15 years after escaping from a place of unexplained and unsolved torture, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) storms into the home of a suburban family with a shotgun and massacres them in cold blood – believing them to be the people who tortured her as a child. Once her best friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) arrives to help clean up the crime scene, it becomes apparent that not everything Lucie believes is real – and that the truth may be much, much worse.
Martyrs, written and directed by Pascal Laugier, is a 2008 French thriller. It was immediately controversial upon release, with the French classification board giving it a prohibitive 18+ rating before an industry outcry led to them re-rating it 16+ instead. It is regularly held up as one of the pinnacles of the New French Extremity – which I touched upon recently when reviewing Inside (2007) – as well as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made. It is absolutely both of this things: Martyrs is original, deeply unsettling, and throws its audience into a spin not once but twice before the story is complete. Any full discussion of its merits involves describing those shifts; readers unfamiliar with the film should know that it is a challenging work, is remarkably bleak, and contains some highly graphic depictions of violence and torture. They should also stop reading here, until they have either seen the film or decided they do not care about having the plot somewhat spoiled.
The film is a difficult one to pin down. After a brief prologue to set up the premise and introduce its two protagonists, it dives straight into something resembling a home invasion thriller. That thriller does not last long, however, since Lucie faces little resistance and is soon joined by Anna to clean things up. Events shift from a home invasion thriller to a psychological one. Anna is clearly not prepared for a life of murder like Lucie is. Anna is also much more obsessed with Lucie than Lucie is with Anna. Most striking of all, what seem like supernatural visions haunting Lucie turn out to be the result of mental illness rather than something from beyond the grave. Before long Lucie is unexpectedly out of the picture, and a traumatised Anna finds a secret door inside a cabinet that leads into the film’s unexpected final act. It is a disorientating shift: to this point Martyrs seemed like Lucie’s story, with Anna functioning as a supporting player. In its final phase the film is all about Anna, and not only does the nature of the story changes its events take a sudden right turn as well.
Martyr‘s final act is packed with physical assault and horrific torture directly presented to the audience. In contrast to audience expectations, there is no sexualised aspect to the violence. It is in fact presented in such a frank and clinical fashion that becomes more difficult to emotionally engage with it all. The film’s climax seemingly takes it to a cynical and bleak dead-end: Laugier to a large extent denies not only the audience’s engagement but their satisfaction as well. The narrative wraps up on its own terms, leaving the viewer alone to ponder over precisely what just happened. It is a tremendously bold and provocative way to conclude the movie, and feels almost unique in how it plays out.
Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui are excellent in the lead roles, presenting believable and naturalistic portrayals of the separate traumas each women undertakes. Catherine Bégin makes a strong impact in the film’s final sequences, playing the mysterious ‘Mademoiselle”. On a technical level the film is superb, and modulates the editing, photography, and sound design to shift the emotional tone based on the different phases of the plot. Altogether there simply is not another film quite like this. That is possibly a good thing – I am unsure how many films like Martyrs an audience could bear.