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Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs review (click for larger image)Reviewed by Tim Merrill

Starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin

Directed by Pascal Laugier


To say that fans of modern genre cinema are a discerning lot is like saying Platinum Dunes puts out sub-par films. There’s no doubt that cinephiles in North America have been forced to look abroad to new directors and movies that provide that ever-elusive boot to the throat.

You’d have to be hard pressed to ignore the transgressive wave of cinema that has come out of France in the last six years. With films like Marina De Van’s In My Skin, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, and last year’s gut punch Inside, the French have unapologetically set out to carve new boundaries in entertainment that will hold the timid at bay and scar those willing to bear witness. While many considered Inside to set new standards in extremities in French cinema, the release of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs has just wiped the slate clean.

Although Martyrs will undoubtedly be compared to Inside in terms of its intensity, the film is a bastard unto itself that manages to surpass its comparisons on all levels. Director Laugier has presented an experience that is both cinematically stunning, yet emotionally devastating, and with all the subtleties of a barbed wire enema.

Martyrs review (click for larger image)Our story begins in the 1970’s with a young girl’s escape from an ordeal of ritual abuse. The girl grows into a gutted, battered shell of a woman who carries her abuse, as well as an undying need for retribution. Movies like Thriller (They Call Her One Eye) conclude with the satisfaction of revenge, Martyrs takes the retribution and uses it as a springboard to pitch the film into another level of sheer darkness. To give away any more of the outcome is to take away from the potency of the goings-on, and the less one knows heading in, the better.

While we’ve recently run through the torture gamut from Eli Roth’s pedestrian Hostel series to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, it would be completely wrong to compare Martyrs to films of this ilk. The majority of these torture flicks were flawed in their intent, as they irresponsibly allowed the viewer to harmlessly act as a voyeur without having to bear any actual feeling or empathy towards the victims on screen. Pascal Laugier has created a movie that will elicit an authentic response in many and will present itself as a true emotional ordeal. While the latter movies focus on exploitation, it is Laugier’s intention to have the audience honestly share in communion with his film, step-by-step in the pain, hope, and eventual liberty of the victims onscreen. Even the most jaded hardcore genre fan will fail in walking away from this flick unaffected.

While many will point at films such as Salo: 120 of Sodom and Aftermath as points of reference in comparison to Martyrs, the movie will stand alone for many years to come in terms of its intense emotional honesty … and infamy. This is a film of absolutes. For something of this caliber there will be no varying degrees of opinion. You will either despise what you’ve experienced or support Pascal Laugier in creating a masterpiece that transcends the genre and leaves the viewer drained and breathless.

Martyrs is an absolute recommend, but only to those who are willing to accept the film on its own uncompromising terms. All others are advised to stay well clear away.

5 out of 5

Discuss Martyrs in our Dread Central forums!

Jon Condit

18 Comments

  1. I hate to be the outside one but I absolutley don’t understand the appeal of a movie like this. When I go to a horror movie, I want to be scared by atmosphere and characters, not disgusted by the next level of depravity and gore. Call me soft, but there’s nothing scary about watching people tortured. I certainly don’t have a problem with gore and violence in a movie, but there’s gotta be more to it than that, and everything I’ve heard about this tells me otherwise. I’m sure there’s an audience for this stuff (clearly), but count me out.

    • I’m with you on this and it won’t be something I’ll see. I appreciate that UndeadAdmin acknowledges (warns?) that this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. To be fair it does sound like that although the viewer is going to be pushed and pushed hard the violence is making a point rather than some sort of celebration of cruelty.

    • As someone who made the mistake of seeing this at TIFF, I would recommend that you go with your gut an avoid this movie.

      There’s absolutely nothing scary about the torture in the movie, and I absolutely disagree with the reviewer who said that this movie should not be held in the same regard as Hostel and others of its torture porn ilk.

      The “twist” grinds this movie to a halt and takes it in a ridiculous direction that is so eye-rollingly absurd that it can hardly be believed. The director tries to justify having elongated torture scenes of a linebacker-sized man beating the holy fuck out of a small, petite, defenseless, hopeless young woman.

      The thing is, it’s so over the top and ridiculous that it didn’t even disturb me. It bored the hell out of me. And I’m speaking as someone who’s susceptible (sp?) to realistic gore, who bought a ticket to the movie fully expecting to have a hard time watching the screen, and walking out shocked and shaken.

      I walked out shaking my head, instead.

  2. If you don’t like MARTYRS then I hate you and you should retreat back to Platinum Dunes movies to satisfy your retarded lust for mindless gore.

  3. Well, what can I say? As a long time fan of horror, usually pain inflicted on the human body in movies is pretty much effect-laden. In martyrs, I genuinely wanted to jump into the film and beat the living S%$# out of those who eventually flayed that young girl. Her unbelievable torture (equivalent to that of The Passion of the Christ) left me genuinely sick…i was sick for about a day…i literally did not want to eat..and then I asked myself, why would any director want to portray human flaying? What is next in film? cooking someone one body part at a time while they breath and scream? (it probably has been done…much to my horrified chagrin) I doubt many directors will try and “americanise (sp?)” this type of film. It does stand alone. And if a die hard horror fan like me can feel sickened and dismayed at the horror genre like me like i do now..then I guess the director achieved his goal. The texas chainsaw massacre, wrong turn, and wrong trun two, and other highly brutal films seem like gradeschool film-making compared to this film. I think I’ll go back to simple frights provided in ghost films. My soul tells me something is really wrong with this kind of filmmaking….

