Martyrs has ascended to an almost legendary status in the horror community. It’s widely considered one of the most violent, brutal, and depraved movies of all time. If horror fans are known for anything, it’s for having full blown dick measuring contests over who can watch the most despicable shit and not be fazed. And every time someone mentions “extreme cinema” or “most disturbing movies” in any corner of the internet, these horror fans all rush in jerking themselves off over how little they feel when watching sickening stuff. This to me defeats the purpose of horror movies, which is to make you feel. Sure, the feelings are usually dread, hopelessness, or disgust, but they all have their place when you allow yourself to open yourself up in a controlled environment such as a when watching a film.
Speaking of opening yourself up, let’s talk about Martyrs.
Martyrs is the infamous 2008 horror film and top dog entry into the New French Extremity scene. Written and directed by Pascal Laugier (who is really not known for anything else of note), this film is burdened with the unending hype of a thousand thrillseekers, gorehounds, and horror fanatics across the globe. It’s been given somewhat of a new boost in popularity since the American remake was released a few years ago to complete critical panning, driving viewers to seek out the original, unbutchered version.
This movie starts with a hard, cold open of a very young girl, Lucie, escaping an abandoned factory. She’s bloodied and broken, limping through the streets. Once she is rescued and brought to a home for traumatized children, she begins seeing a mutilated humanoid creature that regularly stalks her and occasionally hurts her. After fifteen(!) years, Lucie deduces that she must get revenge on the people who scarred her when she was a child in order to appease the creature that has been haunting and hurting her for over a decade. Armed with a double barreled shotgun, she forcibly enters a family’s house and massacres them in one of the most vicious home invasion scenes ever put to film.
And that is all you get as a synopsis before I enter heavy spoiler territory.
The Spoiler Free Bits
The above synopsis covers maybe the first ten minutes of screen time, and boy oh boy does Martyrs have room to grow after this. I find it interesting that it is such a divisive movie, with one side calling it reprehensible torture/gore porn, and the other half calling it a heady philosophical horror movie about morality, mortality, and the human condition which neither side willing to budge on the subject. While Martyrs is an unrelenting experience that exhausts you mentally and emotionally to a complete degree, you won’t find cinema’s most violent frames within it’s runtime. Even it’s less emotionally draining (and still excellent) French cousin, À L’intérieur offers blood and guts in spades more than Martyrs. Hell, even Peter Jackson’s dopey Kiwis-versus-zombies horror comedy outing Dead Alive has more splatter fare in it than Martyrs.
So what makes this French flick so revered among horror fans? Well, in my opinion, I think that Martyrs is nihilism distilled into 90 some-odd minutes. No, not filmic nihilism like The Bye Bye Man, but a true sense of overarching dread that I haven’t felt since the first time I watched the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There’s never any silver lining or respite offered to break up the pacing. You aren’t rewarded with a happy scene or some comedic relief for sitting through a particularly harrowing scene. Watching Martyrs is like watching your emotions get sideswiped by a semi truck in slow motion. There are some particularly bloody scenes with amazing practical effects and A+ sound design (I’m looking at you, that one time somebody is killed with a hammer), but it’s the investment you have with the two main characters, Anna and Lucie, that allows all the violence in Martyrs to hit as hard as it does.
For the most part Martyrs moves at a breakneck pace, constantly escalating in intensity and raising the stakes, scene after scene. It’s easy to dismiss this movie as torture porn (a label given to flicks that focus mainly on sadistic torture and exist only to gross out audiences and make people cringe. Think Saw, Hostel, Human Centipede, or A Serbian Film.) with it’s constant one-upping of itself in the brutality department but unlike it’s knuckle dragging brethren, Martyrs never revels in the gore. Every cut, every bullet wound, every bludgeon has emotional weight to it.
People descend on a movie theater in droves to watch Saw 17,841 which features no fewer than three dozen grisly deaths with plenty of dismemberment and disembowelment for the kids. It exists so people can ohhhhhh and ahhhhhhhh and ewwwwww over extreme cruelty dished out to the unlikable characters. This doesn’t happen in Martyrs. Bloodshed is not a spectacle here. It’s not bloody entertainment. It’s not something a bunch of dumb teenagers will watch in a theater on a Friday night and walk out imitating with their hands flailing and voices squeaking. Martyrs offers something a little more dense than your typical Eli Roth movie, but while a lot of people laud it for it’s philosophical themes I’m certain they think the movie is smarter than it actually is. I’ll cover more of that later.
Martyrs excels in atmosphere and mood, and I truly believe that it’s able to be as effective as it is because of its tone. It all compounds together with the great acting, production, and cinematography to build a cinematic force to be reckoned with. I don’t think Martyrs is for everyone. I’d argue it isn’t for most people. But if you’re willing to take a bit of a leap of faith to watch a French film that isn’t afraid to bowl you over and keep hitting you while you’re down, you’ll be rewarded (if you even want to call it that) with one of the most affecting horror movies you’ll ever see, guaranteed. It isn’t without it’s flaws; I think Martyrs is a few missteps away from being truly great, but it still completely lives up to the hype and notoriety it’s acquired over the years.
The Spoiler Filled Bits
Okay, now we’re on to the specifics here. I urge anyone who is interested in this movie to watch it before reading any further, because the less you know going in, the more effective all the twists and turns throughout will be. Ye have been warned.
