Directed by: Pascal Laugier
Released by: The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment
Review By: Matthew Dean Hill
Recommended DVD Source: Available Everywhere
Technical: Color; approximate 1.78:1 Widescreen, 16x9 enhanced; French; Dolby 5.1 Surround; Running Time 96 minutes; MPAA Rating "Unrated" for "Disturbing/Severe aberrant behavior involving strong bloody violence, torture, child abuse and some nudity"; Region 1 NTSC; One Disc
Yet another in my series of "neglected essentials"; movies that I intended to review and carefully analyze, but never got around to for whatever reason. Since I'm being a good boy and actually churning out a large body of work now, it's time to continue playing "catch up". That's OK though; I had to sit on this one for a while...let it stew. It's been a fair chunk of time since I last watched Pascal Laugier's Martyrs for the first time a few years ago. I put a distance between my first viewing and my second - an even longer time between my second and third. I've gone through various and disparate phases of reaction to this movie. After first watching the film, it played out somewhat differently in my mind after the fact. It was somewhat surreal, as if I was remembering an altogether different film than the one I thought I was remembering. I couldn't really figure out why, until shortly after the second and third viewings, respectively. What started to become a bit clearer was that Martyrs works on the mind in very specific ways. It pushes certain buttons sometimes, when your mind is more receptive to those things. With each successive viewing, the story and action seem less important. The overall meaning...the message of the film, if you will, becomes more and more important; more vivid and affecting. Disgust, shock and awe give way to acceptance and cynicism. Grief and horror give way to respect of the film's eerie beauty and spiritual depth. You see things differently, and notice details that weren't immediately apparent the first time around. So what's all this hyperbole leading up to? Martyrs is not just a horror movie, though it certainly fits neatly into the genre. It's not merely "torture porn" (though there are moments when it's torturous to nearly pornographic levels to behold). To simply attempt to slide it neatly into any particular box isn't as easy as it might seem. I'm sure that most of you reading this will have already watched Martyrs, and maybe you think you've even developed solid opinions on the film. I can promise you, if you've only seen it once, then you're wrong. Dead wrong.
Dear reader: my apologies in advance, but screw you. I'm not synopsizing Martyrs in any detail. I'm sorry if this offends you, or leaves you hanging. This is a movie you need to discover for yourself. If you haven't seen it, I'm not going to ruin a single moment of the film for you. If you have seen it, go watch it again and come up with your own detailed synopsis. All I'll say is that the movie concerns a young girl named Lucie narrowly escaping the clutches of an unseen and highly evil captor, clearly having been tortured and starved to near-death. She's "rescued", and goes to live at an orphanage, where she's befriended by another young girl named Anna. Flash forward to maybe a decade or so later, when the two girls are in their early twenties (now played by Mylène Jampanoï as Lucie and Morjana Alaoui as Anna). Together, they embark on a mission to investigate the tortures endured by Lucie so many years past, and to come to terms with everything that may or may not have happened. What they find is both far bigger and more terrifying than either of them could have possibly imagined, and both a thousand times simpler and more cruel. After a very specific point, the film shifts from a relatively standard narrative, to a series of events that makes everyone involved (especially the viewer) question the nature of reality and existence, of memory and dreams, of pain, faith, and the very nature of the universe. Heady? Convoluted? Perhaps, but it works, and works staggeringly well.
It's not often that a horror film ventures so boldly into the realms of heavy philosophy, but Martyrs does just that. It's an expression of existential and theological nihilism. Though some of the characters seek deeper meaning (or even the "ultimate" meaning) in all of the violence, pain, and terror that takes place, it's ultimately for naught. Secrets meant to be kept will be kept, no exceptions. Laugier's rather downbeat assertion appears to be that nothing that anyone does has any real meaning; no long-term effect on anything other than oneself. It's hard to qualify and quantify these themes in this context without heavily spoiling the film; suffice it to say that every single character, protagonists and antagonists alike, has their individual perceptions of reality, morality, and existence tested, twisted, and ultimately, shattered like sun-bleached bones under a hammer. In this way, Martyrs is a truly transcendent film. It transcends borders of genre without ever betraying what it is at its core. Imagine the first two Hellraiser movies, but remove the explicitly supernatural and "demonic" explanations of events; you'll have an idea of the kind of territory that Martyrs explores. It sticks with you. It demands that you open your mind to it, and then both cruelly punishes and richly rewards you for doing so.
No offense intended to anyone, but what is it with the goddamned French, anyway? Why do they consistently beat us at our own game? How? Dang it, Ah-mur-i-cuh invented horror movies, right?
It's true that there have been a spate of genre movies from France over the last, oh, fifteen years or so, that have absolutely schooled and humiliated our own horror film "industry" in nearly ever conceivable way. What is it that makes many (but certainly not all) of their horror pieces so fucking amazing?
Allow me to toss some conjecture into the mix. As near as I can tell, it really comes down to the degree of intelligence that the filmmaker attributes to his or her audience. A case in point: as of this writing, Martyrs is slated to be remade for the American market.
Originally, it was suggested that star Kristen "Twilight" Stewart was being considered for one of the leads, though this has since been debunked.
However rumor has it that the director is shooting for a PG-13 rating, and will be "a less 'dark' affair".
Let that sink in for a few minutes...
