TIFF Review: MARTYRS

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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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.

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More about Martyrs

JustinDAugust 25, 2008 3:32 AM

"And when Lucie finds the people who she BELIEVES captured her fifteen years."

I've seen that summary phrased in a similar way in a few place, I hope that's I haven't robbed myself of a shock moment, but if it is, it can still go in plenty of interesting directions.

ChevalierAguilaAugust 25, 2008 5:50 AM

A slasher flick with brains? We'll see.

M@rcAugust 25, 2008 5:23 PM

Isn't this just another torture movie we were so sick of? The name seems to suggest it anyway.

hmmmSeptember 7, 2008 12:50 AM

I would agree that Martyrs is a intelligently structured movie.
But I got the feeling that its content just suggest an intelligent subtext and substance. The story indicates some greater ideas, but leaves them hanging in the air for a broader interpretation. A viewer with an active imagination could take all those ideas and tie them together, but if you just take what you get, one can also view all those suggestions as an excuse for showing extreme physical an psychological violence.

san ku kaiSeptember 9, 2008 2:25 AM

Hmmm, I kinda agree with Hmmm (excuse my pun, I just couldn't resist)

I actually took a weekend off to Paris (it's ridiciously close, really) to go see it (and there I also got to catch 'Sakuran' on the big screen, and do other cool stuff, and then some ...).

Now I'm a somewhat a mixed believer in the French horror boom, I love what Alexandre Aja has done, "A l'Interieure" was very close but no cigar (no story to tell?), "Frontière(s)" very much impressed the hell out of me and i was very much hoping and expecting the same from "Martyrs".

I will keep it brief and say that the direction and interpretation were very impressive, and a "prix d'audace" wouldn't be out of place here ...
But somehow in the end, I have a feeling there was potential for even more. I have mixed feelings about where it all leads to ...

But just go check it out, if you get the chance, and try to avoid pre-knowledge of the contents ... more an unforgettable experience than a big bang/shock ...

boomclownSeptember 27, 2008 7:27 AM

Sorry I've been hassling people on other Martyrs review threads about this - but what is the intelligent subtext and at the heart of this film? If anyone could enlighten me, I'd be grateful. I found Martyrs to be a completely senseless film that doesn't even withstand it's own affectations toward some kind of logic. Hostel and The Inside, as brutal as they were, at least didn't insult the audience by suggesting that the violence depicted had some kind of intellectual purpose.

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 28, 2008 2:17 AM

An interesting read on things Todd, however, my greatest criticism is that Lagier keeps his cards too close to the vest, and none of this can be processed during the viewing of the film. There are times to hide the plot/narrative, even thematic elements of a film to increase impact, a film and subject like Martyrs (or for that matter, Funny Games or Dear Wendy or Audition) should not play coy with its audience (In my opinion) and that is a big weakness of the film. It puts 'cool' before 'dialogue'.

Todd BrownSeptember 28, 2008 4:34 AM

I get where you're coming from but I think if you push the point to clearly it breaks down into propaganda pretty quickly ...

Todd BrownSeptember 30, 2008 2:18 AM

Well, I disagree pretty wholeheartedly that you need to offer 'solutions' or 'alternatives' to have a valid or effective critique and REALLY disagree when you say that Laugier is endorsing any of this behaviour. There's not a single shot in this thing that you're meant to enjoy.

boomclownSeptember 30, 2008 11:44 PM

My point wasn't that the film HAS to offer alternatives and I didn't say it had to propose solutions, but that if the cult is supposed to be a critique on fundamentalism / extremism in general or the neo-con establishment it's an extremely shallow one at best.
Now there's a potentially cool notion in the idea of Anna representing the US electorate that willingly subjugated itself to exploitative neo-con (the cult's) designs for 8 years without mass protest - but unfortunately that allegory is so bogged down in quasi-religious rubbish that you have to take several extremely long steps to get to it. Not to mention that the outcome of the film basically prevents that reading from being substantive.

**** POTENTIAL SPOILERS ****

This goes back to the endorsement point. I'll agree endorsement was probably an unfair choice of words, but the film does affirm the cult's goals. According to the narrative of the film, the cult is successful in their endeavors and they are correct in their assertions vis-a-vis the results that their torture regime produces. Anna's torture is portrayed as having purpose - not just by the cult, but by the film itself.
It's unclear what exactly Laugier's trying to achieve other than some kind of "cool" twist that excuses us having sat through a brutal 15 min torture sequence. It's cheap and transparent and does nothing to advance whatever intellectual ideas he might be proposing (though I'm not convinced there were any to begin with).
Put it this way - if as a director, you're going to subject an audience to that kind of graphic violence and then suggest that there is a "message" behind it, it behooves you not to half-ass your ideas and conclusions about what it is you're trying to say.

