Thursday, August 27, 2009


Directed by Pascal Laugier
France / Canada, 2008
Horror, 95min
Distributed by: Pan Vision

Two young woman become friends in an institution during the seventies. As adults one of them takes her revenge on the people who held her captive as a child. This revenge is the start of an ordeal that will take them both beyond the limits of human suffering…

There’s been a lot of really great movies coming out of France these last years, and if you start with
Haute Tension, and follow the blood line from there, Haute Tension [Alexandre Aja 2003], Calvaire [Fabrice du Welz 2004], ils [David Moreau & Xavier Palud 2006], Frontièr(s) [Xavier Gens 2007], À l’intérieur [Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury 2007], Vinyan [Fabrice du Welz 2008], and now Martyrs [Pascal Laugier 2008] it’s definitely worth calling it the New Wave of French Horror that gets darker and darker, and so much more sinister with each movie that is released. Perhaps much more than the recent wave of Spanish horror, the French stays more on psychological ground where the Spaniards have made some very impressive ventures into the real of the paranormal. And we all know that a realistic psychological driven horror movie will scar you more than the average ghost story does. So yet again a French movie storms the scoreboard and pushes France back to the top of the current European capital of horror once again.

If you have not seen this movie, I will for a change stop you here and advise you to watch this movie, because I have been thinking about this film for the last two weeks, and I’m going to blow this one right open here and now and I will spoil the crap out of it for you if you continue reading. But the choice is yours, you could read on and then watch, or if you have seen it, read on and let’s discuss this amazing movie.

This is a very dark, misogynistic disturbing movie. Really it is. It’s nothing like those other movies claiming to be the most violent horror of the decade and all that bull. This is the real deal and honestly you will be disturbed, you will be affected and you will feel nauseous. But at the same it’s perhaps one of the most fascinating movies of the wave of new nihilistic horror that has been put forth during the last five years, as
Pascal Laugier actually manages to tell a story through the disturbing violence and sadistic torture scenes that make up the core of Martyrs.

The movie opens in the late 70’s where a young girl, obviously battered and assaulted, stumbles out of a desolate building and starts running down the street. The further away from the building she gets, the more she starts to realize that she has managed to escape (from an off-screen threat) and starts sobbing in relief in a scene that for sure had me conjuring up mental images of those iconic Nick Ut photographs of the naked Kim Phùc running down the road after the South Vietnamese napalm bombed the hell out of her village. And I can’t say that it’s unintended that Laugier wants these images to be brought to mind, as this definitely is the sort of imagery that will be used in the narrative later on. Anyhow, the young girl, Lucie is placed in an institution with other disturbed children and soon befriends Anna. After the exposition we understand that something really terrible happened to Lucie in that dark house, so terrible that she won’t talk about it. The pre-title sequence comes towards its end, and just as a sense of calm settles around the two young girls, the demon haunting Lucie makes its entrance. Calm bursts into unease once again. Cut forward fifteen years. A family goes about its morning rituals. Effectively the family is established, the good daughter, the dropout son, the proud father, and a wonderful red herring, the strong independent mom who has been fixing the water mains in the garden. As an audience we start looking for identification traits to see which of the two girls from the prologue is here. Is it Anna or is it Lucie who has been adopted into this happy family?

But you will soon understand that neither of the two pre-title girls are part of this family as Lucie [Mylène Jampanoï] makes her dramatic entrance into the house and slays all of the family with a shotgun and her emotional stare. This is also the first of many cunning plot twists that Laugier has written into Martyrs. Deceiving the audience into believing that one of the girls from the prologue is part of the family is a cunning device, and it also plays along with our familiarity with the genre. The poor traumatized child gets adopted and adapts into a new family before all hell breaks loose. But here the hell breaks loose as Lucie storms through the house taking her vengeance on the people she claims to be responsible for her abduction and torture all those years ago. Also we generally think of people who adopt lesser fortunate children to be nice people, so this really makes us uneasy, as we are not prepared for these “Seemingly nice” people to be gunned down. Little did we know, and this is an interesting topic for discussion; how do we define good and evil?

Just as in the pre-title sequence, when the calm returns and the gun smoke settles, Lucie’s demon appears again and this time we take part of the full fledged attack. Despite Lucie putting her hand in the blood of her victims and showing it to the demon, it still attacks, proving that it probably wasn’t the demons blood lust that drove Lucie to killing the family. But something else… The Demon savagely attacks Lucie, slashing at her back and body driving her out of the house and into the arms of her childhood friend Anna [Morjana Alaoui].

