Martyrs directed by Pascal Laugier is one of those horror films that is known being both highly controversial and offers further room for analysis and discussion. It's part of the New French Extremity movement and is in the vein of many exploitation horror films. Needless to say, it's pretty disturbing. During my first viewing I had to take a moment to compose myself. It's extremely gory, of course, that should go without saying, but it's more so the existential undertones that can really get to you.
The film is set in the 1970s and opens with a young girl, Lucie, dirty and wearing filthy rags, stumbling down the street. It's clear that she has been abused and although the audience isn't quite sure of the extent of that abuse, it's a scene that already puts you in a state of unease not a minute in. She befriends a little girl named Anna there at the orphanage she is taken to, but it's clear that she has suffered deep psychological trauma.
The film cuts to 15 years later, where Lucie (now played by Myiane Jampanoa) seems to have found the family that has wronged her. Mother, father, and two teens. The matriarch is her target, but Lucie kills the other three family members anyway. Guilty by association, I suppose. It's bloody. It's horrific and throughout, the audience can't help but wonder if this is really the family that has wronged her. This is all but confirmed when Lucie breaks down and calls Anna (now played by Morjana Alaoui) who she's not only still friends with, but seems to be her only support system.
Anna, who seems to be romantically attracted to Lucie (though this is not delved into further or reciprocated) offers to help, sensing they'll have no other choice. After she gets Lucie cleaned up she begins to take care of the bodies herself, first digging a big hole and then dragging them one by one to their final resting place. Meanwhile, Lucie is attacked by a scarred, ugly humanoid creature that's is as creepy as you can imagine. We had a flash of her when Lucie was a child, so now it's clear that something has been following her.
One of the family members ends up being alive, the mother, but before Anna can save her (which she does try to do) Lucie bludgeons the mother to death. She is hellbent on attacking Anna as well, for her betrayal, but the same disturbing creature strikes Lucie again. Only the creature isn't real. A flashback shows that this monster is the manifestation of Lucie's guilt, having left another child behind when she fled the orphanage. The most horrific part of this is the knowledge that every wound, every drop of blood caused by the creature has been caused by Lucie herself.
Warning! if you haven' t seen the film and do not want to be spoiled stop now! The rest of this will be extremely spoiler heavily, as knowing the full plot is necessary to understand what works well with the film, as well as analze it further.
In any case, Lucie can't shake free from the mental cage she is locked inside of.
It is in that vein, and with the knowledge that she will never be sane, Lucie kills herself.
The movie could have ended there, and I would have called this a weird, if not good horror short, but it doesn't. Instead Anna finds a basement area that houses an underground facility. I will not concentrate on the logistics of this, but she also finds a woman named Sarah who is being tortured. Somehow this woman makes the previous creature look a little less disturbing. Immediately, Anna goes into helper mode and tries to get Sarah to safety.
That doesn't happen because a group of strangers burst in and gun down the strange woman. They take Anna captive inside that very basement where she meets their leader, Mademoiselle. The Mademoiselle explains that the group, including the mother of the deceased family, is a philosophical society that is trying to understand what lies beyond death using "martyrs." In the context of the film, the word martyr means witnesses. These are the individuals that have reached the threshold of death to the point where they are still alive, but just barely, and thus can relate back what they have seen.
What happens next can feels like an entirely different film and it's even more painful to watch. That's because Anna is then brutally tortured, and we see her have her humanity stripped away, lash by lash, inch by inch. Finally, after being beaten and degraded to the point of near-death she is told she has lasted longer than any other test subject and thus she gets to undergo the next stage.
Being flayed alive.
Now skinless and in a crucifixion pose, the Mademoiselle is summoned, because Anna is not only still alive, but she has a strange, there-but-not-there look on her face. The society is gathered while Mademoiselle meets with Anna directly, who is still skinless but now laying on a slab. She whispers something to Mademoiselle. When it is time for her to go down and tell the others she is asked, by her assistant, what it was that Anna said. Mademoiselle tartly replies to "keep doubting" and then kills herself.
So, is the film any good?
It depends. I think there is no question of whether this film is impactful- it is. Regardless of what you think about it, it's going to spark some lively debates. I thought it was extremely well done. Laugier didn't just create the film he wanted to, without any inhibitions, he created a work of art. I say that without any kind of pretentions behind it. The film is well acted and even if you do not speak French, each emotion and realization is expertly translated from the leads into the minds of the audience.
Although the film feels like two different pieces combined, and in some instance, it felt like it might tug into a different direction altogether, this doesn't completely detract from the film's pacing. Each time I felt like I might get lost, I was immediately pulled back into the action. The same could be said if I felt confused or lost at any point. For instance, just when you begin to question whether or not this is the family truly responsible for Lucie's horrific childhood, we are immediately answered with a new burst of information. It's a technique that can sometimes overwhelm the viewer, but in this case, it works, really well.
The movie can also be lauded for its handling of the grotesque and macabre. It doesn't translate into torture porn in the way that other films in the genre do. The real horror is purposeful, it's realistic even if some of the mechanisms used to torture the martyrs is insane. That's what makes the film especially horrifying. It's daunting enough to be psychologically terrifying and its gory to the point of disgust, without dismissal.
This is a true horror experience and one that will leave you transcending a different plane of thought by the end.