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 She escapes and ends up in an orphanage where she is withdrawn and alone until another young orphan befriends her.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.