Thursday, August 19, 2010

Movie Review: Martyrs


Going in blind to see a movie like Martyrs is an interesting experience. As I opened the case, I remembered that I didn't have any idea what the movie was about. I was only watching it after reading several glowing reviews on the Internet. 

In the DVD introduction, director Pascal Laugier says that he prefers the viewer to see Martyrs as a "virgin," not really knowing anything about it. Almost every reviewer says the same thing. And I agree. So I guess if you haven't seen it yet, you probably should stop reading this right now. 

The sort-of plot: A girl, Lucie, is haunted by a horrifying experience of being chained up and abused in an abandoned warehouse as a young girl. She escapes, and at what I'm guessing is an orphanage or something, she is befriended by Anna, who many years later helps Lucie in tracking down and taking revenge on her abusers. But the revenge is not the end of this bizarre story as Anna discovers a secret organization with terrible intentions.

Where the movie starts and where the movie ends are completely different. You never know where you are, or where you are going from one scene to the next, which is a total mind-fuck, but also makes for a truly unique viewing experience. We start off the movie following one character, and then end the movie following another. Also, the synopsis I gave above is not really what Martyrs is about. I see so many things going on in this movie: survivor's guilt, friendship and loyalty, the price of revenge, overcoming extreme suffering.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.
The film starts off with some disjointed scenes explaining what happened to Lucie and how it has affected her. There are short flashbacks of Lucie's abuse and her hallucinations of being chased in the dark by a monster who continues to hurt her. So the movie seems to have something supernatural going on. Then the next scenes are of a happy family having breakfast together. Then someone shows up at the door and shoots the dad to kingdom come with a shotgun. It's Lucie. Ah, so these people are her tormentors from 13 years ago.

This scene is extremely harsh in its violence. It starts out as a normal, funny, happy family scene with people whom we like even though we don't know them, and then suddenly turns very dark and unrelentingly violent. Lucie shows no mercy even to the innocent children of her abusers, so what are we supposed to think of her character now? She has most assuredly suffered, but now she has murdered innocents, like she herself once was.

Lucie calls Anna and tells her what she has done. Dutifully, Anna comes to Lucie's aid and sets about cleaning up the mess. The house must be pretty isolated, seeing as how no one heard something like 10 shotgun blasts, so I guess the girls feel safe sticking around the scene of the crime for what seems like FOREVER. But it's a means to an end. Anna discovers a secret passage to the basement where there is a badly malnourished and tortured girl. The organization that kidnapped Lucie as a child is still in existence and has become better organized and secretive. When they show up, fearing what has happened to the people who lived there, Anna is the only one left and they take her as their next victim.

The ?evil? Mademoiselle.
The head of all this is a woman known only as Mademoiselle. Before beginning their "process" on Anna, she attempts to explain their goal, showing Anna pictures of people near death with a haunted look in their eyes. She believes that these people have seen what few others have: the afterlife. Now they are trying to learn just what is in the afterlife by subjecting young girls to extreme suffering so that they might get a glimpse of what lies beyond.

The abuse on Anna is your standard torture. Random beatings, sensory deprivation, isolation, repetition. This is obviously something the people dolling out the abuse have had much experience in. Their actions are mechanical and emotionless, almost as if they are bored with it. And the audience is almost bored with it, as well. Where does this end?

Then we have the scene where Anna gets to the "final stage." And apparently the final stage means SKINNING THEM ALIVE. There are not enough expletives in the English language to describe my reaction to what they did to her. They set her up in this contraption, not showing what is happening to her until the next scene. It is slowly revealed, so that you're not really sure if you're seeing what you're seeing, you know? At first I thought she was just all bloody, but then I was like, "Her skin looks weird... no wait, that's.... that's not her skin... she... they did WHAT?? WWWWHHHHHAAAATTT?" I was truly shocked. More shocked than I have been from a movie in a long time.

So now I have that image and the final shot of Sleepaway Camp forever burned into my brain. Thank you very much for those nightmares, a-holes.

It's this kind of film that reemphasizes what I've known about horror films for a long time: it's not about how many buckets of blood or limbs a-flyin'. It is those subtle yet extremely powerful images that make a film truly unique and memorable. And those images of Anna's body completely skinned except for her face is something I'm sure many will never forget.

Anna is an undeniably kind person, which I believe is the reason she is able to achieve the transcendence that the organization is trying to attain. She is the only one to become friends with Lucie, a girl with so much baggage and trauma that most people would give up on her. But Anna doesn't. She supports Lucie in finding the people who hurt her and comes to Lucie's aid when she has taken her revenge. Anna is horrified at what Lucie has done, but she can't turn her back on her now. When Anna finds the girl in the basement, she comforts her and cares for her like a nurse. Again, when most people would not know what to do with this almost-monster, Anna instinctually tries to save her life. Her kindness is repaid. Lucie's voice saves her when she herself becomes a victim of the organization. She is able to overcome the suffering she endures and if what she saw of the afterlife was truly something to behold, then she very much deserves to enjoy it.

Anna's abusers see a change in her that they feel is what they have been waiting for, so Mademoiselle is summoned. She asks poor Anna what she has seen, which Anna whispers in her ear. More people show up to the house to finally hear the answer to their questions, but before Mademoiselle can tell them what she heard, she blows her brains out in the bathroom.