PG-13? "Less dark"? Dear American film industry, you will fuck this up, and I will never forgive you for it. I know, spoken like a true geek, right? This is a story that should not pander to the audience. It should not play into their expectations. It should be merciless in its approach and imagery. The sheer strength...power, even...of Martyrs is that it forces the viewer to visit places in their own mind that are not often happily visited. It's an example of how horror cinema can be true to its roots but still remain, first and foremost, art. It's cruel and intense, that's true. But it's also intensely beautiful. It breaks down beauty, and utterly destroys it. Then it attempts to build it back up again...recreate beauty in its own image. And it succeeds. Yes, Martyrs an overtly, infectiously violent film, but the moment you water down the existential panic central to the original story, any violence that you do portray becomes inherently and completely gratuitous; that's how that works.
While every cast member of Martyrs is deserving of whatever accolades can be thrown their way, the two leads are absolutely perfect. Perfect. They are unrelentingly gorgeous, terrifying, and delicate in equal measure. Much of the focus has been on Morjanna Alaoui's performance as "Anna", and she does deserve a huge amount of praise (which I'll dish out in a moment). But first, I'd like to give some credit to Mylene Jampanoï, whose performance as "Lucie" is absolutely stunning and fearless in its own right. She so readily straddles the line between a woman possessed by the demons of revenge and the confused, injured fawn trying to make sense of her own fate. In mere seconds, she's able to convey the gamut of human emotion, and do it all whilst covered in blood and gore. This is one of the most realistic portrayals of a clinically and violently schizophrenic woman ever committed to film, and Jampanoï deserves at least as much (if not more) praise than her costar. That said, Morjana Alaoui is the ostensible main character, at least after a certain point in the narrative, and as such, it's her job to carry the film. Anna needs to be emotionally strong...much stronger than Lucie. She also needs to be believably tough physically, not in a buff "I'll kick your ass" kind of way, but in a fiercely-determined way. If Lucie is driven by revenge, guilt, and utter confusion, Anna is driven that much harder by love for her friend, and most importantly, the will to live, no matter what happens. Alaoui admirably covers all this ground (and more) with her performance, and later in the film, when it really matters, she's able to convey the terror of a woman kept alive by sheer force of will. The things she will witness (an important word that I'll touch on more in a moment) would strain any human. Fantastic performances all around by the supporting cast as well, especially Catherine Begin as the cruel but calm and driven "Mademoiselle".
There are simply too many effective elements of Martyrs; it's an amazingly complex film, and it would be impossible in this context to discuss them all. A book will be written someday (by me, perhaps?) covering the myriad intricacies of the film. That said, Pascal Laugier is a devilishly-talented filmmaker. His command of every element of his film is admirable. This can't have been an easy or pleasant film to make, for anyone involved. Given that, after the first ten minutes or so, the film plays out in essentially two core locations, it must have been a fairly claustrophobic affair. Again, I'm not going to spoil a second of Martyrs, but there are certain sequences...long, continuous takes...that consist almost entirely of one person being savage and realistically beaten (and worse) by another person. To stage this kind of thing over and over again in multiple takes, and within the context of multiple scenes, must require a singularly-focused mind, not to mention utter devotion to the "message" of the film. I hate to casually attribute the words "art" or "artist" to a film or its maker, but this film is art, dark though it may be. I've heard it argued that the Nine Inch Nails album "The Downward Spiral" is the purest musical manifestation of nihilism. In the same way, Laugier has crafted the most vivid cinematic depiction of a certain kind of nihilism that could be imagined. This is no faint praise, and while it will definitely leave the viewer with a bit of an "off" taste in their mouth, it will definitely stick with the viewer for a long time to come. In the right frame of mind, this film is like cinematic Lysergic. It opens doors, alright, but be warned. Sometimes doors remain locked for a reason. After all my waxing philosophical is said and done, it bears repeating that Martyrs is, first and foremost, a horror movie. As such, it must scare and startle you, or at least, give you a good case of the heebie-jeebies. Take comfort that, in addition to all the artistic heights to which the film aspires (and generally achieves), it's also a damned scary movie. C'est magnifique, Monsieur Laugier. Votre film est délicieusement diabolique.
This DVD release from The Weinstein Company is quite nice. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1, and is enhance for 16x9 displays. The film is intentionally muted in its pallet - a lot of cold grays and whites, springing into bold reds when the bloodshed starts. As such, the color is appropriately muted on the transfer. The only complaint I really have about the transfer is with the sometimes artifacted blacks. It's usually not distracting, but it really should've been cleaned up a little more. The 5.1 surround track is booming and threatening when it needs to be, and really pops in certain key sequences. Special features are relatively scant; some introductory (and oddly apologetic) comments from Pascal Laugier, and a couple of trailers. However, there is an hour-long beautifully-constructed making-of piece, with a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage that really lend some solid perspective to the process, and the almost literal (but highly-organized) hell that all involved must have experienced. I don't know, it's hard to hold it against a release for not containing a commentary, but man, this is one flick that I need to hear a commentary about. Laugier? Weinstein company? Make with the uber-edition, please. This film deserves it. Martyrs is a fabulously-disturbing movie, and one that challenges the viewer to examine and reexamine their emotions...their feelings on life, death, pain, perception, and the willingness to survive.
- February 27, 2011
The Atrocities Cinema Scoreboard(ranks out of five)