Fantastic Fest 2008: Martyrs

Editor, News; Toronto, Canada (@Mack_SAnarchy)

While it seems that the bulk of the world is content to dish out boring and typical slasher and psycho killer horror films the French scene continues to push the envelope both in terms of graphic violence but also deep and meaningful content. This is the type of film that director and writer Pascal Laugier has given to us.

Martyrs opens to a young girl, Lucie, running through an industrial complex. She has been stripped to her underwear and she is bruised, bloodied and broken. She is escaping from something or someone. Film footage then unveils an investigation into her ordeal. A single chair sits in a room with a hole in the seat so she can relief herself into a bucket. A soiled mattress sits in the corner. Chains run from the walls. Clearly this little girl has been held for some time, we learn it has been one year. She is taken to a hospital where she is studied and cared for. Another young girl, Anna, befriends Lucie and the two form an impenetrable bond. When they are older Anna joins Lucie on her quest to find those responsible for her ordeal.

Lucie does find her previous captors. They are at home, having breakfast with their children. She comes to the door toting a shotgun. Things go very bad, very quickly and very bloody. Anna is waiting in the throes for Lucie to contact her. Having freed herself from her physical captors we begin to understand, something that a lot of us would have suggested already, that she had horrible personal demons that manifest themselves in a horrible and physically ruined young woman who scars and slashes at her. No sooner has Lucie begun to exorcise her personal demons does Laugier turn his film on its ass and a new ordeal must begin.

Martyrs is absolutely unrelenting. It is uncomfortable. It is very violent. It starts off running and does not stop for the first two thirds. But, because of its switch from what seems to be seemingly conventional yet unrelenting horror, to psychological horror, to torture horror with a metaphysical slant it isn’t going to win over the majority of its audience. What others have called pretentious I call terrifying and grounded in real life and to some religious faith.

The torture in Martyrs was inevitable. You simply cannot refer to it early in the film, suggest that one of your main characters has undergone it and never have any of your key characters endure or suffer to it. The goal of Laugier’s script wouldn’t be met. We would never know the answer to why had Lucie be put through such torture. The reason for all this hard hitting violence would simply be for sick thrills and chills. We wouldn’t know why it was being done and I don’t think anyone would be happy in this type of film to have it simply explained to us in a lengthy monologue. It wasn’t why we were there.

Because it starts so strong yet impersonal and switches to slow, methodical and deeply, deeply personal it will then turn off many viewers. Any time you can distance yourself from the subject of the film the better off you believe you are. Because Laugier’s film made the horror much more personal for me it was inescapable. Certainly anyone familiar with religious history will be more impacted by the answers and the reasons why our characters endure and suffer so much in this film. Hopefully that answer will disgust you as much as it did me.

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