If you want to see this movie, you really need to do some serious spoiler dodging. There is a major twist in this film, which if you know before going in, will definitely detract from the film’s impact. However it is impossible to discuss this movie without spoilers – indeed I’m going to totally spoil the shit out of the ending – so I’d recommend coming back to the second part of this review after seeing it.

PART 1 – Spoiler Free

Horror is often seen as somewhat disreputable, and often considered to be little more than one step up from pornography on the artistic evolutionary scale. Anyone who has a passion for the genre is often confronted with that question – “why do you watch this stuff?” - a question that often seems a polite way of asking “what the hell is wrong with you?”. And if you’ve been a fan for a while, pretty soon you develop a whole raft of arguments to prove that you are not a serial murder waiting to happen, and that horror is about a good deal more than gore and sadism. You may very find yourself employing alternative genre terms, such as “weird fiction”, “dark fantasy” or “cinema fantastique” to deflect the question’s implication that you sit alone masturbating over beheadings and disembowellings.

The rise of the slasher film, the video nasties of the 1980’s and currently furore over torture porn have engendered in the eyes of the public that the genre has little to offer other than graphic depictions of violence. And as a fan, you will find yourself having to point out that horror is a broad church whose edges border on the realms of science fiction (Alien and The Thing), thrillers (Manhunter), and even art house (most of David Lynch’s oeuvre), and that well-loved classics such as King Kong and respectable film buff fare such as The Innocents are just as much part of the genre as the latest trashy splatter flick. You may even find yourself arguing that works as diverse as Taxi Driver (“It’s an urban horror film!”) or A Christmas Carol (“Hey it’s a ghost story!”) fall under the genre’s umbrella.

However, for all our protestations that there’s more to horror than blood and sadism, every now and again a movie comes along that explodes at the extremes of the genre; that has even hardened genre fans wincing. A movie that so brutal that it appears to justify all the negative views of the horror field. Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is the latest such film.

In recent years, France has produced a string of hard hitting horrors – Haute Tension, Insides, Frontiers, Ils – which really put their American counterparts in the shade. Rather than the hokey thrills of the Saw series and the semi-ironic post Scream films, this wave of Gallic terrors really go for the jugular and set out to assault their audiences. You can’t help wondering whether Groundskeeper Willie’s slight that the French nation are cheese-eating surrender monkeys has provoked some kind of cinematic backlash.

Flippancy aside though, France is no stranger to horror. This is the country that gave the world two of the genre’s most iconic characters: The Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. A nation whose academic lauded the literary worth of Poe and Lovecraft before their own country men recognised them. Also France arguably invented the splatter subgenre with the Grand Guignol theatre. And this current crop of films shows they haven’t lost their touch.

And Martyrs certainly has made its mark on the genre. It’s showings at Cannes and other film festivals have generated a huge buzz and landed it with certificate troubles in its native country. The advance word on the film was that it was a very extreme piece of cinema – there were reports of fainting and walk outs at the screenings – and I wondered whether the film could live up to its reputation.

The plot centres upon Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) who as a child was kidnapped and tortured by persons unknown. However she escapes her mysterious captors, and years later, with her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui), she tracks down the people responsible… And that is all I can reveal of the narrative without unlocking the spoiler box.

Now a film possessing such a synopsis was never likely to deliver a light and fluffy watch. And from the above outline, you may very well be expecting a Gallic answer to the Saw or Hostel franchises. However Martyrs delivers a lot more – whereas the usual so-called torture porn flicks operate largely on what Stephen King terms the gross-out level of horror (details in this review) this film is genuinely disturbing on every level. It is a very tough movie to sit through. And it’s certainly lives up to the advance word - it is a truly shocking film.

And this is a very divisive movie. In this interview with Ain’t It Cool News, director Pascal Laugier even said – “Myself, I hate the film. You know? But I hope, I mean, it's an affecting film and when you are affected you don't know if it's good or not. If it's positive or not”. And certainly the film provokes very mixed reaction even from those who liked it. But it doesn’t work for every one for a variety of reasons - some people, very understandably, find it far too much to take, others just don’t connect with it, and some having heard the buzz discover that it doesn’t deliver the gore they expected.

