Monday, October 13, 2014

I'll Watch Anything!: Martyrs

by Patrick Bromley
Martyrs is a very good movie that I don't ever want to see again.

I've mentioned a few times on the site that I tend to avoid movies that are part of the contemporary "extreme" movement in horror -- titles like A Serbian Film, Inside, Frontiere(s) and 2008's Martyrs. I do this because as much as I love horror, I'm a real pussy when it comes to things that will legitimately upset me. There are images I don't want in my head. It's never the outlandish stuff, either; I can handle any number of exploding heads or three people being sewn together ass-to-mouth (I can remember what it's like to be 8 years old again), but have a very low tolerance for anything that feels real-world. I don't dig on pain and suffering and extreme violence that exists to show just how far makeup effects have come in depicting the most graphic and realistic vivisections one could ever hope to (not) see. And because even the die-hard horror fans I know and/or follow online have suggested that some of these extreme movies are just that -- extreme -- I've put off ever seeing one.

Well, regular reader and friend of the site Sol Ott called my bluff and asked me not just to watch Martyrs -- one such movie from the "new extremism" movement -- for an "I'll Watch Anything" column, but even offered to send me his Blu-ray copy of the movie (hear that, F-Heads? The bar has been RAISED). I would have done it because it's Sol Ott and we love him, but the fact that he made it so easy for me (and was so generous) made it impossible for me to turn down. The challenge was accepted. I would indeed finally see Martyrs.

And then I did something stupid. I watched the movie months ago and never got around to writing about it, which means that in order to write this "I'll Watch Anything!" for #ScaryMovieMonth I had to watch Martyrs AGAIN. How did I go from wanting to never see it to now seeing the fucking thing twice? I'm like a martyr for Martyrs.
Lucie (Mylène Jampanï) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) are best friends -- practically sisters -- who grew up together in an orphanage. Lucie previously escaped horrible mental and physical abuse at the hands of unknown tormentors and is now haunted by what she claims is a scarred woman who terrorizes her and physically assaults her. Cut to 15 years later: Lucie, believing she has found the people responsible for abusing her, bursts into a house and murders the family living there. She asks Anna for help disposing of the bodies; once there, Anna bears witness as Lucie is repeatedly "attacked" by the scarred woman. And then shit starts to get even more terrible.

I don't want to say any more about the plot of Martyrs, because even reading that bit of summary will already tell you more about the movie than I knew going in. And Martyrs is not a film that follows any sort of conventional storytelling structure, meaning the less you know going in, the better.

Ah, but there's that word "better," as though I'm saying you'll like and should see Martyrs. And I don't know that I'm saying that.

The film is very effective. Two-thirds of it are genuinely terrifying, albeit in very different ways. The last third is disturbing and upsetting. The movie has a lot of ideas. Some of them work, while some of them are ambiguous to the point of pretense. Writer/director Pascal Laugier was either overly ambitious in what he wants to say or else knew that he left certain things open-ended enough, the audience would fill in the gaps not so much with answers as with assumptions of depth -- it's clearly thoughtful and important because we don't quite get it. Having seen the movie twice now, I still can't decide where the truth lies.
But back to the good. It is an exceptionally well-made movie: beautifully photographed, even at its most vicious. The performances by the two lead girls are strong, informed by a lifetime of pain and fear. The practical effects are nightmarish. Much of the movie is nightmarish, really, from the brutal terror of a home invasion to the monstrous woman that only Lucie can see -- which, it just so happens, is one of the scariest things I've ever seen in a movie. Even as Martyrs begins to shift into its own version of a monster movie, I was on board. A lot of it was unpleasant, sure, but sometimes the job of a horror movie is to actually horrify. At this, Martyrs is incredibly successful.

