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I'm not sure you have made the right decision."
- director Pascal Laugier
As a wordsmith with at least average skill, I get particularly annoyed whenever I read the phrase "Webster's dictionary defines...". It's the No. 1 no-no in writing, and I say we should hold films to the same standard. So when this brutal French-Canadian horror film finished by flashing a definition of "martyr" on the screen, it was an annoying exclamation point on what I found to be an already arduous viewing experience.
I'd love to say it's been a long time since I've passionately hated a film this much, but it hasn't (thank you, Revolutionary Road). Nonetheless, movies don't often stir up such extreme feelings in me. As an easy-to-please horror connoisseur, my enjoyment bar is set pretty low. Don't get me wrong: Martyrs is a stylishly made, visually striking and extremely gory film. I knew very little about it going in (this DVD watch was my first) and had no preconceived notions.
Also know that I'm not automatically turned off by excessive gore (this unrated cut runs a minute longer than the U.K. theatrical cut, although the French running time looks to be about the same). I'm also a huge fan of the new French wave of fright, led by a solid crop of thrillers (High Tension, Inside, Them and to a lesser degree Frontiers) that has invigorated a genre in desperate need of fresh blood.
Before I vent, I'll try to summarize the film without giving too much away: Martyrs begins with young Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) escaping from unseen kidnappers who have slowly tortured her. Over the years she is cared for by doctors and psychiatrists, but she becomes distant and untrusting, retreating further inside her paranoid mind. Her captors still at large, Lucie is also terrorized by a human-like creature that continues to attack her.
During 15 years of recovery, Lucie befriends Anna (Morjana Alaoui)--who sticks by her troubled friend even when Anna decides to enact revenge on the people she thinks abused her. That premise sets up the film's first half--which initially had my eyes wide open with interest. But that enthusiasm took a beating with each passing minute--and evaporated as the first half neared its end. I'll say little about the second act, where things take a dramatic shift.
Martyrs infuriates me on a few levels. Forgetting the pretense, it has huge gaps in logic, many in the first half. There are no real characters here, just puppets. Director Pascal Laugier intentionally toys with our perception of Lucie; what we're supposed to feel about her isn't immediately clear. We don't trust her (or the film) from the outset due to some pretty obvious clues. We know something tricky is going on, so we remain on guard. We're detached from Lucie, which prevents us from feeling her pain or championing her cause--a connection so crucial in horror films.
Additionally, the decisions made by Anna (especially in the first half) make no sense--she's just a vessel to steer Laugier's ship. He wants to get from Point A to Point C, common sense be damned. Ultimately, the film feels like two halves pasted together. And the two "surprises" in each act are anything but--it's crystal clear what's happening despite the film's air of mystery.
But far worse is the film's ego: Martyrs is so obvious with its intent to shock you. It throws in a few minutes of dialogue to inflate its import, trying to pass off artifice as art. There's sparse speaking and no real story--just a metaphysical idea extended into 100 violent minutes. Laugier pretends this movie is something it isn't, and it amuses me to think he would consider Martyrs "above" films like Saw and Hostel (which at least have plots and people you root for). This movie is pure torture porn: The final grim sequence is so excessive--22 minutes (!) of disgusting, dialogue-free abuse--I laugh at the suggestion that it serves the film's supposed purpose.
As the second half progresses, the viewer becomes part of the director's experiment, their limits tested right alongside the victims. If Laugier thinks that's avant-garde, he clearly hasn't seen Michael Haneke's Funny Games (either the 1997 Austrian original or the 2007 English-language version)--a far more intellectual experiment that provided a social commentary on cinematic violence by involving the voyeuristic viewer. Funny Games was an equally brutal viewing experience--but in a cerebral way that relied on the power of suggestion as opposed to visceral violence.
And just when I thought my anger reached maximum intensity, Laugier throws in an overused device that I would expect from a horror hack trying to fake his way out of a flawed film. A final exchange is meant to have us engaged in deep conversation: "What did she whisper?!" Who cares?!
Unlike the movie, this review has proved to be cathartic for me. Martyrs is a polarizing film, and there are plenty of you who will love it. But I cry foul--sometimes a cigar is just a charade. I waited a few days to reflect on the film, thinking my opinion might change--but it just grew stronger. And the director's introduction to the film (provided as an extra) further solidifies my distaste. I watched it afterward to prevent any potential influence; it provides some insight into his intentions (and also rubs me the wrong way):
"Sometimes I hate myself for having done such a flick. Sometimes I'm very proud of it because I consider it as an act of freedom. It's definitely a very free, very raw--I would even say experimental--film...I'm sure you have heard a lot about my film, and I hope that you will be able to forget everything you've heard because, in a way, I would like you to be virgin by discovering the film for the first time. Feel very free to hate me--I'm not especially in love with myself. So I would understand. Just be as free watching my film as I was doing it. Anyway, I hope that whatever your opinion about it that you have a feeling to live a strong cinematic experience. I want to apologize--and I want to thank you--for being here tonight."
