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A martyr is a person who is put to death or endures suffering because of a belief, principle, or cause. The themes of torture, sadism and captivity have been touched on by many horror films of the 2000s. “Martyrs” is the first film that could be called “torture porn” that doesn’t come from a conflicted moral point of view. On the surface, the film looks a lot like “Hostel” or “Saw”. Beneath the skin, though, it has much more in common with “Funny Games” or “Irreversible”, films where graphic violence isn’t just a series of vicarious thrills that are the entire reason for the film’s existence. “Martyrs” tells a story in a grotesque, mysterious way while hinting at possible religious motifs throughout. Not for the faint of heart this film starts off with scenes of female torture and really stays in an apologetically dark tone during the show. Progressing to more strange territory in the later half of the film viewers will need to prepare for director Pascal Laugier’s shock and awe visual assault that will surprise the senses. For those sadists and masochists who appreciate pure horror and intelligent moviemaking, “Martyrs” is a real find.

“Martyrs” is a French film. The French can make very strong horror movies. If the audience is open-minded and strong-willed enough to go along with “Martyrs”, they’ll find a movie that is possibly the best of the recent spate of high quality horror films coming out of France. The film is written and directed by Pascal Laugier. “Martyrs” stars Morjana Alaoui as Anna and Mylene Jampanoi as Lucie with support given by Catherine Begin as Mademoiselle, Robert Toupin as Le pere, and Isabelle Chasse as La Creature.

“Martyrs” covers a lot of ground and is at once a dark love story, a tragedy, a science fiction fantasy, a revenge flick, a speculation on religion, and yes, a horror film that fetishizes torture more than any other film in recent history, but in a completely different way that could never be considered “porn”. If at any point during the film you think you’ve figured out what “Martyrs” is all about, keep doubting. This movie is so deep that a coherent discussion of its subject is deemed too superficial.

France. A night at the beginning of the 1970s. Lucie, a girl missing for over a year, is discovered wandering by the side of a country road. Near catatonic, she can say nothing about what has happened to her. The cops quickly find the place in which she’s been incarcerated – a disused slaughterhouse. Every indication is that she never once left the empty, freezing room in which she was imprisoned. Filthy, starving, dehydrated, the girl’s body nonetheless bears no traces of sexual abuse, this was something far stranger. When she is placed in a youth home to live, Lucie is befriended by Anna. Anna looks after Lucie and eventually they become best friends. Lucie, however, is being stalked by a ghoul taking the form of a thin, naked woman with pale gray skin that cuts and mutilates Lucie. Anna is sworn to keep Lucie’s secret about the shadowy creature.

The movie now transports us 15 years ahead into 1986. Lucie is attacked by the creature yet again. The creature is actually another woman who was kidnapped and tortured with Lucie those many years ago. When Lucie realizes this, she remembers that she had an opportunity to save the woman when she escaped but she didn’t. She left the woman there to continue to be tortured. Later, we find out what becomes of this other women. At this point, Lucie is overcome with feelings of remorse and kills herself with by slicing her own throat.

Now, if “Martyrs” were a typical torture-porn film this is where it would end. This would be the point. But Laugier wants more than that and just when you think you’ve got the film figured out he pulls the rug out and takes it somewhere else entirely, somewhere completely unexpected. “Martyrs” is, indeed, a stunningly graphic film. In fact you could argue that “Martyrs” is an anti-exploitation exploitation film, a film filled with incredibly extreme elements, true, but a film that has no interest in using those elements to titillate or fill the audience with vicarious thrills. No, the shock elements are there to open the door to something far more substantial.

Midway, as “Martyrs” story unfolds to reveal more of the bigger picture, the film takes a dramatic shift and switches to Anna and a new chapter. Moving into even darker, scarier territory Anna uncovers a secret room where a woman, apparently another torture subject is being held. Anna discovers a secret tunnel behind a cabinet. Inside is a hidden staircase that leads down into a large underground torture chamber. The walls of the complex are adorned with photos of suffering people. Inside is a naked woman chained to the wall. A metal blindfold is secured to her head with rivets. Anna frees the woman and takes her up the stairs. She tries to help this woman and give her a bathe, but the woman is completely out of her mind and starts mutilating herself and tries to cut off her own arm. The final 30 minutes include some of the most intense scenes. Anna becomes a religious test subject for a group of mute zealots, a secret society seeking to discover the secrets of the afterlife through the creation of “martyrs.” Systematic acts of torture are inflicted upon Anna in the belief that the extreme pain will result in a transcendental insight into the world beyond this one. After an unspecified period, during which she is repeatedly beaten and tortured, she is told she has reached the “final stage,” where she is then flayed alive.

It is also at this point in which the majority of people who watch the film become divided and come away loving it, or absolutely loathing it. This second half is enjoyable by any stretch of the imagination, and the amount of pain and torture inflicted is long, repetitive and unrelenting. We would not label it as cruel or worthy of the “torture porn” moniker, as none of the torture is performed for the sake of torture, and the reasons behind the actions are revealed in the final moments. The purpose behind all the pain may seem like someone tried to turn some high school, stoner philosophy into something profound and deep, but there is a purpose nonetheless. It will be up to the viewer to decide if the reasoning given merits watching a young, defenseless girl get punched in the face over and over and over and over again until she is completely unrecognizable.

Pascal Laugier has made statements about this film detailing human pain and its meaning, relief from suffering and transgression. He states that he, like a lot of horror movie lovers, has become bored with the lack of originality in modern horror, and that the bottom line seems to not just be an important aspect of the horror film, but the only aspect. In “Martyrs” the torture is not meant to be entertainment but an intense meditation on violence, pain, immortality, religion.

What makes “Martyrs” work is Laugier’s methodical unfolding of the story. What he does is give us a “glimpse” into the world of the torturer(s) so when the protagonist returns to the scene of the crimes, the viewer knows “kind of” what to expect, which makes them have to endure it with the lead character. Sometimes knowing what’s coming is more difficult than watching it unfold. By the end of the film “Martyrs” becomes immensely uncomfortable, and making it through the final 30 minutes is a tough task. “Martyrs” finishes with a completely satisfying ending. Satisfying, however, doesn’t mean you will be expecting it.

To be sure, “Martyrs” is not the goriest film ever made but the context and the combination of sights, sounds, and mood works together to take you to the edge. The idea that anyone in the real world can be so cruel and sadistic is challenged in “Martyrs”. These people seem real enough and make you think this is more than someone’s fantasy.

One of the best aspects of “Martyrs” is its originality. In fact, much of the movie leaves the viewer in a constant state of trying to figure what exactly is going on. Most other modern horror movies all seem to be just variations on the same thing and once one catches an audience, like “Saw”, it is done to death until everyone is sick of it. Although it seems rushed by this description, “Martyrs” is actually paced well. The pacing is near perfect and there’s not a minute of wasted time in the movie. “Martyrs” plays like a puzzle, where each piece falls into place just in time for the viewer to notice the next piece that’s missing.What makes “Martyrs” so extraordinary is that the story unfolds using the twists of a typical movie, only they’re just a tool to transition to the next scene and don’t make or break the film. Editing work with different camera angles also helps to create the overall mood of the movie. Some of the final shots in the movie turn out to be some of the best and are executed like a well-written poem.

“Martyrs” is definitely not for everyone. The movie is disturbing to be sure. For those that like to have their notions about the world challenged, this is a film that accomplishes just that. However, the world you are introduced to is one that you are not sure you are better off knowing or not. The only negative thing about Laugier’s film is that once you see it, you’ll never be able to see it for the first time ever again…


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