Throughout “Spooktober,” Nicklaus Neitling reviews one horror property each weekday.
Let’s talk about Martyrs, a movie in everyone’s favourite horror category, New French Extremity.
For the uninitiated, New French Extremity was an influx of French films in the early 2000s that used familiar themes such as body horror and home invasion and takes them to their extremes. The films typically depict graphic sex and violence in such an extreme fashion that they’ve gained notoriety. This movement was first documented by TIFF programmer and Artforum critic James Quandt.
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs follows Lucie, a deeply tormented girl who escapes from her captivity in a secret society’s lair and into the arms of the police, who put her in an orphanage. In the orphanage, she meets Anna and they develop a friendship. Years later, Lucie arrives at the house of her childhood captives and exacts her revenge on them and their family. Anna arrives to clean up the mess, but it just gets worse from there.
To put it bluntly, nothing about this film is easy. In fact, it’s hard to recommend this movie to anyone. It’s hard to even talk about.
Spoilers for Martyrs.
Content warning: Extreme violence.
Martyrs uses violence in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s slow and methodical. The violence is extreme, but the gore is minimized. We only see what’s necessary for excruciating empathy. Even when the violence reaches its peak, much of it is held back so we just feel the character’s pain. Laugier tells us that human beings are things capable of the worst.
Much like the characters, Martyrs doesn’t let the audience have a moment of rest. At no point in the film did I think the protagonists were in for a happy ending. No character is ever given a break. Lucie gets her revenge, then, unable to escape from her nightmarish visions, commits suicide. Torture victim Sara is subject to such horrific acts that her death almost comes as a relief. Then there’s Anna, who is captured and offered no hope of freedom.
Once Anna is captured by the secret society, we’re subjected to more or less a slideshow of her abuse until she reaches a catatonic state. Anna must pass one more test before “martyrdom.” She’s flayed alive, barring the skin on her face. Mademoiselle, the leader of the captors, then arrives to check on Anna’s progress. Anna whispers what we assume is the secret to the afterlife (the point of martyrdom) to her. Mademoiselle organizes a party to share Anna’s insight but commits suicide before anyone can hear it.
With Anna’s mutilation and Mademoiselle’s suicide, Laugier attempts to point out the danger of pursuing questions about the afterlife. Laugier suggests the only way to experience the afterlife is to die and any attempt to reach conclusions early will only bring you pain.
The best way to describe Martyrs is that it’s like a fine French wine from a niche vineyard. It’s not for everyone — probably no one, in fact. However, you can see past its harsh veneer to its interior nuances. You try to win over the wine’s detractors by saying they just don’t understand the wine’s deeper themes. They stare back at you in absolute disbelief, rightfully thinking: Pretentious prick.