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Monday, October 27, 2008

MARTYRS (2008) - Pascal Laugier

Lord knows where to start with Martyrs. Advance word came through that this was the most controversial film of the year. However, whenever I hear this statement, I always find the films to be either complete rubbish or undeserving of such a description. As I sat down to watch Martyrs, I knew little to nothing about it other than it was a French film and whatever the two line plot description on IMDB. I was unprepared for what I was about to witness.

Anna and Lucie are two orphaned girls. In the opening of the film, we see a young teenage girl, battered and bruised, running through what looks like an abandoned industrial complex. She is terrified and clearly fleeing something awful. She escapes and ends up in an orphanage where she is withdrawn and alone until another young orphan befriends her. Years later we see a family sitting down to have breakfast. They are happy. The perfect picture of a family. They young kids playfully bicker while the parents discuss what the older boy is going to study in college. This picture is violently interrupted by the arrival of a young woman bent on bloody murder. This is the older Lucie. She murders the family and calls Anna. There is something desperately wrong with Lucie. She is haunted by something which we are not clear anyone but her can see. Anna arrives at the scene of the mayhem and must clean up what Lucie has done. And as events unfold, things descend into something that can only be described and a horrific nightmare.

As I sit here wondering what to write next, I find it very hard not to go into detail. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, as Martyrs has to be seen to be believed. But that’s not a recommendation. It’s more of a disclaimer as nothing I can write can really do justice to what happens on screen. Martyrs is probably the most incredibly difficult film I have ever had to sit through. I’ve seen quite a few difficult films. Some were difficult due to the physical brutality the characters had to endure. Other, far more effective films were difficult due to the emotional hardship endured by the protagonists. Few films I’ve seen seemed to go out of their way to emotionally assault the audience. And Martyrs seems to want to do that in ways that the makers of the reprehensible Saw franchise could only hope to.

The film is split into two separate parts that, while connected by story, are completely different in terms of sub-genre. One half of the film feels like a psychological horror that relies on a creature we’re never quite sure is real or imaginary. The violence in this part of the film is pretty hard core in terms of blood and guts and is difficult watching. However, about half way through, the film takes a complete change of course and becomes something quite different to what came before. And it’s at this point that the film becomes a real test. The violence, both physically and emotionally, is relentless and brutal. At points I questioned myself, worried that I was becoming desensitised to what I was witnessing, but thankfully, found myself appalled at just how far things were going.

There’s one part of me that admires what the filmmakers have done. In ways, the film is comparable to the Saw franchise. But when put next to Saw, Martyrs makes Saw look pretty tame. The difference between the two is in execution. Saw relies on elaborate traps and imaginative death scenarios. Martyrs doesn’t have that kind of thing. It’s just about beatings. And beatings. And beatings. This is far more difficult to sit through than someone with something that resembles an iron maiden attached to their head with a key implanted behind their eye. That kind of thing is just ridiculous, where as we all know what it feels like to take a punch. And the despair that the film creates just never lets up.

The unfortunate thing with Martyrs is that the premise just doesn’t justify the violence. Immediately after the film, I found myself comparing the film to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. I initially thought where Funny Games was an answer to the audiences’ fixation on violence in 1997, Martyrs was an answer to those who love Saw and Hostel and those kinds of films. However, Pascal Laugier, the director of Martyrs just doesn’t give us a film that justifies what he puts the audience though. The concept, when explained, is quite novel. But it deserves a better film. By the time you finish Martyrs, you will just ask yourself; ‘why?’

It’s abundantly clear why Martyrs is the most controversial film of the year. In fact, I don’t think many films have ever come as close. The screening I was at was packed. But after three quarters of the film had passed, people were leaving. It’s just so difficult to sit through. My jaw hit the floor when I was told afterwards the film has a 97 minute running time. It feels more like a two and a half hour film.

I’m quite conflicted by Martyrs. It’s a very well put together film. The production values, make-up effects and acting are very good. I have to admire just how far the filmmakers were willing to push the boundaries. And the boundaries are destroyed, trampled into the ground and then defecated on. However, the script and plot really don’t justify the volume of violence in the film. You want to have a very, very strong script and one hell of a pay-off to justify what you’re put through in Martyrs. And I really don’t know what that pay-off would be. But Martyrs unfortunately doesn’t deliver. What is very clear about it is, it’s extreme. Few films come close. I won’t watch the film again for a very long time, if ever. I’d love to watch it again, to get a clearer view of how I feel, but I don’t think I could put myself through it. It may seem like a cop-out. But watch it and see if you could put yourself through it twice. As was once said in Futurama- You’ve watched it. You can’t un-watch it. A disclaimer for Martyrs if ever I heard one.



Uncle Phil said...

I appreciate your review completely. I watched Martyrs this past weekend and I've found myself mulling it over and over. In fact, I went to my Blocksbuster account and deleted all future horror films from my queue. The point being "I've seen the extreme. Everything else will seem silly by comparison."