An "act of freedom"?! Calling your film "experimental" isn't a "Get Out of Jail Free" card--and presumptively assuming it's going to shock people tells me it's a misguided effort. Remember Madonna's Sex book? I felt the same way about that egocentric piece of crap, where the buzz, marketing and uproar all seemed to be a calculated attempt to cash in. It's not so much Laugier's idea that is flawed, it's his execution. The film lacks heart and soul; it's emotionally empty, a vehicle for unrelenting violence with a painfully obvious "payoff" that reeks of pretension. Here's a bit of advice, Martyrs: Get over yourself. (You too, Revolutionary Road!)
Speaking of pretension, I'll end my review the way the film ended--with a lazy cliché. I present to you a definition--and some synonyms--for "pretentious":
"Self-consciously trying to present an appearance of grandeur or importance. Synonyms: affected, grandiose, highfalutin, ostentatious, pompous. Related Words: arrogant, complacent, conceited, egoistic, egotistic (or egotistical), self-conceited, self-important, self-satisfied, smug, uppity, vain, disdainful, haughty, snobbish, gaudy, showy."
The film comes in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. This is an intentionally grey and drab picture, with blood and lighting effects bursting through the cold darkness. There's lots of grain (especially in longer shots) but also plenty of detail.
The 5.1 track (available in original French or dubbed English) is solid, with effects like rain, birds, clanking chains and gunshots making their presence known (some of them could have been a little more forceful in the rear channels). The dialogue is always crystal clear and crisp. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and English for the Hearing Impaired.
In addition to the aforementioned director's intro (1:18), you get two trailers (a teaser and the theatrical) for the film, along with other trailers. But the extra of substance is Organic Chronicles: The Making of Martyrs (50:22). Shot on lower quality video, it's mostly made up of fly-on-the-wall footage behind the scenes during some of the more difficult shoots. It's sprinkled with thoughts from various cast and crew members, with director Pascal Laugier chiming in the most.
"Martyrs plays on the basics of horror filmmaking--on the audience's expectations and knowledge of the genre--in order to bring the spectators where they least expected to go. That's what the film is about," he says (as for me, I'll keep my mouth shut). "It allowed me to create a classic horror movie with lots of suspense. But on the other hand, every time you think you know where you are, I try to take you somewhere else. That's how I make something different and unique."
The director (mildly) clashes with actress Mylène Jampanoï on how one scene should be performed, and both admit to less-than-admirable qualities: "His temper is as short as mine," says Jampanoï, while Laugier notes: "I tend to have a cranky personality. I tend to work on negative energy. I tend to make a fuss, to complain." We also learn how an accident sidelined actress Morjana Alaoui for a month--she fell through a platform and broke three bones.
Laugier admits that the general chaos on set was his fault: "I didn't prepare a storyboard this time around. I came into it hoping to see the film build itself in front of me. I wanted to give the audience the feeling that it all happened live...I didn't go into it unprepared, because I knew what I wanted. But I made sure I was going to discover the film as I was going."
Laugier says he wanted Martyrs to look real, so the stunts and effects weren't as outlandish as they could have been. Lovable special effects artist Benoit Lestang (who we sadly learn has since passed away) shows his talent putting together some impressive effects--regardless of your opinion on the film, you have to admire his skill (and you'll feel really sorry for Alaoui). Lestang has an engaging personality and provides a few laughs: "We make beautiful costumes, but we never think practically!" (Wait till you see what he's doing!) I was also amused by one woman's comment while watching some footage on a laptop: "It's impossible to eat here."
Adds actress/coordinatrice des cascades Gaëlle Cohen: "I have no problem with the fact that this film is extremely violent...when violence is there for a reason, I have no problem with it whatsoever," she says (look at me, keeping my mouth shut!). "I had to double up on the violence and the gore aspect. Pascal has a very clear idea of what's enough and what's too much. We had to split the difference."
Even though I hated the film, I still enjoyed watching this feature--it gives a nice look at the magic of the filmmaking process. I'll leave you with the final thoughts of Laugier, who closes the documentary with these words:
"Martyrs, unlike [first film] Saint Ange, is not a post-modern film. It's not a film about filmmaking or a specific genre. It's first and foremost a horror movie for the masses--exciting for some, repulsive or unbearable for others...but visceral, primal and exciting. I'm just telling a story. Of course I think about the extreme violence in Martyrs. Sometimes I wonder why I needed to do this on my second film. I know that there are two or three movies in this film, and the thing was to make them transition into each other properly. I didn't want to give the audience time to think. I want the audience to be captivated by the story. The movie should be like a book you can't put down until the end. That's really what Martyrs is trying to achieve."
There's no middle ground with Martyrs. If you're a seasoned horror fan or a gorehound, there's a good chance you'll love it. I'm an easily entertained genre aficionado, and I love so many of the recent French fright flicks. But the emperor has no clothes (and as luck would have it, no skin, either!). Far from the edgy, experimental work of art it pretends to be, Martyrs is just flashy Eurotrash. Rent It and decide for yourself.