Look up Martyrs anywhere on the internet and you’ll readily find that people have split it up into two main acts: the first being Lucie’s story and the second being Anna’s. I’m inclined to agree with them, and I love the creative choices made transitioning from one story to the next. Watching it and seeing Lucie kill herself after finishing off her quadruple homicide left me reeling, and I legitimately had no idea how the film would progress from there. I briefly paused it after that scene just to give my brain a bit of a break, but the timecode on the screen revealed to me that I was only halfway through the whole thing. How can there still be a climax after this? Where could this possibly go from here? My mind was racing as the second, more sinister half of the film started unfolding. Those thoughts that cropped up halfway through the film stuck in my head the whole time, from Anna’s discovery of the captured woman in the sub-basement to the introduction of Mademoiselle and her organization, I constantly was baffled by how much further the film was willing to go.
Without a doubt, the first half of Martyrs is bloodier than it’s successor, but it’s the second half that really walks the line of uncomfortable and hard to watch. The gore is toned down, sure, but your spirit has already been broken from the first forty-five minutes that the next forty-five becomes the segment most able to give Martyrs the undeserved label of torture porn. I say undeserved, but at a quick glance, all the ingredients are there. There’s even some gruesome metal contraptions used against the woman found in the basement of the home, which provides some visual similarity between Martyrs and Saw. Anna’s torture scenes were by far the hardest part of the film to watch. They’re relatively bloodless, but the complete lack of dialogue or music, and the compiled length of the individual vingettes can churn anyone’s stomach. It feels like twenty straight minutes of seeing Anna being broken down physically and mentally. The actual run time of that segment of the film can’t really be much longer than ten minutes or so, but it’s the sequence that led me to question whether or not I wanted to turn the movie off at least two or three times. Again, this isn’t akin to Saw or Hostel. There’s no glamour here, but while you question why you’re watching this movie during this part, it’s afterwards that you piece it all together and understand it all. I do firmly believe that this scene could be half as long as still be just as effective in context of the whole film, but I also understand that Laugier was going for a similar nihilistic feel to the infamous rape scene in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible.
So now, the big finale. You can argue that the film is actually split into three parts, Lucie’s story, Anna’s capture, and Anna’s transcendence, but the latter is short enough and doesn’t contain as big as a shift in tone as the first two, so I lump sections two and three together. One of the things I knew going in was that somebody gets flayed and skinned alive, which kept me hesitant from watching this movie for a long time. Now that I’ve actually scene it, I think that Anna’s flaying scene couldn’t have been handled better. After sitting through the arduous torture sequence and then getting the revelation that Anna has started her transcendence, being shown her skinning would have undercut the whole thing. Just being subject to the aftermath is shocking enough, seeing it unfold would just feel like a cheap gimmick to gross out audiences.
After the skinning and when she finally fully transcends, Martyrs makes another misstep with it’s final few minutes. When Anna speaks to Mademoiselle about the afterlife, Mademoiselle ends up killing herself after mulling over the information for a few hours. I would have loved to actually see Mademoiselle try and grapple with whatever information Anna gave her rather than just seeing her put a gun into her mouth and pull the trigger with a smash cut to black. I’m a big fan of Lovecraftian horror, and while Martyrs doesn’t fall into that category at all, I feel like having a scene where Mademoiselle is mentally processing information which was not meant for mortals to know before driving her to suicide would have been a better way to handle it.
Laugier has allegedly admitted that he didn’t have a ending written for the film and when he was running out of budget and time, decided to go for the shorthanded, ambiguous ending, but Martyrs is like any other piece of art and is completely eligible to be criticized through the Death of the Author lens. So let’s ignore that Laugier decided to pull off a hack ending, and figure out what Anna said.
You can assume that Anna revealed to Mademoiselle that there is an afterlife and it is beautiful, leading Mademoiselle to kill herself so that she could be sent there as soon as she could. It works, sure, but it seems to give a bit of tonal whiplash to the film. Martyrs is nihilism projected on a screen here, so the ending that both Anna and Mademoiselle will be off frolicking with angels in fields of flowers doesn’t quite fit. Maybe, Anna’s revelation is that there is no afterlife. She peeked through the other side, and saw nothing but the empty void. Everything Mademoiselle has done over the decades has been for naught. Hundreds of tortured and broken souls have passed in and out of her grasp so she could selfishly research whether or not there was life after death, and now that she knows for certain that there is nothing waiting on the other side, the unbearable guilt of her actions finally comes crashing down around her. The film ends with Mademoiselle killing herself, and Anna dying. The end. That’s it. Nothing more. That’s what I’m talking about. Talk about a dark fucking story.
So, a lot of people put Martyrs down because it brings in the concept of whether or not there is an afterlife, and it catches a lot of flak for attempting to be too artsy or heady for its own good. I disagree strongly with those feelings, because while I think Martyrs is a movie that stands above many others, I do not think it is an intellectual movie. I’m not saying it’s dumb, I’m saying that people are giving it more academic weight than it deserves. This isn’t arthouse cinema, meant to make you think or question your own moral standing or fundamental beliefs. I never got the vibe that Martyrs bit off more than it could chew, so I don’t feel like it was pretentious at all. In my eyes, Martyrs is just an exercise in showing the bleakest, most emotionally draining and heartrending movie possible. And in that, I think it succeeded.
I would advise those with weak hearts not watch Martyrs. I think it’s an important landmark in modern horror cinema, and deserves a watch if you are into horror that provides a complete and whole sense of hopelessness and loss of control. I don’t even know if I’d go so far as to say Martyrs was entertaining, but Martyrs does not seek to entertain. It seeks to make it’s audience feel. It taps directly into your emotional reservoir and bleeds it dry. Anybody who boasts how hardcore they are for watching Martyrs and not feeling anything missed the entire point. This is not a movie for those kinds of people. This is a movie for people who want to flirt with feelings they might never have felt before.