Despite the reputation it has built, I must stress Martyrs is not a study in splatter. It is very extreme but if you come to this film expecting to see the most bloodier scenes ever committed to celluloid you will walk away unimpressed. In terms of gore, there are far more graphic scenes in other movies – for example, any classic Cronenberg or Romero films contain far more extreme gore. Although it is a film about suffering and pain, it is not an exercise in showing graphic damage to the human form. The carnage and violence on show in Martyrs is deeply upsetting in a way most splatter isn’t – indeed the most harrowing scenes in the film are relatively bloodless. But it is painfully real and brutal – the violence is more like the domestic abuse presented in Gary Oldman’s highly upsetting Nil By Mouth than the limb lopping of Kill Bill or Hostel. Yes, it contains disturbing imagery but it is also filled with sorrow. Martyrs is more about the psychic than the physical damage, and it is this emotional weight that packs its punch.

Personally, I arrived at the end of the movie both shocked and stunned. Make no mistake, this is a very difficult watch; during some scenes, my finger was hovering over the fast forward button and even considered turning it off at one point. However I stuck it out and was glad it did – in the end the film does justify its hard hitting content and left me much to consider. For me, the film’s resolution was as audacious as the rest of the movie was troubling, and although I felt like I’d been fed though an emotional wringer by the time the credits began scrolling the trauma had turned to awe. As I said earlier, this is not a film that will work for everyone but for those it does, Martyrs delivers a searing cinema experience.

PART 2 - The Spoiler Dungeon

“O who shall, from this Dungeon, raise
A Soul inslav’d so many wayes?
With bolts of Bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet: and manacled in Hands.
Here blinded with an Eye; and there
Deaf with the drumming of an Ear.
A Soul hung up, as t’were, in Chains
Of Nerves, and Arteries, and Veins,
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain Head, and double Heart.”

From ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’

A lot of reviews note that Martyrs is a film of two halves, though personally I see it as a work in three acts. Admittedly the final act is a short one, but as you’ll see in this in-depth look at the film, there are two distinct gear changes in the film which lend it a three act structure.

The first act see Lucie brutally take revenge on her former captors. This section works superbly as a bloody psychological drama. From the film’s reputation you maybe expecting that Lucie’s revenge would see her turn the tables on her persecutors; the victim becoming torturer. However her revenge is swiftly executed – the real horrors come with the emotional fallout. Rather than the usual satisfying moral justice of revenge thrillers, killing her tormenters does not end Lucie’s pain – still is still haunted by a dreadful spectre, which Laugier calls ‘The Creature’, the traumas of her childhood ordeal made horrid flesh.

As Frank from the Fearshop podcast sagely observed in their review of the film, if you stop the film at the 44th minute you have a complete and satisfying story. It’s tense, thrilling and horrifying, blending the action with powerful emotional drama. However there’s little in this first act to justify the reputation for extremity Martyrs has accrued. It does deliver far more wallop than the average Hollywood fare, but nothing more shocking than the other French horrors listed above in Part 1.

However if you keep watching passed the 44th minute, then Martyrs crosses the line. Both figuratively and literally the film moves to another level. The second act begins Anna discover the torture chamber concealed within the house and rescuing their latest victim. And it is here, that even the stronger stomachs may start to turn – the state of the rescued victim is horrendous and see the film deliver it’s most graphic gore. However there is far worse to come.

Now again, around the 56 minute mark you could stop this film. Indeed if you want this film to have a happy ending, do so and assume that the black clad, armed group that appear at the house are the police. Of course they are not – they are in fact the torturers. And it is here, when the group’s leader, the Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) reveals the reasons for their campaign of torture, that Martyrs becomes something more than the usual horror.

Rather than a stereotypical coven of Satanists or idle rich perverts, this secret sect is conducting torture as a spiritual experiment. Through inflicting extreme pain on their victims, they hope to provoke a state of enlightenment and discover the secrets of the soul. In the first act, we have already seen how pain has psychologically destroyed Lucie and now, taking us into the most disturbing sequences in the film, Anna is going to become the sect’s latest guinea pig.

The latter half of the second act is where the film became nigh on unbearable. As I alluded in Part 1, this section is relatively bloodless – Anna is spared the more elaborate tortures of previous victims. Her torture here is mainly simple, but brutal - repeated beatings. This part of the film is very hard to watch and the beatings goes on for what seems like a very long time indeed. And the fact that this violence is being done in a cold and almost clinical fashion makes it all the more disturbing.

While the sequence is repetitive in the extreme, what is so upsetting is seeing the progression of Anna’s response to this ordeal. When she finally enters a state of what I can only describe as zen numbness, it is both heart-breaking and hopeful – one of her captors even shows her some compassion and for a moment you think that perhaps Anna will achieve the desired enlightenment and be allowed her freedom.

