Here’s an interesting thought, imagine if you will that Mary Whitehouse is still alive and that The Festival of Light continues to eviscerate and scarify the cinema of today. Now envisage how they would react when faced with the unequivocally disturbing Martyrs, a film to which graphic violence is integral. Like Pasolini, Peckinpah, Preminger and Von Trier before him, Pascal Laugier has created a movie that toys with and attacks the debates surrounding what is and is not acceptable on screen.
To summarise the plot into a neat paragraph is laughable. This is a film dependant on the horror cinephile, the more you are aware of the conventions of the genre the more Laugier can distort them. We may begin with a knowingly familiar image of a limping girl in distress, but we end with a turbaned cultist discussing a transcendent state beyond death…not your average kettle of fish, I’ll say that for nothing.
Martyrs is a film with a perfect serrated edge, you are slashed and stabbed into a catatonic state of submission. The first two acts pull you in with a series of grizzly murders and ghostly encounters. It is of a distinctly European feel, wearing its influences on its sleeve whilst carving out its own identity with a mish mash of horror standards. We follow two girls, Lucie (Mylene Jamponoi) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) as they seek revenge on the people who tortured Lucie as a young woman, but like everything in this movie, it’s more complicated then that. Lucie’s demon takes literal form, demanding blood to help appease its tortured soul. Anna is not entirely trusting of Lucie’s actions, for she is aware of her unstable mental condition. This is horror at its most unpredictable.
However, nothing can prepare you for the third act, more Verhoeven then Haneke it introduces the cult of violence. The aforementioned group function as a mirror to the audience, echoing our fears of life and death. These are old men and women too selfish to admit that the pain they are inflicting on these young girls is anything more than the means by which to receive the secrets beyond the veil. More over, this element allows Laugier to take a prolonged jab at the torture porn sub genre. He pieces together a painfully slow montage of abuse, we feel as the victim feels, weak, hurt and alone. In these moments the audience is forced to endure violence, not to enjoy it. Far from the enticing orgy of blood we are used to, this is an act of unspeakable horror.
Martyrs is a genuine experience, it claws at you, tearing at your body and soul until your nerves are left shredded on the floor. The violence in this film is not only justified, it’s absolutely essential, it is all together the point and not the point. Like our long suffering protagonists, we become numb to the pain and are able to surpass it, to see the allure of pleasurable brutality as a thorn in the side of film that must be removed in order to reach for a higher objective. Laugier is an incredibly astute filmmaker that has created an intriguing and powerful work of art. However, most disturbingly he is said to be negotiating for an American remake. Speaking of martyrs, Jesus wept.
Additional film information: Martyrs (2008)