I’ll give this to my teachers: When they assigned torture porn, they didn’t do half-measures.
I knew of Martyrs by reputation, with the reputation being a mix of “One of the goriest films ever,” and “GAAAAAAHHHHH.” And that got me excited because this was coming from die-hard horror fans; people who have seen the worst of the worst and they were still affected by this film. I was ready to jump in with both feet by watching it in my darkened apartment right before going to bed.
Instead of making me afraid of possible nightmares, Martyrs helped me drift off to sleep by being so boring. [Spoilers and gory images ahead]
The film had a promising start by looking like it would be an examination of the horror of child abuse filtered through a supernatural lens. As a child, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) was tortured by mysterious kidnappers, and her only friend at the asylum was the kindly Anna (Morjana Alaoui). 15 years later, Lucie discovers her tormenters—the parents of a perfectly suburban family complete with two kids—and murders all of them including the pre-teen daughter. She doesn’t hesitate because she believes it will rid her of a violent, spectral demon that causes horrific acts of mutilation. When Anna discovers what Lucie has done, she attempts to help her friend clean up rather than help them run as far away as possible.
Martyrs continually tested my patience and suspension of disbelief. One could argue that Anna is scared, which explains why her attempt to cover up the murder is so sloppy. Even if she managed to clean up all the blood splatter resulting from Lucie using a shotgun to kill the family, she makes no attempt to wear gloves or use anything that would hide evidence of her or Lucie’s presence. It’s more like the movie is giving her something to do until its first big twist, which is Lucie committing suicide a third of the way into the picture.
It’s the first of two big twists, although I hesitate to use that word since the twist doesn’t stem naturally from the plot as much as it feels like the movie has no choice but to make a hard right turn or it will run out of room. We can only watch Lucie fight off her demon and Anna suck at covering up murders for so long. It never feels like writer-director Pascal Laugier was organically building a narrative as much as desperately looking for something to do next.
And he finds it when Anna uncovers a pristine murder basement in the middle of this perfect suburban home. When she descends into the dungeon, she discovers a shackled victim who has had a metal visor surgically implanted into her skull. In an attempt to help this poor woman, Anna, who for some reason doesn’t decide to cut her losses and call the police and an ambulances, proceeds to remove the visor herself. It’s gross, but that’s all the movie really is.
Once Anna is discovered by the shadowy organization responsible for these kidnappings and act of torture, Anna is herself imprisoned, and it became clear I had been assigned to watch torture porn. Granted, I should have figured it out earlier considering the disgusting brutality on display throughout, but I kept trying to give Laugier the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was commenting on child abuse. Perhaps he’s lingering on the shot of the dead daughter because we’re meant to identify a cycle where abuse is passed down to the innocent.
But once Anna discovers the dungeon, I lost interest because the movie has clearly left the realm of reality as she sees giant blow-ups of dying people on the walls (these people are later described as “martyrs” because they saw something before they died, and their visions are unrelated to religion). Instead of being wrapped up in terror or mystery, I’m just wondering, “Where do you get those blow-ups made? Did the people at French Kinkos have questions?”
Then they just start torturing Anna, and I no longer cared because torture porn is boring. It’s shock with little regard for story or character. If the movie doesn’t care about Anna as a real person, why should I? She’s a thing, and I would give Martyrs credit for being a smart and subversive comment on torture porn since Anna is being tortured to bring enlightenment to the shadowy organization, and the only discovery is too terrible to even mention. However, nothing in the movie shows that kind of commentary. If anything, it feels like it’s completely up its own ass as it points out the dictionary definition of “martyr” as “witness”. Thanks, Merriam-Webster. I learned something.
Since I didn’t have any interest in Anna or the torture, I found my mind drifting to the organization. I began to wonder about their structure. Do they have 401k’s? How’s their dental plan? What’s the application process like? Do they buy their own black clothes or are they supplied by the company? Was there a particular reason they decided to flay Anna, or was that just the grossest thing Laugier could think of?
Maybe I missed the point of the lesson. Here’s what Perri and Evan had to say:
Why did I select the film? I’m pretty sure I’m not the one who selected this film. Sitting through this one once was more than enough for me. I’m not easily scared and often complain about how horror movies rarely make me want to pull the covers over my eyes like they did back when I was a kid, but Martyrs was just too much. I don’t even think I could recommend it to someone considering how I felt when I was done with it.
What do I think about the film in general? I hate this film. But is it a bad film? Not in the least. In fact, both characters are engaging, their predicament is exhilarating and fun to track, and the movie’s got no trouble supporting its big twist. My only problem with Martyrs is that it’s too scary. This isn’t a movie that’ll have you checking under the bed or leaving the lights on at night, but rather one with a grand finale that’s so unnerving, it’ll eat away at you long after it ends. I welcome horror movies that will make me think twice the next time I hear a mysterious noise in the middle of the night, but I mostly certainly do not want to feel deflated and distraught, and that’s exactly how I walked out of Martyrs.
How does it relate to other horror movies in its subgenre? The problem with a good deal of torture porn films is that generally, they’re loaded with gore for the sake of gore. Martyrs, on the other hand, is torture porn with a purpose. Again, that purpose was a bit too much for me, but there’s also no denying that Laugier came up with a clever way to justify the unprecedented violence that goes down in the third act of the film.
Why did I select the film? I must confess that I get a thrill out of recommending almost perversely extreme films to non-genre aficionados. There’s something about knowing that, within a few days of that recommendation, that person will be squirming in their seat as they watch it. I think it ties into my family’s love of practical jokes, even though I do like the film.
What do I think about the film in general? I really like and admire it as an exercise in boundary pushing and am glad it has the thematic substance to justify its extreme measures. But it’s not something I’d watch more than twice. I’m more of a fun horror guy than an extreme horror guy.
How does it relate to other horror movies in its subgenre? It’s more artfully crafted than a lot of the mid-2000’s heavy gore fests. But I don’t think people gravitate towards it like they do Hostel or the Saw sequels because, again, it’s not a lot of fun. No one sits around on a quiet Sunday afternoon and just decides to toss on Martyrs.
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