However she is only ready for the final, terrible stage of their process – and they flay her alive. And with this final ordeal that Act 3 begins. Mercifully, Laugier spares us this act itself – we only see Anna being prepared and none of the cutting is shown. To graphically show the flaying would have seriously undercut the impact of the previous beatings – the inclusion of what would be an impressive display of special effects would have broken the oppressive mood and the aura of distressing realism the film had built up to this point.

And the final act is not about delivering set pieces of splatter. It is about the transcending of pain and suffering, for through the flaying Anna achieves the enlightenment the sect have been striving for. After the horrors of the second act, it is something of a relief that Anna has achieved a transcendent state. Languier presents us with scenes that become very moving and almost strangely beautiful. After enduring all the torture scenes leading up to this last section, there is a strong feeling of catharsis and the profound sense that somehow she has in fact escaped.

But even this is not the film’s finale and Laugier has a final twist up his sleeves. I wouldn’t normally so thoroughly spoil a film’s ending, especially such a recent film, but I do feel the need to discuss it. Basically, Anna is the first subject the group have experimented on who is still able to communicate the secrets of the transcendent state, and so the entire sect gathers to hear what she has whispered to the Mademoiselle. We learn that their goal is to discover what come after death, and that Anna has provided the answers that years of torture so far have not yielded. But instead of unveiling the mysteries of the abyss to the gathered group, Mademoiselle instead shoots herself…

Now, on one hand, I was highly annoyed that there was no punishment for the members of the sect. But on the other I knew that Martyrs was not the sort of movie to deliver it. And this knowledge didn’t stop me I was wishing for some righteous divine vengeance to be unleashed; to see the entire house dragged down into the bowels of hell or for a Raiders of the Lost Ark style scene of angelic retribution.

But on reflection, I do wonder whether the sect is getting off scot free. If we assume that there is something beyond this life in the universe of this film, one must ponder the significance of Mademoiselle’s actions. According to Anna’s testimony, there is something after death and she has precisely spelt out what it is. One interpretation I’ve read online is that Mademoiselle blows her head off to enter the divine world hereafter as soon as possible. However this doesn’t sit well with me, considering her final words to her aide are “Keeping doubting”. Now it is already established that there is clearly some form of afterlife – so why this final admonition?

While I doubt there is a final definite answer and the whispered words will perhaps forever remain a subject for speculation, I do have my own interpretations. And I’m not claiming that either of the following views is correct obviously. The first possibility is that she takes Anna’s secrets to the grave for purely selfish reasons – she has the answer she wanted and the rest of sect can go hang. As I said not terribly satisfying but it is possible, though it falls down somewhat if you ask why go the lengths of taking her life when a lie would have sufficed.

My second interpretation is far more satisfying and brings more closure to Martyrs’ narrative. Anna has revealed that not only is there a Heaven, but there is also a Hell. And furthermore she has revealed the price the entire sect is going to pay throughout eternity for their crimes. I see the stripping away of her personal effects before her suicide as the actions of a woman who knows that the game is up. This undressing symbolising the erosion of the high minded philosophy and veneer of sophisticated nobility the sect dressed its actions in; that they have willingly indulged in the lowest evil in the name of high enlightenment and that in the end the ultimate knowledge they sought turns out to be that they earned themselves eternal damnation. Her last words “keeping doubting” are vindictive – she knows the sect will probably continue, and buy themselves further torments in the hereafter.

Martyrs is a very powerful film which leaves the responsive viewer with many questions on many levels. And it rightly deserves to be considered as more of an art house film than your average splatter flick. It is closer to the likes of Haeke’s Funny Games or Noe’s Irreversible than Vacancy or Hostel. The metaphysical element to the film means not every one will connect with it, but for those who can endure its dark journey will be rewarded with an intelligent exploration of pain and mortality.

In many ways, this is a very difficult film to write about; it’s hard to sum up the effect viewing it had on me, and tougher still to get pin down the themes within it. Martyrs presents such a powerful cinematic experience for those who it works for, and will provoke deeply personal reactions. Hence I binned several drafts which span off into critical and philosophical techno-babble, deciding in the end that any real interpretations of the film’s meaning or point are probably best left to the individual viewer.

Despite the great bleakness and sadness in the film, despite the extreme unpleasantness on show, in the end I didn’t come out feeling depressed. Shocked yes, but my mind was thronging with ideas and questions and quite stunned by the transformation in the final act. Indeed I am still pondering the film a good fortnight after viewing it, and this is the key point I think – it’s the questions that linger in the mind and not the harrowing violence. Martyrs is a very disturbing film but, in the end, it is also as brilliant as it is dark.

JIM MOON, 9th June 2009