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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Martyrs (2008) review


Morjana Alaoui (Anna), Mylene Jampanoi (Lucie)

Directed by Pascal Laugier

A young girl, Lucie, held captive and tortured manages to escape her abductors. After 15 years of living only for the chance to gain retribution on those who brutally savaged her, Lucie and her childhood friend, Anna, seek out those responsible for Lucie's unhinged state of mind. Their journey leads them down a path of insanity, wanton despair and violent death.

For the last few years France has been the haven for extreme horror with a slew of releases that have breathed new life into the waning horror genre. Films such as HIGH TENSION (2003) and INSIDE (2007) are among a group of hungry filmmakers splashing their ambitious ideas in bold red brush strokes across cinema screens and television sets. Some of these gruesomely foul flicks from France borrow themes and ideas from American horror films of the glorious decade that was the 1970's and amalgamate them into something unique and often disturbingly fresh and unique.

Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS is one such movie, but totally flies over the heads of any other Euro horror of late. There are many words one could use to describe MARTYRS and many of those could be taken as praise or damnation. It's not an easy film to recommend, nor describe. Nor is it a film for just anybody, nor a film for just any horror fan for that matter. Beautifully shot and meticulously filmed, it's like a nightmare caught on celluloid unfolding before the viewers eyes.

Mere words cannot do the film justice in terms of the cavalcade of depravity that takes place over the course of the most uncomfortable 100 minutes you will see from a picture of recent memory. MARTYRS (2008) joins the ranks of other supremely depressing cinematic experiences like SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) and MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988). Laugier's movie is the first in years that made me not want to finish watching in one go. Earlier this evening I managed to bring myself to sit down and bear witness to the final 40 minutes of this nauseating, yet mesmerizing movie.

One of the most impressive feats accomplished by the director is that the viewer totally connects (on both a visceral and emotional level) with the main protagonists; especially Lucie, the initial fractured and destroyed soul the film begins with and whose path to bloody revenge we follow along. During the first 50 minutes the viewer is bombarded with numerous shots of disturbing imagery in the form of a disfigured and badly mutilated form of what used to be a woman. This figure haunts Lucie's memory torturing her further. It isn't until later on that it 's revealed just who and what this frightening apparition represents.

Not only has Lucie been through a living hell, but she continuously punishes herself through an agonizing series of self mutilation in addition to attaining her vengeance in one of the most harrowing sequences of violence ever to grace the screen. The viewer is introduced to this family of four and aside from some raucous verbal exchanges between them, they seem like any other seemingly wholesome and financially successful family. What transpires after the sudden and vicious home invasion sequence is beyond words or reasonable sanity.

Once Lucie's appetite for grim retribution has been satiated, the film veers into an even more grim and reprehensible arena of revulsion. Just when the atmosphere couldn't get any more dismal, the audience is hit once again with a continuous slate of broken and destroyed bodies before the hour mark hits and this ostensibly clean cut family home is invaded yet again. What transpires from this point on is a cross pollination of repugnant scenes of cruelty and thought provoking connotations of a religious and allegorical level.

Despite being one of the most uncomfortable movies ever made, it's all brilliantly acted and painstakingly photographed. The films plot never makes itself known till roughly the hour mark once the home of the perpetrators is occupied once more by what appears to be a cult of wealthy and prominent men and women of some repute. Their purpose is explained by the elderly and cold faced Mademoiselle. During this sequence, the films title is also explained.

Prior to this sequence, the audience has been assaulted with a long series of nasty images and disgusting scenes of pugnacity that, upon first glance, appear to be violence for violence sake. The oppressive aura of aggression never slows down even after the film makes its philosophical, yet macabre purpose known. Once Anna has become a 'Martyr in training', we are again thrown into a dark room with nothing but merciless and callous cruelty as our company. However, as the film reaches its doom laden climax, the shock ending leaves the audience to make up their own minds as to the true nature of the final moments and its pitiless meaning.

Pascal Laugier has created a serious horror masterpiece that will be the subject of admiration and acclaim as well as scorn and unquestionable abjuration for years to come. One of the key elements aside from the highly effective performances are the grueling special effects. These (thankfully) practical effects are a breath of fresh air amidst the all too numerous American horror flicks of late that rely on horrendous computer generated "special effects" for their shock value. The scenes of bodily destruction and defilement attain a Cronenbergian level of unpleasantness. Once the films plot rears its metaphysically ugly head, the production transcends its appearance as a far more polished version of HOSTEL (2005) and becomes what is possibly the first ever thinking mans gorefest.

Despite the nature of the picture and its inescapable collage of cruelty, it's a hypnotic and mesmerizing horror film that some will find hard to classify and even harder to actually "enjoy". I doubt anyone with a serious interest in horror can outright say they enjoyed the movie. I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion, either. MARTYRS isn't your average horror film certainly not in the same category as prior French horror films of the last few years and definitely leagues above just about anything released in America in recent years. More of an endurance test, it offers up underlying themes that belie its many scenes of torture and sadism much in the way Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) was about the cruelty the media can create through sensationalism with violent consequences. You will surely not like what you see, you may in fact hate it...but one thing is for certain, you will not soon forget it. Its a groundbreakingly offensive work that should be seen by any serious fan of the horror genre.

This review is representative of the Weinstein Company Unrated DVD.


Carl (ILHM) said...

"I doubt anyone with a serious interest in horror can outright say they enjoyed the movie."

Couldnt have said it better myself. The film is unmistakably high in quality and production value, but I was not entertained at any point in the entire film. It was a painful and unpleasant watch, which I never expected to say about any Horror film. At the same time, I had to see what was going to happen next. It bothered me. Every second of it.

I do think it is an important film, and I know I need to rewatch it, but its so hard to reproach.

Carl (ILHM) said...

PS - very happy to have your thoughts on the film finally!

venoms5 said...

When I first watched it, me and my girlfriend watched it together, but I ended up falling asleep and woke up during the credits. She refused to tell me what happened and so I tried to finish it and got to the 60 minute mark and had to give up as it was such a depressing experience.

I finally sat down the other night and watched the remainder and it's a powerful exercise in depravity. Easily the most gut punching horror movie of the last two decades in my opinion. It's a hard one to top. I am anxious to see what Laugier does next.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I am just disappointed that he is no longer attached to the HELLRAISER remake, that would have been extremely interesting

venoms5 said...

I've never been a fan of the HELLRAISER movies at all. Watched a few of them, but had Laugier taken the helm, no doubt he would have done the subject matter justice and delivered something totally unsettling.

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