Todd BrownSeptember 30, 2008 11:52 PM

acknowledging that torture is effective is not the same thing as endorsing it. And it is effective. Read fox's book of martyrs and you'll find much worse than anything in this film.

spongebobsBrideDecember 12, 2008 6:14 AM

EDIT*
"rewarded with an truly visceral AND EMOTIONAL experience, above and beyond mere “torture porn”."
The other typos, I'll just have to live with!
;)

SwinesheadMarch 10, 2009 4:20 PM

I saw this last night (after months of waiting to see it) and, sadly, I agree with Boomclown. I've spent the last few hours trying to make my mind up about it - it's not often a film has that effect.

But my response has solely been to the violence involved in the film (all aimed at women, predictably) and not to any deeper meaning. The theme of martyrdom is a flimsy excuse for lots of grindingly horrific scenes. Any link to Neo-Con politics is so weak that it doesn't bear scrutiny.

Martyrs in recent political events have all been young muslim men complicit in the act. How does this link to innocent, non-religious white girls?

It doesn't. It's just that Laugier knows that torturing chicks gets viewers.

It's an infuriating film precisely because it's so well directed and so effective in its shocks but is backed up with nothing but hot air - and the film's final third is a slow deflation as you realise there's nothing behind the visceral imagery.

But still a very interesting piece...

And this is a great website - just registered and about to look around a little more.

spncrMarch 20, 2009 1:08 AM

Martyrs is a mess of a film.

Perhaps I went in with high expectations that contributed to my disappointment and watching at home instead of the TIFF Midnight Madness environment surely strips the experience of a certain buzz. That said, while I was engaged and disgusted and found Martyrs to contain some beautiful and technically thrilling moments of filmmaking as well as some great performances, as a whole the movie is a muddled and horribly structured failure.

To qualify, I am not one to condemn the whole torture-porn sub-genre of horror. I think there is a lot of merit to films like Wolf Creek and Hostel and some interesting readings across the whole bloody genre. Sure, there are the completely reprehensible series like Saw that hit all the wrong notes and miss the whole point of what makes a good horror movie, but at least the Saw series has some degree of self-awareness at this point and knows it is just formulaic derivative blood-letting. Martyrs on the other hand, is too clever by half and what is positioned as torture philosophy and genre transgression is merely the visceral window dressing of a fundamentally flawed film.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The revenge film meets duality angle (gesturing to other contemporary French horror like High Tension) during the first few reels is so excruciatingly obvious that I thought it must be a ruse for the manifestation of very real and material demons. Alas, that was not to be the case. Had Laugier ended the film prior to arrival of the secret-society torture club, at least he would not have been guilty of biting off far too much than he could chew. Instead, we get bombarded with a quasi-mystic rationalization of torture that mitigates the most horrific elements of sadism, misogyny and the home sacer while grasping at straws of transcendence and enlightenment.

As the final reel unfolds through myriad fade outs I kept waiting for that one moment that would partially redeem the film, but instead was left with the cheap tactic of an inaudible but rapturous whisper leading to the even cheaper tactic of gun muzzle swallowing on the part of the now-I-cannot-handle-it Mademoiselle character. An ending that revealed it was all just a dream would have been more satisfying. I almost wished for the simplicity of a flawed Alexander Aja twist that would bring the many different ideas together but that was not to be the case. In most ways this a more confused and misguided take on torture-porn than any film thus far.

There are things to like in Martyrs and Laugier shows a lot of promise as a technical filmmaker who can ratchet up the tension, and to be sure this is a notable piece of extreme cinema. However, the philosophizing of the subject matter in a failed attempt to elevate the film above those it seeks to transcend, renders Martyrs all the more insidious.

MikeOutWestMarch 20, 2009 5:46 AM

SPOILERS> I thoroughly "enjoyed" Martyrs (if that's possible). What I liked most was the way it played with the audience's perception of what was going on. Had lucie truly found the people responsible for her abduction, imprisonment and torture? The appearance of the naked feral woman would suggest she had but as that proves to be a manifestation of survivor guilt,the audience is back at square one. Then the secret room is discovered and the Cult members appear and we discover Lucie was right all along.

Incidentally I liked the enigmatic ending - is there an afterlife or not? The old woman either knows for sure and can't wait to get there, or perhaps she's learnt there isn't and has no hope left. The result is the same. It reminds me of my one of my favourite horror endings, in Los Sin Nombre (at least with the "I wanna be a saint" translation).

DaygloApril 4, 2009 4:32 AM

The film works as a treatise on religious zealotry. It's a very angry piece of cinema.