What is this and why should you care?  There aren’t a lot of films which can give pause to a modern, desensitized internet veteran.  This is where we look at those films.

She thinks it's finally over.  It is not.

She thinks it’s finally over. It is not.

Martyrs is a gem in the crown of the New French Extremity movement, a collection of post-2000 France French films characterized by dizzying heights (read: depths) to the emotional, physical and spiritual assaults to which their protagonists are subjected.  The audience too.  Another characteristic of this movement is an abundance of female characters, and Martyrs is no exception.  The protagonists and villains are almost (with one small exception) all female.  Will it soften the impact of the relentless, stupefying cruelty to which the hero of this film is subjected to know that its source is a woman, just like her?  It will not.  The abuse is in no way softenable.

Martyrs, perhaps more than any film I’ve looked at under the WitD banner has touched me.  Probably inspired by the famous ‘ear’ scene from Pulp Fiction, many years ago I once declared that the scariest thing I could imagine happening to me would be being captured by some agent and then informed that I was to be tortured for no other reason than the entertainment of my captor; I would be powerless in any capacity to make it stop.  Pascal Laugier, decided to get right on that, and in Martyrs there is a full 35 minutes of the film dedicated to an extended, savage, blistering torture sequence.

Martyrs, takes a circuitous route to get there.  The first act feels a little like a Japanese ghost story type setup with a home invasion twist.  The second has a bit of a detective story/mystery feel to it, before plunging into the brutal, torturous aforementioned third.  These twists will keep you guessing just what you’ve gotten yourself into.

But is this entertaining?  Why would anyone subject themselves to this film?  Actually, it is, and there’s a George Mallory quote that belongs here.  We’re going to get into details and I urge those sensitive readers to abandon this pursuit here.

Martyrs

 

Chicks dig the scars

Chicks dig the scars

The film opens with old timey footage telling the story of a little girl (Lucie) who escaped from imprisonment and (specifically) non-sexual torture for years at the hands of unknown agents.  This abuse (understandably) scarred her, and despite police investigation the perpetrators were not discovered.  She is raised at an orphanage where despite immense social challenges she is befriended by young Anna.

The story begins in earnest 15 years later, as Lucie bursts into an idyllic Sunday morning family breakfast and murders them all (mother, father, son, daughter) with a shotgun.  This sequence in particular is riveting, as we suspect that Lucie has tracked down the people responsible for her tortures, and we struggle to root for her through her swift and remorseless behavior.  After the deeds, we discover that Lucie is in fact pursued by a spirit, or demon of some sort, a nude, scarred, cruel grey-skinned specter who somehow drives Lucie’s revenge rampage on.  This is the first point where the viewer feels like they know what they’re in for.  “Ok, this is a ghost story with some revenge, got it.”  Wrong.

Lucie calls Anna to tell her that she’s finally found and stopped the people responsible for her childhood torture.  Anna (after arriving) discovers that the mom was not killed by the shotgun blast, and she tries to engineer an escape.  Lucie, still pursued by an increasingly violent specter catches Anna and the mom in the escape attempt and batters the mom to death with a hammer.  Anna tries to console her friend, but Lucie realizes that the specter is a manifestation of her own madness, born from witnessing another girl trapped in the torture during her escape as a young girl and the guilt of being unable to free her.  She slits her own throat.  “Ok, wait, so she’s not the hero and there is no monster.  What’s going on here?”

Final, tender moments

Final, tender moments

The next day, Anna is cleaning up the house, and discovers a secret passage to a cement and steel walled bunker hidden under the home.  In it, she finds pictures of girls subjected to unimaginable tortures, and in the very depths of the bunker finds a mostly nude girl covered in scars with a steel contraption riveted to her skull, blinding her.  Anna releases her from her chains and takes her into the house to try and care for her, but a militia like group of men arrive and shoot her dead.  An elderly lady “Mademoiselle”, explains that she is part of a society which has been experimenting on young girls, believing that after sufficient ordeal the girls can be martyred and gain insight into what is to come in the next life, after death.  Queue dawning horror as Anna realizes just how bad a spot she’s in.

This has been a rough sixty-five minutes, and the next thirty-five only get harder.  Anna is shaved, beaten, fed, beaten, battered by a huge burly man who never speaks to her.  She is broken down by the relentless assaults.  None of it is sexual, mind you, so there’s that.  Regardless, after a particularly savage sequence she is visited by a vision of Lucie who instructs her to let go.  The torturer notices this change, and flays her alive, every inch of her skin and her breasts are cut off, so that only her face remains.  This allows her to transcend, and become a martyr.

Close to the end now

Close to the end now

Mademoiselle arrives, and asks Anna what she can see, and Anna whispers in her ear.  Mademoiselle gathers the society responsible for this madness, and they are told by a presenter that the experiment has been a success, and that unambiguous knowledge of what happens after death will be revealed to them.  As Mademoiselle is preparing herself for her speech, she asks the presenter if he can imagine what comes after death.  He answers “no”, and she tells him to “keep doubting” and shoots herself in the mouth.

We get a slow zoom on the wreckage of Anna’s body, and a bright white after-death light, and that’s the end.  Credits roll over the old-timey footage from the start of the film, Anna and Lucie playing at the orphanage.

 

Ecstasy or endorphin overload

Ecstasy or endorphin overload

 

 

Phew.  I’ve likely failed to convey just how draining this whole thing was.  The real success of this film is in the first half, where the rollercoaster ride between home invasion, ghost story, bunker exploration and captive rescue peaks keeps you glued to the screen.  It feels great.  It’s fast paced, exciting, almost a masterful indie horror flick.  Unfortunately with so much weight propelling the film forward, the end would have to be a spectacular success to pay off, and the whole reveal-but-don’t-reveal kind of feels like a cheat.  Wait, it doesn’t feel like a cheat.  It is a cheat.

The payoff is so frustratingly vapid that it reflects poorly on the rest of the film.  I can’t recommend this, except for the true connoisseurs of extreme cinema.  If you’re going to give Martyrs a go I salute you.  Put on a brave face, turn the lights low, and get ready for something unforgettable.

 

On a scale of 0 to AWESOME this movie is like going to a really huge expensive wedding where you really don’t think the bride and groom are going to make each other happy.  Drama and fun and then hollow disappointment.  Later while lying in bed reflecting on the evening you’ll be sad.

 

 

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