Recommended Viewing Situation:
In a cold steel room, devoid of hope.
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Format: 35mm film.
Director: Pascal Laugier.
Writer: Pascal Laugier.
Cinematographer: Stéphane Martin and Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky.
Awards: Chainsaw Award for Best Actress and Best Screenplay and more.
Put bluntly, Martyrs (2008) is a film of two halves: part scathing psychological revenge story and part visceral existentialist nightmare. The movie follows the two French orphans Anna (Majana Alaoui) and Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) on a journey of vengeance for past childhood abuses, only for them to discover an unthinkable underside of French bourgeoisie society. Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, the film is as divisive amongst critics as its narrative first appears; the only unifying opinion being that the film’s American reboot in 2016 was a resounding failure.
There are very few films that I will ever put a ‘be-careful-gratuitous-violence-ahead’ warning on, but with Martyrs I must. Unlike most ‘torture’ films that are built for the emotionally immature (Hostel 2005), or pertain to have serious political credentials but fail from the outset (A Serbian Film 2010), Martyrs is horrifying precisely because of its concise emotional, philosophical and socio-political denotations. Laugier’s works have often been associated with the New French Extremity movement, a collection of ultra violent and transgressive film makers that explore themes surrounding social anxiety, the body and psychosis. Martyrs is a prime example of this school of cinema. Accordingly, the film heavily relies on its actors to give nuanced and rich performances. Mylène Jampanoï is staggering as the disturbed Lucie. Her unrelenting anger and crippling fear translate straight from the screen to your body. Majana Alaoui’s Anna is inspired, her love for Lucie both sexually and emotionally finds its way into every facet of her character, subtly revealing the twisted realities of unconditional love in the face of moral ambiguity. For the first half of the film, this revenge thriller is efficient, satisfying and mysterious (Isabelle Chasse’s performance as La créature will certainly keep you guessing). The introduction of The Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) alongside the discovery of La suppliciée/the torture victim (Emilie Miskdjian) and an ominous trapdoor is ultimately what keeps the film interesting and signals the harrowing second half. What follows is nothing short of genuinely disturbing.
It is important to recognise that this film’s key players have complex and uncannily relatable motivations. For the first half of the film, love, perhaps unspoken or misunderstood, and pain are what drive the opening tale of vengeance. The second half is perhaps symptomatic of a modernising world that has left religion and the reconciling of an afterlife long ago, only to be barbarised by its archaic devotees that fear the end. Sufficed to say, the fear of death is perhaps the most important part of Martyrs, something almost entirely lost in horror films today. Good horror blurs reality and hyperbole delicately, balancing the two consistently, forcing you to believe in the fantastic and the unimaginable. This is what Martyrs presents to its audience in its entirety, the blend.