The question is: why? Obviously it had to do with what Anna told her. But what? Was her vision of the afterlife so wonderful that Mademoiselle killed herself to get there quicker? Was it because she thought she never would get there because of the atrocities she's committed to attain this knowledge? Or could she not live with the knowledge that perhaps there was no afterlife, or that it wasn't what she hoped it would be? There are many different ways to interpret Mademoiselle's final actions, and I'm not sorry to say that the movie gives no definitive answers.

The film is beautifully acted and shot, and while the director might be a little horrified at what he has created, I would be nothing but proud. It's not like anything I have seen before, and it stays with you long after viewing. There's so much more I could talk about with this movie - I didn't even really get to Lucie's character since the movie is a little more about Anna. Discussions are more than welcome. Especially from you, Aylmer of Unflinching Eye :).

Haunting, violent, thought-provoking, and beautiful. Martyrs is all this and more.

I can only shudder at this.

Am I ever going to give a bad review? Maybe my next review should be Bloodrayne or something.


  1. REally glad you liked it so much. It's such a polarising movie amongst horror fans. A real love it or hate it affair. I'm envious that you got to see it "cold" as it were, that would definitely ratchet up the experience to high levels of intensity. I go into so few movies these days without knowing anything about them!

    I too was deeply shocked at Anna being flayed, but that shot that travels down into the depths of her eye and then back out is what really made my jaw hit the floor. One of those rare moments in a movie where I felt lifted out of my seat and completely immersed in what I was watching. Without hyperbole: just blown away.

  2. jervaise brooke hamsterAugust 20, 2010 at 1:37 AM

    I saw this movie without knowing anything about it on a pirate DVD (like your gorgeous self) and i have to say that in my opinion it acheived a very bizarre contra-twat-tion in that i genuinely thought it was the greatest film i`d ever seen (no kiddin`) but at the same time i thought it was a hideous loathsome abomination that should never be veiwed by anyone ever again. By the way baby if you want to give a bad reveiw just watch any British made film at random and that`ll be the bad reveiw out of the way. One last item, "Revenge is a dish best served cold" what exactly does that mean? i`ve always wondered.

  3. @Aylmer: I haven't seen a polarization amongst horror fans for this movie... in fact, I don't think I've seen one bad review of it. Which is kind of why I watched it without researching it first. When so many fans that I respect say that this movie is great, then I figure I should just have faith and give it a chance.
    The shot in the film I felt was the most beautiful was when Lucie commits suicide and there's a shot of her from above with the rain coming down and everything... oh my, just gorgeous.

    @jervaise: It's an old proverb. I've always interpreted it as, don't get your revenge 10 days after the offense, but wait 10 years. The emotions would be too hot otherwise. Wait, and plan, and strike when it's least expected, perhaps when the perpetrator has even forgotten about you. They'll never see it coming.

  4. one of the best horror movies of all time. Everytime I watch it, it totally blows me away. A masterpiece!

  5. Yeah, maybe I'm exaggerating the polarising aspect a bit based on a few very outspoken haters when it first hit. It might have been a knee-jerk reaction by a few people to the majority of the horror community calling it a masterpiece and a work of art.

    I guess that's how I'm reacting now to the praise heaped on Inception. I thought it was a VERY GOOD sci-fi thriller, but some of the hyperbole I've heard about it is just ridiculous.

    That shot in the rain is gorgeous (and heartbreaking). What did you think of INSIDE? I really love that movie too. I find it equally beautiful and emotionally affecting (and the gore and violence is even more cathartic!)...

  6. I just moved Inside up to the top spot on my Netflix queue. I plan on writing a slew of reviews in the few days (I've been waaaaay behind) so hopefully that one will make it!

    1. Excellent movie, great review. Love your blog :)

  7. Awesome movie. American horror cinema doesn't come close to what the Euro's and South Americans are doing with horror (at least not lately)-- especially French horror cinema

  8. I have watched ' Martyrs' a few years ago when it was available at a Blockbuster Rental location . It is a very intriguing movie and posts many questions about our human condition. I watched it focusing on the principles involved . To me this movie opens up many interesting points to contemplate. It posts many questions and the answers can come in time. The movie is superbly crafted, directed and acted !! It seems to me that the Film Director does not have ready made answers himself, but opens the questions up to the audience. What did Anna whisper in her Tormentor's ear at the end and why did Mademoiselle kill herself ?
    This secret Society operated under the Guise of Science for many years torturing women and even children. Who are we dealing here with ? What kind of person you have to be to be a member of such a cult? In the movie they are portrayed as affluent and quite intellectual. But 'Science' is their excuse. Everything is a disguise to their true motivation ! They are like vampires operating underground. Mademoiselle is the head vampire. This quest of hers is her obsession !! She literally lives on the suffering of her study objects . Their suffering is her life force. She is completely addicted to this, like a vampire lives of the blood of others. When after all these years this cult finally found their 'martyr' in Anna, it all started to backfire. Addicted to' Power' over others and 'Special Knowledge' they were compelled to go through with when it presented itself in Anna. They have to keep up appearances with each other as well. They don't trust each other. By Anna succeeding, she took everything away from Mademoiselle !!! She fullfilled the quest. It doesn't really matter what exact answer she whispered in her Tormentor's ear .Mademoiselle cannot continue as before. She lost her mask ( removing her fake eyelashes and make-up before killing herself ) It was never about science, it was never about betterment. That was the excuse for all those members of the cult
    against their own conscience and guilt. Mademoiselle says at the end of the movie to her assistant Etienne : "Keep on Doubting" . ( Meaning: You don't want to know any answer ). All her hate is now coming back to herself. Her conscience cannot be held at bay any longer, so Mademoiselle kills herself being utterly defeated.