in the first place. However, what I didn't like about the film was Anna's resurrection. She must have escaped that place. The pessimistic ending does not qualify Anna being fed to death with the torture she received. She should have revenged those people! Yet, it was a brilliant work; it some how reminded me of Chan-wook Park's Oldboy (2003) with the 15 years Oh Dae-Su's imprisonment. Besides, Lucie should not have committed suicide. Again, great work!

GarthMarch 27, 2009 6:18 AM

Furthered the importance of women actresses? I don't even know what that means, but as far as female CHARACTERS, one is crazy, the other is crazy, possibly infatuated with the first and subsequently used as a veritable pincushion for the rest of the running time.

ezekiel2517April 5, 2009 8:51 AM

Martyrs is a film that is all about Mise-en-scène. From start to finish it occupies the entirety of the screen with the directors vision. I would not add, change or remove one frame. This film is as complete as a photograph or a painting. I would not say that this film is transcendental. It was right up there with Let the Right One In, but no it is still a film, nothing more nothing less. For those who are saying that it is cliched, let me suggest that it is movies like Saw or Hostel that are the cliches. This is a vision that can stand alone without being self referential.

**Spoilers** I would also question why some felt the ending was out of place. I'd like to make a couple of points. The first one is what suspension of disbelief? What I think this movie is pointing out from the very beginning is that we all enjoy torture and being tortured. Pain equals pleasure and all that. Let's not forget that most of horror fans are watching people getting tortured and enjoying it. Of course this film is about those extremes. The breakfast scene with the mother grossing out her children with the dead mouse. Or the boy chasing his terrified/excited sister down the stairs. These moments although fleeting and easy to overlook are the reason the ending works. It shows that underneath we all enjoy watching other people be tortured and that we all enjoy torturing. Jackass, or the War on Terror are both great examples of modern mainstream torture. I think it is the director's hint at how lurking beneath our presumed everyday normalcy is our human imperfection, our weaknesses that will invariably cause others to suffer. I wonder if psychologically we crave to be disciplined for our weakness, and be washed clean with pain. Reminds me of some of the old Hellraiser movies.

I would also like to suggest that Martyrs has a perfect ending. The suicide of the old lady, taking the knowledge of the afterlife with her, thereby condemning the rest of her cult to a lifetime of fearing the afterlife! An absolute master stroke, and the perfect revenge for killing our heroine.