What I appreciate about the film is that it doesn't offer any answers. Without offering any spoilers, I would say the ending perhaps indicates that the divine is available for those who have endured pain and suffering and not for those who have been its cause, such as "Mademoiselle".

On the other hand, it could play out as some sort of S&M manifesto that pleasure (salvation) can only truly be achieved through the enduring of pain and suffering.

Pretty weird, either way. But a brave film that renders the Saws and the Hostels of the world silly.

As you indicated, I can't now un-watch the film, so I must deal with its aftershocks.



PV said...

Martyrs are those who chose to suffer voluntarily in order to bear witness for their faith, a cause etc.

So, I do not see why the film is called Martyrs.

I watched the movie on DVD and I was able to see it till the end only because I took breaks.

Like you said there is much violence but the ideas behind the movie are pretty thin.

ankh said...

I watched the film as well, and i was very moved by it. But i think that the ending is justified and what happens to the old lady seems logical if you put it this way: Anna tells her the big secret if there is or is not a heaven, a God how does it look like. Maybe this is so big and so important that the human race isn't prepared for it yet, and the old lady realizes that and so in order for nobody else to know she does what she does in the end.

@ PV - Well I think the term martyr refers(in this film) to a person that dies in the name of God, of something Holey even if it's voluntarily or not. I think that is what the film tells us. How far would we go in order to know God, to see him, to have a certance that there is a afterlife, if this was the method.


Well, I have just finished watching the film with my wife, and we were shocked about how far did the directer go to reach this level of violence and thrill. I loved the film Vacancy that is why I searched about the writer and I found this movie. It is one of the best horror/thriller/mysterious movies that I've seen and I've seen quite a lot.
*Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler*
About the story... Well...I've been reading about secret societies and all that conspiracy stuff for a long time now and I understand the idea behind putting a person in so much pain, using torture and beating up and isolation; they by doing that try to shut down the consciousness leaving only the subconsciousness and then another reality is created in that person's mind, whether a dead girl or insects that exist only in imagination. Oddly and innovatively the writer presents the idea of the very very rare state when a unique person who is put through the same torture as the others but does not break nor create new consciousnesses or realities, but however reaches to the point between life and death...the very thin line between them. Then he/she can see what lies on the other end ,what is there after death, and lives to tell about it. It is the very old, ancient question: Which religion is right? but fortunately the writer does not go beyond that...keeping the audience baffled and shocked for he does not know the answer and cannot claim to do. And it was a perfect ending.
In Islam, the Qur'an indicates that when a person dies, he/she can see beyond the heavens; "Indeed you were heedless of this. Now We have removed from you, your covering, and sharp is your sight this Day." Surah Qaf (22).
However, I believe that the "Miss" the old lady did what she had to do because she couldn't accept the reality...couldn't handle the truth...I believe it is obvious that it comes down to two possible explanations to why did the Miss kill herself at the end...the writer answers that old question with embedded answer; there is nothing after death! that's why she killed herself out of quilt for she's been torturing all those people for no good reason...the idea behind the Martyr's look was false and there's no true religion and all doors are closed on her now...that's why she said "keep doubting" meaning it is better to not know than to know! Not having something to put her faith in is equal to death. The other possible answer is that the exact opposite; that there is an afterlife and whether it is Heaven or Hell ,at least for her, she couldn't bear being alive till she reaches there...and it is so confusing especially after what she said before she died..."keep doubting"! If it is Heaven then why not tell? and if it is Hell then why did she kill herself..she could've tried to repent in her remaining days! The end is confusing no doubt and that gives the movie its brilliance and keeps the door for interpretations open for a very long time.

raza said...

Watched this film and I have to say it does go further than almost every other film out there in terms of psychological and physical abuse. The ending however is open to interpretation. Mine goes like this....
There have only been four "martyrs" since the project began in the film. However only the final martyr actually speaks and reveals whats on the "other side".
The real mystery is what does the martyr whisper into the lady's ear? Well there are two possibilities.
1- that the project is a fail. There is no life after death. There is nothing on the other side.

2- Project is a success. Life or heaven does exist on the other side.

We can rule out number 1 because if the project had been unsuccessful, and the lady was gutted or regretful of the heinous nature of the experiments, she would have shut it down before she killed herself. After all, she was the head of this secret organisation and could have made any decision.

Number 2 seems highly possible because the lady has finally heard from the martyr what she had been waiting to hear for 17 years. That the project is a success. That life exists on the other side. And now she doesnt have the patience to create more martyrs only to confirm whats already been confirmed. She is so sure of life after death that she wants to experience it herself. So she asks the old man if hes ever imagined the other world. He says he hasnt. She says "Keep doubting" as she has found her answers and doesnt need to convince him or anyone else downstairs. She shoots herself.