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Review: Martyrs

Martyrs, the 2008 film by French director Pascal Laugier, is one of the most intelligent horror films of recent memory. Its content is blistering and presents its viewers with a great deal of metaphysical philosophy. As smart as it is, it also exceptionally graphic, akin to its contemporaries like High Tension and Inside.  Its intelligence and violence are balanced by its mystery, the dark underbelly of its subject matter that it studies.
Full Review After The Jump!

Martyrs opens with a young girl, Lucie (Jessie Pham), running desperately through an area of abandoned buildings, her head shaved and covered in lacerations and bruises.  Clearly having escaped from a horrible ordeal, she is taken to an orphanage where she befriends Anna (Erika Scott).  While at the orphanage she begins experiencing attacks by a mysterious assailant, anude woman (Isabelle Chasse) covered in scars and blood.

The scene pans fifteen years later, where we see a family of four eating breakfast, holding a very normal conversation.  This seemingly ordinary day is quickly ended when a shotgun touting Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) knocks on the door.  Quickly dispatching the parents,  Lucie coldly continues to slay the two teenage children.  After an attack by the naked woman that leaves her with deep cuts in her back, Lucie phones Anna (Morjana Alaoui) to come meet her.  Anna is horrified by Lucie’s massacre, but quickly regains her composure and dresses Lucie’s wounds and aids in disposing the bodies.  While preparing to move the bodies, the mother, who is revealed to have survived, becomes conscience and is protected by Anna.  Before Anna can return to her, Lucie is again attacked by the naked woman, who she beseeches for mercy, tormented by the deaths she enacted.  After calming her, Anna returns to the mother, but is caught by Lucie, who proceeds to bludgeon the mother lifeless.  Once again attacked by the naked woman, it is revealed that she is nothing but a manifestation of Lucie’s guilt for leaving behind another imprisoned girl during her childhood escape.  Lucie tells the creature that she has killed the source of her pain, revealing that the mother was one of the people responsible for her torture as a child.  The naked woman is not appeased, and Lucie, accepting that her harmful delusions will never dissipate, slits her own throat.  She dies in Anna’s arms, leaving her alone in the bloodied house.

The following day while attempting to clean the house of the previous day’s carnage, Anna happens upon a secret chamber in the house’s basement.  There she finds an emaciated woman, naked, bound, and with a metal device nailed directly into her head.  The woman’s condition confirms Lucie’s childhood trauma and rests a fear that Anna had of the wrong family being murdered.  As Anna attempts to care for the woman, strangers arrive and fatally shoot the woman and capture Anna.  Their leader, an old woman called only Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin), tells Anna that she is a member of a secret group of people who seek the truth of the afterlife by creating “martyrs”.  Their attempts at deathly transcendence are explored by inflicting torture on young women, hoping that they will reach a state capable of attaining such knowledge while alive.  Mademoiselle informs Anna that they have thus far failed and have only created “victims” from their experiments.  Anna is made their newest victim and is locked in what appears to be the same chamber she had found before.

It is here that the film’s tone changes, as Anna is systematically beaten and degraded, becoming very weak over time, physically and mentally.  Eventually she has a hallucinatory conversation with Lucie, who tells her to “let go”, so as to extirpate her fear.  Following this, her captors note her change and inform her that she has made it farther than any before and has reached the “final stage”, from which there is no more suffering.  Taken to a sterile room, Anna is skinned alive, survives, and is left alone to attain the euphoric state it is supposed to induce.  Achieving transcendence by seeing the veil beyond death, Anna whispers the details of her journey into a Mademoiselle’s ear.   The following day, members of the secret society gather to hear of Anna’s experience, their goal finally reached.  As Mademoiselle strips her face of all accouterments, a member speaks to her through the bathroom door, doubtful of the truth behind Anna’s testament.  Mademoiselle pauses and asks the man if he can imagine what lies after death, to which he replies “No”.  Mademoiselle coldly tells him to “keep doubting” and proceeds to shoot herself in the head.  Before the credits roll, an intertitle states that “martyr” is Greek for “witness”.

Martyrs is an exhausting film to watch as its subject matter is often hard to stomach.  The pain inflicted on the victims contained within it is excruciating and is a very emotional experience.  Lucie’s tormented episodes are deeply saddening and are juxtaposed with scenes of her childhood imprisonment, alluding to the source of her pain.  In her first meeting with Mademoiselle, Anna is presented with a series of disturbing photographs that exemplify the transcendant state the society is trying to attain.  This state is demonstrated in the photos by the subjects’ eyes, all raised ominously upward in their last living moments.  This facial expression is reminiscent of Renaissance era Christian paintings depicting holy figures.  A very haunting series of images.  Anna’s torture following this is the film’s centerpiece, detailing the cruel methods by which this society attempts its goal.  Beaten, fed slop, and left almost naked in a cold room, Anna’s suffering culminates in her flaying.

The metaphysical questions that follow provides the film’s intelligent backbone I spoke of before.  Through the nature of suffering, the society desires to answer the greatest question of all: what comes after death?  Their methods, inhuman as they are, seem logical when you assume that being close to death will allow you to see behind it.  Anna’s experience is shown in a fantastical sequence that is hard to describe, but is not complicated, but visually entrancing.  Her description of this experience is enough to satisfy Mademoiselle, who commits suicide to reach this “beautiful existence”.  Anna “witnesses” the afterlife and lives to tell of it.  A point that interested me particularly was that only young women were used as “martyrs/victims”.  Women are born with the gift of creation, an interesting comparison with the aspect of them being the only ones capable of “seeing” death.  A thought provoking concept indeed.

Martyrs is a very hard film to put a finger on, as it incites a myriad of emotions from terror to sadness.  The scenes where Lucie is attacked by the naked woman are among some of the most brutal moments I have ever seen in a film.  The torture that some of the characters go through is painful to watch and their emotions are genuine, screaming out in desperation, clawing weakly for any sign of solace.  Martyrs is an emotional experience that exercises the mind and races the heart and is a truly unique experience not for the weak minded, stomached, or hearted.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. iamspoonbender

    November 17, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    If you are a fan of the horror genre, run to your local cool video store, and rent this. You will not be disappointed.

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