FNC 2008 - A Review of MARTYRS
There is an expression in French for anything that doesn't live up to it's hype. We call it a « pétard mouillé », which translates as a wet firework. This is exactly what Pascal Laugier's Martyrs is. Anyone looking for the Holy Grail of horror films should look elsewhere. This movie is not the summon of the French Horror New Wave. It's not a total failure either. It's just an average B-movie. Nothing else.
From the beginning, we knew it was too good to be true. Being a Montrealer with a foot in the film industry, I was one of the very first persons to hear about this soon-to-be-cult movie being shot in my hometown. Daily reports from the set were spreading rumors about a content so scandalous it would manage to shake the landscape of horror movies. The buzz remained on the Internet for a year, gained forces when the first teaser appeared and confirmed itself when the French censorship got involved. The situation was changed into an amazing publicity stunt, bringing us back to a holy time when films like Maniac where condamned by feminist and religious associations. Martyrs, the film they don't want you to see, who could dream of a better marketing campain ? During Cannes, reports, once again, were bragging about how the usually quiet market freaked out during the screening, making all horror fans salivating. When it finally opened in North America as part of Toronto's Midnight Madness, a bit of puke on a floor made it one of the main events of the Festival. A film has to be truly amazing to survive such an hype and as it turns out, Martyrs's backstory is more interesting than the film itself.
Sure, it is pretty violent, somes disturbing scenes featuring tortured bodies will make you squirm. Also, the first twenty minutes are also truly fantastic, making yet another scene of bourgeois home invasion a moment of realistic chaos as gripping and intense than Michael Haneke's Funny Games. Then, the film suddendly loses it's maturity when one of the main character starts to be haunted by a ghost from her past, a lazy metaphor for a rather cheap psychological development. This is only the beginning of a badly written story where characters motivations are either obscure or ridiculous. The bad guys, here an organization looking for young women to torture, are unidimensional and their metaphysical quest seems like a poor excuse for a succession of scenes of torture that becomes quickly repetitive and ultimately loses all its impact. Why don’t they just read Descartes ? Oh right, there wouldn’t be any blood involved.
On a technical point of view, we have to admit Martyrs is really impressive. Director Pascal Laugier has an eye for cinema and is able to create an atmosphere with the impressive sets he’s using. The gory special effects from Benoit Lestag are top-notch, making his swang song a true achievement. The two leads also make good scream queens and have a great chemistry when sharing the screen. Morjane Alaoui is beautiful young actress with lot’s of talents. She’s the film true discovery and will hopefully become a regular face in European cinema. All those elements make Martyrs watchable.
Martyrs could have a been a great horror movie if it hadn't decided to take the road of shock values. It had everything to be as good, if not even better, than the best productions France gave us recently. Instead, it makes you want more and with all the hype it got, you cannot feel the impression that you do deserve more.