Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2009

"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 worked.

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 movies.

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

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