It's when the movie shifts into something else entirely that I think it loses its way and becomes the film I feared it would be. Again, I prefer to talk around the specifics, so I'll just say that the movie finds a new way to be unrelentingly dark and painful in its last half hour. This is the section where Laugier's thesis is supposed to come together -- it's what everything has been building towards -- but it might be an example of a cake-and-eat-it scenario, wherein Martyrs tries to condemn that which it lingers on scene after scene. I suppose that's the point. Laugier is rubbing our noses in a kind of ugliness in an effort to achieve a higher understanding about violence and suffering. It's the kind of thing I can get behind in theory, but the way the film gets there makes it very difficult for me to argue that it's successful in practice.
But then maybe Laugier is just using Martyrs as a way of critiquing the treatment of women in the horror genre. In this, he is more successful. The two girls spend their entire lives fighting against a system that wants to brutalize and victimize them for their own selfish gains -- it's not exactly entertainment, but it might as well be. Reading the film this way makes it stronger because it gives focus to the central metaphor. Again, does it make me "like" the movie more? I don't know. Maybe. It's not an easy movie to like. Appreciate, sure. Be affected by? Of course. But I'm more likely to throw on a Friday the 13th sequel than I am to ever feel like watching Martyrs again. At least Jason Voorhees doesn't make me feel bad for liking horror, even if Pascal Laugier's points are well taken.

Ultimately, I'm glad to have seen the movie (even twice). I appreciate Sol Ott going to bat for it and understand what it is that he sees in it. If it exists to flaunt gratuitous violence for its own sake, it hides it well. Martyrs plays like a tour through horror in the 2000s: there's home invasion, there's monster/haunting stuff reminiscent of J-horror and there's "torture porn," ( a label I don't like) or the ultimate critique thereof. It's skillfully made, even beautiful at times, and it's the type of film that sticks in both the brain and the gut for days after seeing it. It's unshakeable.


  1. Awesome Patrick - I've been waiting for this review for awhile and thought you might be saving it for SMM! I'm glad so you...appreciated it - that was about the most I expected as I wouldn't say it's a movie I like, but I think it is a movie that deserves to be experienced. It's got a lot of problems but it's mostly successful at being affecting at the very least. People here talk a lot about chasing the "horror dragon" and really being frightened, and this one did it for me the first time and even the second time years later. Like you, I probably never need to see it again though - maybe you can pass it on to the next victim! :)

    1. Agreed, Sol and Patrick. One of the most important and effective horror films of the past 20 years. I too watched this twice because I had to show my wife (that was really awkward, btw) but she agreed that it was terrifying which is something that is so rare nowadays. Unfortunately I've grown so numb to being scared because of all of the horror films I've seen and when a gem like this comes along, it cannot be overlooked.

    2. How can I not be interested by these comments?

      I also stay away from a lot of movies. A Serbian film for example. I'm more a fan of over the top silly horror but once it starts to look real I don't enjoy it as much. Great work Sol for sending it. Its like the Ring movie. You watch it once and pass it on. You don't want to be stuck with it on the shelf asking you to watch it again....

  2. I haven't seen Martyrs or Frontier(s), but I'll defend Inside. It's hugely suspenseful, cranking up the tension so that it really earns its big shock/gross-out scenes. Probably the best use of scissors in a horror movie.

  3. I'm so glad you finally watched the film, Patrick. Now we'll all have to think of another film to hound you into watching. Gone with the Wind, perhaps?

  4. Great article/review, I am not sure I will rushing to see this movie anytime soon, but it was nice to hear someone feel the same way I do about that level of brutality, and sadism in some films. I can't ever say I don't like brutalized violence, I mean I was cheering to the walking dead last night when the "good guys" were finally the ones murdering swathes of peoples and zombies in the most violent ways. Though when watching a movie like Devil's Rejects, and a number of foreign, or independent movies that create an image that is supposed to try and communicate a realistic vision of the most horrific things you can do to a person physically, and mentally, it doesn't make me enjoy a movie. I would want to hate myself for ever reveling in the base suffering of another person. Not to a huge sense of surprise most people that enjoy horror I meet love these kinds of movies, and I feel like "really?" I can recommend something that is just as violent but does it so we aren't watching "Torture Porn" for example High Tension.

    Anyways, I am glad you watched it first. I will probably watch it if it comes up on Netflix. Sounds like there is some worthwhile scare in it. For tonight I am going with The Curse Of Michael Meyers. As for a suggestion for this fine article the 1975 film Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom. This may be one of the original movies that met the boundary of human sadism, deviance, and suffering. It was named 65th scariest film by the Chicago Film Critics Association, though the only monster is humanity. I won't dare you, or call you a "pussy" for not wanting to watch it, because no one should watch it, and you will definitely see images you will never forget. It is the definition of a one time watcher. Though there are many historians, and critics who give it praise as true art film. Make your own decision, and maybe write an article about it. I'd read it.


  5. When it comes to "extreme cinema" like this... my own winning move is not to play. :P

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