A very big thank you goes out to Large William, co-host of the podcast, The Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema, for sending me a copy of the Canadian DVD release of Martyrs. William and Rick the Samurai host a spectacular and addictive podcast--check them out. I attempted to keep this review as vague and spoiler-free as possible.
Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008) is the story of Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), a child survivor of horrendous abuse, who comes into the arms of maternal Anna (Morjana Alaoui). Traumatized Lucie bonds with Anna, and when the two become adults, they embark on an act of revenge against Lucie's captors.
Meticulously-crafted Martyrs comes off as a fable for the modern age. Laugier's imagery is quite beautiful, and the performances by Jampanoi and Alaoui are something else. Jampanoi bears a strong resemblance to Isabelle Adjani, and like Adjani, she has wonderfully haunting eyes which convey strong emotions. The eyes are a powerful symbol in Martyrs, as Alaoui's Anna reveals by the end of the film. Alaoui gives a powerful performance, like Jampanoi, and both performances rely heavily on the facial expressions of both actresses. Laugier's film flows from Lucie and Anna's emotions.The first hour of Martyrs reflects the impulsive actions of Lucie and Anna. Overcome with anger and revenge, Lucie make a series of actions with unforeseen consequences, as they also encounter unforeseen characters and events. The film is quite kinetic and fast-moving; however, I never forgot while watching that there was an undercurrent of something premeditated and calculated relating to the why Lucie and Anna were reacting and acting the way that they were. The film is rife with dark material and themes. The subject of child abuse is shown as it is, completely reprehensible. However, Laugier's imagery is shown with very bright and clinical light--almost nothing is hidden in shadows. If something is hidden, it's usually revealed as quite hideous. Also, the plot feels totally alien and unreal, but the brutal violence is shown with a visceral realism. Victims are shown emaciated, like mutated monsters, while the perpetrators, the true monsters, look like everyone else.
As such, the first two-thirds of Martyrs are nearly perfect. There is minimal exposition and the film has nearly no substantive dialogue. Laugier is able to tell his story with the images and the juxtapositions which he creates. However, when the first real dialogue appears after the first hour, Martyrs loses momentum and takes another thematic shift, which left me cold. The film becomes slower and more methodical, and it comes off as manipulative. The lesson or the essence of the film, tied into the title, seems contrived and forced. I think it would have been a stronger film if Laugier would have kept the captors' intentions ambiguous and allowed the viewer to speculate as to their philosophy.
I was also fortunate to have avoided reading any reviews or learning really anything of the plot before viewing Martyrs. The biggest killer of horror movies is hype, and Martyrs received some high praise which produced undoubtedly some high expectations. The violence of this film is exceedingly brutal and nasty, and those with weak stomachs should be forewarned. Martyrs is an imperfect film but an interesting one for the modern age.