What the hell has gotten into them Frenchies? The country that has given the world freedom fries, weirdly shaped bread, hairy armpits, and cinematic darlings such as Truffaut, Godard and, um, a bunch of others whose names my derriere can’t pronounce, is now responsible for some of the sickest films my peepers have been exposed to. I enjoyed Haute Tension (and will forever defend its third act twist), admired À l'intérieur (O, copy-paste, how I love thee), but Pascal Laugier's Martyrs felt like punishment.
The film starts on young teen Lucie running through some desolated industrial landscape, screaming her head off. Baffled authorities turn the site upside down, find nothing, and place the disturbed girl in a mental institute. Lucie hasn’t been raped, physical damage is minimal, and because she refuses to talk about what happened during the 18 months she’d gone missing, investigations quickly come to a dead end. Lucie slowly regains her ability to socialize and interact with other people, but the nightly visits she receives from a ghostly apparition indicate that the girl is far from cured.
Fifteen years later Lucie knocks on the door of a suburban house and guns down every member of the nuclear family that lives there. She then gives her friend Anna a call and asks her to pick up a shovel or two at the hardware store on her way over.
What in the world gave Lucie the idea that this family is responsible for whatever happened to her? A reasonable question also posed by Anna. “It’s the mother’s perfume. I smelled this every day I was in there,” an exasperated Lucie tells her and we can tell by the look on Anna’s face that she’s thinking the same things we are: As if this woman is the only person on earth to use this particular perfume…as if she’d still use the same brand fifteen years later. And why the hell did you also shoot the innocent teenage children? Lucie, you’re demented. But Anna is in lesbians with Lucie so she decides to let this one slide.
A flashback shows us what Lucie had to endure during her captivity: she was tied to a chair, force fed, and slapped around. Pretty mild stuff by torture porn standards. When she managed to escape, she had to make a quick and difficult decision: save another, older girl in an adjacent room or abscond. Lucie opted for the latter and the violent apparition that has haunted her ever since is nothing more than a manifestation of her guilt over abandoning the other victim.
Lucie ends up slicing her own throat and Anna, having no other engagements, decides to stick around. By chance, she happens upon a hidden underground chamber where she encounters a chained, enunciated woman wearing a metal mask bolted to her face. Anna realizes that Lucie was right all along and frees the woman, who also goes razor happy on herself.
We’ve hit the halfway mark at this point and Martyrs will now make a sharp U-turn. Associates of the butchered family show up and imprison Anna in the underground chamber. An old woman tells Anna that she (the old bag) belongs to an organization that believes in making young women suffer in order to gain knowledge about the afterlife. Um, right. Give me that old-time religion, Give me that old-time religion, Give me that old-time religion, It's good enough for me.
Suffer Anna will. I know that many people don’t care for this part of the film, calling it run of the mill torture porn with a tacky pretentious twist. Yeah, well, maybe, but hey, it’s a French film so you can bet Little Timmy ten bucks that it’ll contain two things: snootiness and jugs. I don’t care for the highfalutin reasons behind the tortures either but that doesn’t change the impact Anna’s suffering had on me. Films like Saw and Hostel are Grand Guignol for the multiplex audiences, featuring bland characters being offed in grotesque ways that inspire giggles and apathetic admiration for the make-up effects. No power tools or weird contraptions are to be found in Martyrs, nor does it need any. When Anna is locked up in the underground chamber, we’re right there with her. We have been through hell with this girl, we genuinely care for her and hope she’ll manage to escape. Gradually it dawns on both Anna and the viewer that she won’t find a way out of her predicament and it hurts to see the repeated beatings and mental anguish taking their toll on the poor thing. Anna’s physical beauty fades and she has a complete mental breakdown. Finally, she reaches what Dr. Katherine Kübler-Ross would call ‘the stage of acceptance.’
After an unspecified period (weeks? Months? Years?), the cult decides that Anna is ready for the next level…and flay her alive. The tortures unexpectedly turning gory packed a real punch in my dorm room. I hit the pause button and, as if on cue, my friend and roommate Denise bolted for the bathroom. Judging from the sounds that emerged from the little girl’s room, she was giving Regan MacNeil a run for her money. My friend Linda's response to the horrors on the screen was more subdued: she started to tremble and cry. In lieu of consoling her, I put on my coat and went outside, relishing the cool air and the peaceful chirping of crickets.
Children of the night, what sweet music they make.
Usually the gals and I whoop and cheer while watching a horror film. We make sarcastic remarks and throw popcorn at the television screen when characters make one dumb decision too many for our liking. In the case of Martyrs, seeing the ghostly apparition rear its ugly mug for the first time made us scream with delight and we uttered a collective ‘wow!’ when Lucie shot the head of the family, but it didn’t take the film long to turn us into mutes. No one went to the fridge to get another Pepsi, the big bowl filled with buttery popcorn was ignored, and cigarette breaks were skipped in silent agreement. And now Denise was sitting on all fours tossing her cookies, her hair kept out of her face by a sobbing Linda.
I tried to put some distance between Martyrs and myself by approaching it in a pseudo-intellectual way: Was it a good film? Did it have anything insightful about the human condition to offer? How many stars would I reward it? Does any of that matter when a film has the power to turn its viewers into emotional wrecks? Martyrs succeeds in what it set out to accomplish and, like Lilja-4-Ever, is one of those rare films I applaud but never want to see again.
Now, where did I put that goddamn bottle of Prozac?