Anna arrives at the scene and starts to sort things out. Lucie tells Anna of the unseen demon attacking her again, and Anna indicates that she’s not quite on the same page as Lucie when it comes to the demon. But still, her love for Lucie is her drive and she goes about disposing of the bodies. Anna is the stable counterpart to Lucie’s frenzied psychosis. Anna sends Lucie to bed and starts clearing the bodies from the house. As mentioned in the pre-title sequence Anna has taken quite a mother role towards Lucie, and apparently still does, as she comforts, tends to and cleans up after Lucie. As Anna tries to dispose of the bodies, she also realizes that the mother is still alive!

Torn between her loyalty towards Lucie and her senses and values, she tries to help the mother to escape. A complex problem, as she acts out of empathy, but betrays Lucie at the same time. Once again the question of what is good and what is bad is raised. Should she help the surviving victim even though her lifelong friend was held captive and tortured by her? At the same time makes it known that she doesn’t really believe in Lucie’s motive for the killings. The heart broken Lucie observes Anna trying to aid the mother out, and after attacking the mother and making sure that she is dead this time, she turns her sights to Anna.

Once again the narrative makes a 180 turn and sports the two women against each other. Love and betrayal are strong themes that drive this part of the movie, as Lucie devastated and heartbroken after realizing that Anna has betrayed her, and on top of that exposed the tormenting demon to be just an inner demon of Lucie’s has a final break down. All these years of torment are too much for her and she rushes out of the house only to take her own life! The audience gasps in shock! This is probably the most effective shock death of the lead character since
Hitchcock first thought up the device back in Psycho in fifty years ago. It hits really really hard, and the audience never sees this one coming. Once again a brilliant plot device used to perfection by Laugier and this is still only early stages of the movie.

With her best friend and love interest dead, Anna turns to the only person that she has left in the world, her mother. Once again the Love/betrayal/disappointment card is played as the comfort she seeks in her mother is not received. At the same time the mallet that Lucie previously trashed the apartment with topples into a cavity behind the wall revealing an entrance to a hidden underground dungeon. Anna puts down the receiver on the counter and investigates the secret passage only to find that there is indeed a dungeon down below. A rush of insight hit’s us/Anna, as we realize that Lucie was telling the truth. The people she killed where the fiends that kidnapped and tortured her. Ironically the neglect of belief led to her suicide and Anna has to deal with the guilt of disbelieving her friend. But to make things worse, Anna finds a captive woman in the dungeon, solidly proving that this is the family Lucie was searching for all those years.

Anna helps the woman up from the torture chamber, tends to her wounds and tries to communicate with the harrowed figure but in a final twist the members of the cult responsible for the kidnappings, break into the house and seize Anna, imprisoning her in the dungeon.

Finally the movie moves into shocking new ground as it with out resistance moves into the harrowing last third of the movie, an even darker tone that what has gone before. Anna, now a held captive in the underground dungeon, meets Mademoiselle [Catherine Bégin], the ringleader, who explains what the cult are dedicated to; creating martyrs. By showing Anna images of severe death and torture (remember the Kim Phùc reference earlier on? Well here those images come back as part of the narrative), where the victims, have reached an almost trance like state. Mademoiselle explains that these people have overcome their pain and have found peace in their suffering, hence becoming Martyrs. Needless to say the twenty five minutes that follow are horrific and agonizing as Anna is tortured and battered continuously in the cult’s strange attempt to create a martyr. But at the same time there is something rather unique that happens here, as Laugier uses the final torture sequence to tell his story. Avoiding the traditional convention of close-up’s on special effects and shock realism Laugier’s prolonged suffering becomes part of the narrative.

Be warned, this movie is disturbing, very disturbing. And
Laugier has said on record that the movie is the result of a severe depression in which he envisioned the movie, which is appropriate, because it is a very dark and depressing movie. But after letting it sink in I started to appreciate the finer details of this movie, the innovative way that Laugier tells his tale and despite the terrifying ending actually gives us a somewhat “Happy Ending” and just how the hell do get to that conclusion you may be asking? Well with the smart and cunning use of a contrast frame which forces us to choose the lesser of two evils you can interpret this movie in the following way, but first ask the following question; Does Anna simply become a victim of the cult and die a terrible pointless death or does she turn into a heroic figure as she becomes a martyr?

