France/Canada (2008) Dir. Pascal Laugier
Apparently writer-director Pascal Laugier wrote the story for this notorious and divisive shocker when in a depressive and suicidal state. I’ve written a load of stuff in a similar state too but I kept it to myself. I’m sure plenty of people wished Laugier had kept this to himself.
It begins with grainy home footage of a young shaven haired girl fleeing from a house, clearly having suffered some form of extreme torture. Fifteen years later as a seemingly respectable middle classed family is sitting down to breakfast, the father (Robert Toupin) answers the front door and is greeted by a shotgun blast that kills him immediately.
The perpetrator is Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), the girl in the footage, who proceeds to shoot the rest of the family before calling her best friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) to help clean up the mess. But there appears to be someone else in the house and they have their murderous sights on the two friends – except only Lucie can see her. Then things take a very nasty turn for Anna.
Nasty is a major understatement and if you’ve seen the film you’d know this; if you haven’t then no description will suffice in relaying the utter stomach churning, reprehensible and uncomfortable horror that is depicted in the second half. An argument could be made that the real Martyrs are the audience, but lead actress Morjana Alaoui is more deserving, truly suffering for her art!
Debate has raged as to whether Martyrs is part of the “torture porn” genre or the film that effectively ends the genre by going beyond all reasonable limits from which there is no return. Then there is the issue of whether the ends justifies the means – i.e: is there enough substance, story and room for discussion to accept this as extreme art or is it merely fetishistic and pretentious sadism?
There are no easy answers and I am not smart enough to proffer an argument either way, but the fact this film got a BBFC certificate (a very well deserved 18) and an uncut UK release says something. Not that this justifies anything but it does continue the fuel the discussion of what merits this film may or may not have, and it is hard not to be swayed or put off the graphic content.
Split into two decidedly different parts, the first half is a straight up revenge chiller, with Lucie finally meting out her own brand of justice for the torture and abuse she received and the psychological after effects, that left her haunted by the vision of a sinewy woman tormenting her. This information is shared through flashbacks, providing a shocking juxtaposition to the scenes of the regular family unit they appear to be.
Lucie shows the same lack of compassion as her tormentors by shooting the two innocent children (including a young Xavier Dolan), an act she regrets but feels justified in doing anyway. But as Anna arrives to help the spectre of the mystery woman in Lucie’s head manifests itself again (played by Isabelle Chasse) leaving Anna to fight two enemies.
At this point it is hard not to liken this plot to that of a J-Horror film with the vengeful spirit on the rampage and certainly there is a huge influence of Kayako from Ju-On: The Grudge in the mangled woman’s creepy contortionist movements. But once it seems the unabated carnage and copious bloodshed is over, Laugier channels his inner Takashi Miike and switches tact to something completely different.
Having been saved by strange group of people in black armed with guns, Anna thinks she is saved. Sadly, she isn’t. A woman referred to only as Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) explains what has really been going on then commits Anna to a future of unspeakable torture akin to what Lucie first endured.
Sparing no modesty for his actress and little concern for the audience’s comfort, Laugier spends the next forty minutes detailing the relentless and systematic brutality heaped upon Anna, pushing the boundaries of taste, rationale and empathy. This is intentional unpleasant, graphic and visceral; we feel every violent blow to the face, squirm when her long hair is forcibly cut and wretch when she convulses at being forced fed.
There is more but I’ll spare you the details if you’ve not seen it, so let’s return to the discussion of why this is happening. There is a reason – you won’t like it but it is there. It’s an existential and a long held curiosity for scholars, theologians and laymen alike but does it justify this? And should someone make a film about it? Laugier himself has wondered if he should have and has apologised to those who were upset by it.
Getting funding for this script was a tough process until Canal stepped up whilst a not very surprising shortage of willing actresses also dented Laugier’s confidence in getting this project off the ground. I can’t imagine someone reading the script and thinking “Yeah, I’m happy to be tortured and have my lovely long locks cut off for a low budget horror film no-one wants to back”.
Luckily for Lauguer, Morjana Alaoui was such a person and to say she gave everything to this role doesn’t do her committed performance justice. From the aforementioned genuine hair cut to having to slim down and doing many of her own stunts, not to mention the psychological effect she must have incurred, Alaoui is nothing short of phenomenal here.
I’m assuming Alaoui and Laugier felt it was all worth it and is very well made given the low budget. The end result is something that really stands out, to the point we are still discussing it to this day, almost a decade after it made audience members at Cannes bring up their lunches!
Martyrs is either allegorical genius or depraved provocation, a challenge to convention or deluded pretension. Either way, you’ll never want to watch this film twice.