Like Nacho Cerda's Aftermath, Pascal Laugier's Martyrs is destined to acheive instant notoriety worldwide thanks to its unflinching, shockingly realistic depiction of some truly unsavory behavior. Also like Cerda's Aftermath, Martyrs will no doubt be lumped in with a group of far lesser films - films with less understanding of the material they're handling and films that cannot hold a candle to this one when it comes to intelligent layering in of subtext and issues of substance. Yes, kids, expect the torture-porn labeling and Hostel comparisons to be flying fast and thick. And then be prepared to ignore every one of them because graphic content or no - and Martyrs is, indeed, a stunningly graphic film - Martyrs has virtually nothing in common with the films it will be compared to. In fact you could argue that Martyrs is an anti-exploitation exploitation film, a film filled with incredibly extreme elements, true, but a film that has no interest in using those elements to titillate or fill the audience with vicarious thrills. No, the shock elements are there to open the door to something far more substantial.
Starting with a premise seemingly lifted from the headlines of a few months ago - think back to the Austrian man who kept his own daughter locked in a secret basement chamber for years - Martyrs begins with the story of Lucie, a young girl who manages to escape the chamber where she was being held and systematically tortured. Doctors confirm that Lucie was spared sexual abuse, at least, but beyond that nobody really knows what happens other than Lucie herself and she's not talking, not even to Anna, another patient at the hospital who becomes Lucie's only friend.
We jump forward fifteen years. Lucie is an enormously damaged and scarred woman, scarred both physically from the abuse of her captors and the abuse she has heaped upon herself in the years since and scarred mentally as well. Anna remains her only friend and support and Lucie has never been able to shake the grotesque visions of the naked, emaciated woman who follows her every move, cutting into Lucie with a variety of blades at every opportunity - one of the most staggering depictions of severe mental illness ever put on screen. Lucie's life seems governed by the twin pulls of fear and fury - fear that her tormentor will catch up with her again, fury at those who subjected her to such torment in the first place. And when Lucie finds the people who she believes captured her fifteen years earlier then blood must surely, inevitably flow.
Now, if Martyrs were a typical torture-porn film this is where it would end. This would be the point. We'd share Lucie's original trauma and then we'd have the vicarious, bloody thrill of watching her wreak her revenge. Even getting beyond the torture-porn world, this is a time honored genre unto itself, a variant on the rape-revenge picture. Female empowerment, right? The victim reclaiming her strength through violence. It's been done countless times and were Laugier have opted to make that film the fearless depiction of Lucie herself and the damage done by her childhood trauma would already have been enough to make Martyrs one of the very best films of the type. But Laugier wants more than that and just when you think you've got the film figured out he pulls the rug out and takes it somewhere else entirely, somewhere completely unexpected.
Technically stunning, relentlessly bloody, filled with stomach churning physical effects, and blessed with fearless performances from its two leads Laugier shoots his film in a sort of 1970's indie verite style that underplays all the shock and opts instead for a realism that makes it all that much more unsettling. Be warned, this is not a film for the easily disturbed. It is, however, a brilliant piece of work, by far the best of the recent wave of French genre cinema - and this is coming from a huge fan of last year's Interieurs - and a film that will become an instant touch point for future film makers. This is truly a landmark film and not to be missed.