Here’s how it works: the cult have been capturing and torturing young women systematically for years, and the chance of Anna escaping is minuscule. We understand that Anna will be beaten and tortured repeatedly until she dies in pain, goes insane or becomes a martyr. (And then dies elevated above the pain. Remember that’s what Mademoiselle told her happens to martyrs.) We come to the insight that Anna gives in to the pain and suffering when she hears the voice of Lucie telling her it’s Ok to let go and rise about the pain. (Lucie is Anna’s inner demon, but instead of a terrorizing one, she is a supportive, loving one. Facing your inner demons is part of the martyr process; Lucie had the caged woman she failed to save upon her escape, meaning that her demon is metaphorically her guilt coming back to haunt and punish her.) The tremendous amount of disturbing imagery we view as Anna is pushed further and further into oblivion, and finally skinned alive, we know that if she becomes a martyr she will be in no pain. So obviously by using the contrast frame we are manipulated into hoping that Anna becomes a martyr, for then she will be free of her suffering and will feel no pain of a continued beating and torment until she goes insane like the woman she freed earlier on in the movie.

So in a sinister and poetic way, by becoming a martyr Anna achieves the ultimate goal, she became free of our world and feels no pain hence escaping the tortures of the dungeon and the cult. Anna wins.

The added ending, with Mademoiselle and the cult is strange, but does offer a wide range of suggestive ending interptetations. Did Anna tell her what the afterlife is like, is there an after life or not? There are many questions to ask, and I feel that this ending, contrary to what many others have said, does not justify the violence towards Anna. This is a simple chance ending with no real logic, and I feel that this small appendix should have been clipped. Keep the ending with the cult gathering to show their respects and worship of Anna the martyr, but ditch this confusing last scene that really doesn’t add anything to the movie. The shock death of Lucie works, but you won’t catch me twice, so as soon as Anna is dead so is the movie. Time to brush off the popcorn, find the remote and flip over to the extra features…

In many ways I feel that
Laugier actually manages to achieve what many before him have feebly tried, but only failed. He brings the pain - pleasure, life- death full circle and by using a contrast frame he manipulates the audience to finding relief in the death of Anna. Her martyrdom becomes our salvation too.

In a brief summary the movie can be broken down into three parts with three different approaches to the narrative. All with equally disturbing impacts at the climax of each part. The first sees the back-story of the two young girls which ends with Anna being appointed a “real mother [platonic] to Lucie” and the crazed demon attacking Lucie. We understand that she is still not free of her tormentor.

The second part is the revenge and divergence of the two women Lucie takes her revenge, Anna helps to sort things out, we understand that Anna still is the Mother character in this relationship, and when Lucie takes her life Anna regresses to a child again, and calls her own mother for comfort.

The final third is the horrendous torture and suffering of Anna at the hands of the cult. Abandoned by all, Anna regresses even further, and when Lucie talks to her (through visions) the roles are flipped over, it is now Lucie who is taking care and comforting Anna, by speaking to Anna in her visions, Lucie clearly forgives the previous betrayal and allows Anna to give in to the torture, feel no pain and achieve the martyrdom.

Let me wrap this one up with some fun trivia, during the two weeks I have been turning and flipping this movie over in my head since watching it, I conducted an interviewing with
John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of fantastic book Let The Right One In for the TV show I’m working for. We ended up talking about Martyrs, which he saw at a horror convention in London, and his impression of the film was briliantly summed up the following five words; “Great Movie, Don’t Watch It!”

It’s a fascinating movie that
Laugier presents, it’s vile, foul, evil, disturbing and at the same time very poetic, philosophical and existential. We all have a fundamental fear of dying; it’s in our basic programming as humans. So forcing us to participate and by facing that fear and pushing boundaries is obviously part of the reason why people make and fans watch horror movies. And I definitely feel that Laugier manages to turn torture porn into torture art and in years to come I’m sure that the polarized Martyrs camps will still be as far apart as they are today, but Martyrs will have become a landmark movie in gene history.

Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

French Dialogue, Dolby Digital 5.1 Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian subtitles are optional.

An 85 minute long documentary on the
Making of Martyrs where Laugier talks about the movie his feelings about the movie, the process of making it. (Although no reference to that depression but references to his previous movie House of Voices) Cast and crew talk on the movie and there’s the equally amazing story of the cursed shoot with its accidents and obstacles to make this a very interesting insight into the film making process. Subtitled in English. Teaser trailers and the theatrical trailer.

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