Martyrs (2008)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #181

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Number of Views: One
Release Date: March 27, 2009
Sub-Genre: Extreme Exploitation
Country of Origin: France, Canada
Budget: $6,500,000
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director: Pascal Laugier
Producer: Richard Grandpierre
Screenplay: Pascal Laugier
Special Effects: Benoît Lestang, Adrien Morot,Jacques Godbout
Cinematography: Stéphane Martin, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, Bruno Philip
Score: Alex Cortés, Willie Cortés
Editing: Sébastien Prangère
Studio: Canal Horizons, Canal+, CinéCinéma
Distributors: The Weinstein Company, Wild Bunch Distribution
Stars: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne, Juliette Gosselin, Xavier Dolan, Louise Boisvert, Jean-Marie Moncelet, Jessie Pham, Erika Scott, Isabelle Chasse

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It’s hard to deny that French extreme cinema has been on the crest of a wave over the past few years. Alexandra Aja’s Haute Tension and Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury’s Inside have helped turn the spotlight towards the French, effortlessly pushing the envelope (as only they can) and this has culminated in easily two of the best horror films of the past ten years in my opinion. Those films opened the floodgates for filmmakers such as Pascal Laugier, whose intention is to bring us a film even more morally challenging than its stablemates, something more in line with Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible with regards to the feeling of shock and awe it encourages. The result is a deeply affecting piece of new-wave cinema that is far easier to watch than it is to shake.


Martyrs hits the ground at full pelt and takes no time in making its primary impact. After an unsettling opening at an abandoned warehouse we are thrown instantly to the wolves as the bodies start to drop almost immediately and this pace is maintained throughout the entire first act. It’s raw, bleak and unrelenting and hits with the intensity of a jack hammer, hardly halting for breath as it pummels us time and again with hard-line violence and unprecedented bottlenecks of tension. It may appear initially as though restraint is not a pre-requisite for Laugier as the blood not so much flows as gushes but, in fact, he is very much on a leash as, at no point, does he rely simply on sin and punishment to make his point.

The central characters Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï); two emotionally wrangled young women connected inexplicably since childhood. It just so happens that Lucie has happened to track down a family suspectedly responsible for holding her captive as a youngster and exposing her to unspeakable acts of violence and depravity. Martyrs begins as your typical home invasion movie as Lucie exacts her bloody retribution on the brood as they sit down for their morning croissants and no means uncertain. Horror devotees will be interested to learn of a decidedly spiteful hellion spirit hot on Lucie’s heels which puts her to task whenever she is left to her own devices.

This introduction enables Lucie to exist on a knife-edge throughout as she swiftly alters from tormentor to tormented and is put through the ringer without respite. However it is her tentative relationship with the conflicted Anna which gives Martyrs its emotional grounding. The two life-long friends are ferociously committed to one another and share a bond which is understated but always omnipresent. Both women give remarkable accounts of themselves, peddling their woe with unswerving conviction as Lucie’s apparent schizophrenia manifests itself and Anna is left on damage limitation duties. There is also sexual chemistry hinted at between them but Laugier is in far too uncompromising form to enable such feelings to flourish.


Martyrs outstrips so many of its contemporaries for one key reason. As gruesome and as sadistic as it is from the moment the first blow lands, it never glorifies violence and instead uses a systematic approach and chooses to toy with convention. Lucie begs for redemption and is shown at constant loggerheads with herself as she attempts to appease the incubus intent on snuffing her out. Anna, on the other hand, is in a constant state of mortification and desires no part in the executions but is inexplicably bound to her cross to bear.


Each time it appears that we may be settling into a routine, Laugier pulls the rug from beneath our feet once more with a playful giggle and we fall headlong into the second half of the film, which undergoes an extreme tonal change and takes us to places I’m sure I’m not alone in stating we simply weren’t expecting in our darkest nightmares. It twists, snaps and launches us headlong down its rabbit hole, leaving us dazed and confused while it continually tightens its grip on our senses. The denouement has biblical undertones which culminate in a stunningly shot Jesus Christ pose which oozes spiritual essence and this image alone may well stay with anyone of a weaker disposition like airport luggage for the foreseeable. Well that and around a dozen other horrifying pictorials.

Laugier knows exactly how to illicit a response from his addressee and Martyrs auspiciously evokes our empathy. Whereas many “torture porn” flicks can be deemed irresponsible in their approach, it never lingers a second too long or wrongly advocates its on-screen monstrosities. Yet it packs a kidney punch like Crazy Fat Ethel and leaves you feeling breathless and violated come its conclusion and that, my friends, is what we call the power of provocative cinema. A critical piece of French horror cinema then and compulsive viewing for those with steely enough resolve. It may not be for everyone and indeed sparked great fury from some quarters due to its unflinching approach, but it is as precious an export as steel which you may want to lace your gut with before undertaking this particular pilgrimage.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Vicious but tasteful, vile but beautiful; Martyrs is the perfect marriage of excess and restraint and treads the boards respectfully (with steel fucking toe-caps admittedly). The tarnished interiors accommodate no end of bloody hand prints and wide-reaching crimson spatters; and there is some particularly wince-inducing injury detail to feast those peepers on that may well reintroduce you to lunch. Ironically a switch blade is used to romantically carve its impression, when Lucie isn’t banging her buckshot of course. That’s the last time I open the door for Jehovah’s witnesses, regardless of how shiny their pamphlets are.

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