At The Picture Show
"Look at her eyes"
'Martyrs' takes a strange, potent trip into unexpected territory
The Weinstein Company
Director: Pascal Laugier
Screenplay: Pascal Laugier
Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin,
Patricia Tulasne, Juliette Gosselin and Xavier Dolan
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Now available on DVD
(out of four)
Martyrs is as disturbing and severe as any horror film I've seen in some time, and
yet it has a sense of empathy and existential curiosity that I can't help but admire,
at the very least. Even if I'm still trying to work out to what extend it really
Some may label the film pretentious. After all, the film's curiosity extends to - no
lie - the answers to the universe's grand cosmic riddles. And what business does a
slasher film have asking questions like that, huh?
The film constantly reinvents the nature of its own
narrative and steps into territory we couldn't possibly anticipate. What begins as
psychological terror takes a logical step into slasher revenge. That proceeds into
emotional terror. And then we take a huge left turn, and the film becomes
something reminiscent of an R-rated X-File.
By mentioning that Martyrs offers an angle on cosmic matters, I don't think that
I'm spoiling anything too severely, but if you'd rather not read too much, you can
stop now. I won't be offended. If it were me, I'd want to go into this film exactly
as I did - knowing as little about it as possible.
Otherwise, let's proceed. Mild to moderate spoilers ahead.
The occult has long been a touchstone of the horror genre, but rarely has it been
taken to such lengths as it is here, or dared so blatantly to take on questions about
higher powers and the afterlife. There's an odd poignance - is that even the right
word? - late in the film, as one character has reached a point where such questions
might have some sort of answer. Given what we have seen happen over the course
of the previous 90 minutes, even this pseudo-poignance is horrifying. You've
heard the term, "By any means necessary"? Yeah, just wait and see.
One very important character, played by Catherine
Bégin, is introduced a ways into the film - and it offers an explanation into what
has been going on. It is meant to prepare us for the ensuing half-hour (though in
some ways it simply cannot) as well as enlightening us on why exactly these
people are doing what they're doing. Then again, let's think about her assertion
that her "subjects" always get to a point where they see things that are not there. If
you've seen the film, just reconsider that statement. Because if that is the case, is
there also a chance that the final stage of the subjects' experience is also
hallucinatory? Is this one of the film's deliberate ambiguities?
I'm not certain, but it's at least something I've thought about - and merely thinking
or asking questions at all is more than I can say for most Hollywood horror
As I mentioned, the film shifts gears several times, so let's go back to the
beginning. We open on a young girl escaping from a dank building - where she's
clearly been beaten and abused - and finding her way to the authorities and into a
hospital. We don't know how she was first captured, nor exactly what happened
when she was being held. All the doctors know is she was severely abused - and
that it may have done a number on her psyche. They all think she's crazy.
Fast-forward to a few years later, when the girl, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), breaks
into a seemingly innocuous household and blows away the family that may or may
not have been responsible for her tortured childhood. She insists it's them, but her
lover/best friend, Anna (Morjana Alaoui), isn't so sure. Either way, she'll help
Lucie clean up the mess.
Needless to say, things don't go quite so smoothly.
There's a great sequence of events when Anna is alone in the house and begins to
discover the surface of the secrets the film will eventually uncover in greater detail.
Her own reaction to what she finds is strangely moving. There is a game-changing
moment that re-contextualizes all she has witnessed and all she's been through.
And then comes that hard left turn. Despite a bit of intentional monotony in the
third act, I can't say I wasn't fascinated by the direction writer/director Pascal
Laugier was going - in particular his antagonists' frightening conviction to their
stated goals and beliefs. Martyrs could reasonably be accused of taking itself too
seriously - a claim I've levied against countless bad horror films over the last few
years. But this one is so much more thoughtful than the norm, it earns its right to
take on the Big Idea.
Read more by Chris Bellamy