  4. Martyrs is an interesting film, disturbing and thought provoking. As a horror movie, it has done its job–which may be the most one should ask of a horror movie. After all, what is the purpose of the horror genre? To be shocked, startled, reviled, disgusted in the safety of one’s family room or the local theater. Entertainment.

    However, it is odd to me how some people seem to find “greatness” in Martyrs. This is not a great film. I do like the acting, the camera work and editing are technically competent, the sound and music good–which quite a few horror films lack! Martyrs is a well-crafted movie in the Hollywood style. (It IS made in the Hollywood style–Media Studies majors get over it…) But, the grand epiphany that supposedly comes through intense and prolonged physical pain as seen in the photographs of other tortured people throughout history, although intriguing, is not supported well enough in the script to overcome my willing suspension of disbelief. The cellar hallway scene, of course, with the cult’s leader explaining to the main character the need for torture with the photo album (despite the fact that the same larger photos are on the wall next to the actors) is almost comical in its brevity. The film would have been creepier had it delved into the occult and the mysterious efforts of alchemists…or, say, if the secret organization were financed by the Vatican. We’re not told, and I think to the film’s detriment. How can martyrdom be talked about without religion? And, how can torture be rationalized without some self-serving (most would coin this kind of enterprise as evil) intent? Of course, anyone thinking that the male torturer and the others are just “doing their jobs” would probably find “that whole Nazi thing” to be no big deal….

    No. What horrifies me about this kind of film is that it glorifies a false intellectualism that treats graphic torture in a relative light. I’m not as worried about “American Rednecks” loving this film as much as the mildly educated 20-somethings who think that they have stumbled upon something deep in this “wicked Euro-flick”–which they’ll probably buy and place next to their TOOL CDs….

  5. I Don’t know whats wrong with you people cause I thought this movie was amazing, and it’s not cause I’m some pervert who gets off on people being tortured. I thought it was amazing cause I watch horror movies all the time, and it’s very rare for one to really stick with me for days after I’ve seen it. I have no idea how you could watch the second half of this movie and not be disturbed by it. Maybe all those small kittens and other animals you murdered while growing up prepared you for Martyrs.

    I saw it at TIFF and couldn’t believe what I just saw.
    What I loved about it is the fact that if felt complete, from the start you’re thrown pieces that put themselves together perfectly and make a horror masterpiece.

    I don’t recommend this movie to everyone but if you’ve watched horror for a long time and always complained that “it was nothing”, watch this. Most will not like this, but for the few who do we have just seen the birth of horrors next great director.
    And if you’re rolling your eyes to this movie at how ridiculous the torture is, maybe that’s how you’d react watching a real torture. In that case you might have bigger problems to worry about then taking the time to bash it.

    On March 31, I picked this up at HMV in Toronto, but its not a Weinstein or Genius release.

  6. *****SPOILERS*****

    I love how the reviewer talks about this film as if it’s high fucking art compared to Hostel, when they’re basically the same movie. It’s true that Hostel was not as emotionally engaging as Martyrs; that’s because it was obviously intended to be a more “fun” kind of movie, which Martyrs was obviously not.

    The reasoning for the torture in Hostel may have been more base, but it wasn’t half as convoluted as the reasoning in Martyrs. The major flaw in this film is its definition of the word “martyr.” The conventional and popular understanding of the word is “a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause.” And not someone else’s cause, but their own.

    Being picked randomly to be tortured within a hair of one’s life based on nothing the individual has done or believes doesn’t make one a martyr. Making the leap that such a person would then experience Joan-Of -Arc-esque revelations of the afterlife is where this film jolts (rather jarringly) off course.

    That being said, the director has been tapped to remake Hellraiser, which seems like a really good choice.

  7. MARTYRS could have been such a great movie if it hadn’t resorted to ‘torture porn’ during it’s final 30 minutes.The unpleasent,uncomfortable brutal and ugly drawn out final reel is totally unnecessary and makes you feel like you’re watching a different movie (HOSTEL III?) altogether.

    The gripping prologue and the thrilling massacre marks a great start to the film and you can only wonder where the story is heading because the movie could easily been wrapped up after 45 minutes.
    But instead of continuing with the fast pace and thrilling storyline Director Pascal Laguier takes us to ‘snuff’ territory in which the only thing left to watch is the slow brutal torture abd beating of a young girl.

    If you’re looking for great French horror go back to ‘Switchblade Romance’ which although very brutal, does not resort to the sick and senseless butchering of a young girl alone for the sake of a stupid twist involving…..well I dont want to spoil it for you,but hold on a minute, I think Mr Laguier already has!.

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