The current wave of extreme French horror marches triumphantly on. The latest wave-making entry is the Franco-Canadian production Martyrs, and it is as nasty as it is a vital piece of filmmaking. Writer/director Pascal Laugier, whose previous film was the honorable but not entirely successful House of Voices, here reveals himself as a force to be reckoned with. Horror fans, the genre is healthy and out to get your.
Pretty much every piece I’ve read on the film has been very circumspect about the plot, and I will not be the one to break ranks. I will summarize the set-up as have most others: a young girl escapes from a scene of horrific abuse. Years later, the now-grown woman (Mylène Jampanoï) in the company of her best friend (Morjana Alaoui, in an astonishing performance), shows up at the door of the people she believes were responsible for her torture.
And that’s about all I can tell you, and all I’ve just been giving you the a rundown of the first ten minutes. What follows is grueling on a number of levels. There is taboo-breaking violence and gore of the first order. There are terrifying and disturbing apparitions. Lines are crossed in aggressive, take-no-prisoners fashion. And then things get really dark.
Make no mistake. This is not for the weak of heart. Frankly, anyone who finds what goes on simply too much should not feel ashamed. But another point needs to be made here. This is not torture porn. It might have all the elements that would make it such – prolonged torture not least among those. It is not that Martyrs is lacking anything that would make it torture porn. Rather, the point is that it has aspects that make it so much more.
One telling example: there is a single shot that simultaneously references Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. (Which certainly makes one curious to see what Laugier is going to do with his reworking of the Barker film.)
The thing with this shot is that it is not simply an odd bit of intertextuality. It is central to what the film is up to. In fact, as Martyrs‘ title suggests, Dreyer’s film is, if anything, thematically closer in kinship than is Hellraiser. In other words, the violence and atrocity is not on the screen for the simple purpose of either titillating or disturbing the audience. It has a purpose. The film has an idea.
So, one might argue, does Saw. True enough. But I would counter that Saw‘s concept is ultimately a pretty shallow one, whose function is to provide a rationale for the gruesome set pieces. The situation with Martyrs is the reverse: the torture is in the service of a thesis being worked out rigorously and disturbingly. The motivations of the villains are also unusual, and certainly unlike anything I can recall in recent years. And for all of the unpleasantness on display, it is, in the end, not the gore that lingers in the mind during and after the closing credits. The implications of the gore, the ideas behind the blood – these are the things that are truly disturbing, along with being thought provoking.
Maybe I’ve been needlessly coy here. Perhaps. If this little recommendation has been frustratingly vague, consider that a push to you, gentle reader, to seek the film out.