REVIEW: DVD Release: Martyrs

Film: Martyrs
Release date: 25th May 2009
Certificate: 18
Running time: 95 mins
Director: Pascal Laugier
Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne
Genre: Drama/Horror/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD
Country: France/Canada

Back in 2009, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs marked the latest in a new wave of horror films coming out of France. Violent in the extreme, and offering a visually graphic depiction of body horror that pushed beyond the boundaries previously set by the likes of Eli Roth’s Hostel, these films took a seemingly redundant subgenre of horror to new heights. As with the previous J-Horror boom sparked by the popular Japanese Ring series, Hollywood soon took notice, with the rights to the film promptly snapped up by the Weinstein Company with a view to a US remake.

Martyrs opens as it means to go on, with a bleak tracking shot of a young girl running bare foot and in tears from a derelict building, bruised and bloodied. This is interspersed with mock news footage revealing that the girl, named Lucie, was discovered there after suffering torture and abuse at the hands of an assailant that remains at large. Laugier clearly wastes no time in setting the tone of the film. This will be anything but easy viewing.

Next we are introduced to Anna, another young girl living in an orphanage, who befriends Lucie. Yet all is not what it seems, with Lucie seemingly menaced by a ‘monster’. Fast forward fifteen years, and a seemingly ordinary family’s life is shattered by the arrival of a gun toting woman that we soon learn is Lucie, who has revenge on her mind...

What unfolds is ninety minutes of some of the most graphic and yet also visually impressive scenes to ever be committed to celluloid. Special mention should obviously go to the effects team, who create realistic scenes of shotgun blasts to the body, knife cuts to limbs, and even flaying in a scene that may prove difficult to watch for many.

The soundtrack offers a sparse accompaniment to the bleak action of the film. Occasional thundering baselines are effectively utilized to build up a sense of dread at key points, in a technique that almost touches on Spielberg’s use of music in the seminal film Jaws.

The main plaudits, though, should go to both director Laugier and his cast, with particular mention to lead stars Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi. In other hands, this film may have veered dangerous close to melodrama, but for Jampanoi’s clearly unhinged Lucie, who quickly emerges as the star of the film’s first act. Her character arguably reflects the most tragic aspect of the film, with Jampanoi effectively portraying the internal conflict of Lucie who appears to be quite literally battling the demons of her past.

Alaoui’s Anna, meanwhile, offers the audience a moral compass through the journey of the film. Coming to Lucie’s aid after events unfold at the house, she is the character the audience empathise with most. Like us, she remains unsure of Lucie’s actions, and as the action unfolds, her descent into the true horror of what is happening places us in the front seat of proceedings.

Laugier’s script, meanwhile, criss-crosses horror subgenres to deliver a film that touches on revenge and mystery alongside elements of the more familiar monster horror movie - and, of course, the torture body horror of the modern era. In essence, the director creates a well structured piece that can effectively be broken down into three acts.

In a film that packs a mighty punch within the first ten minutes, it is somewhat impressive that Laugier is able to push the envelope to the very brink from start to finish. Yet in a sense, this is perhaps the biggest problem with Martyrs. Though well executed and original, with an ending that seeks to justify, or at least explain the atrocities witnessed previously, Laugier has crafted a film that can often prove difficult to watch. Scenes of graphic violence are one thing, but the film’s continual focus on the scenes of torture begins to desensitise these atrocities. Towards the end of the film, Alaoui’s Anna is subjected to repeated physical abuse in a scene that draws parallels with Irreversible’s equally disturbing subway attack on Monica Bellucci. Yet in amongst the action of Martyrs, it proves just one of many horrific moments.

Make no mistake, Laugier’s film is a nightmarish vision of the world which effectively retains a disturbing and relentless sense of dread throughout. But the 100 minute running time offers no let up for the viewer, and would surely prove difficult to translate for an American audience. That said, in maintaining a break neck speed and atmosphere of shock throughout, Laugier has achieved more than most mainstream horror directors could dream of. Whether the film’s content is suitable for mainstream audiences, though, remains to be seen.

Well acted and executed by director Pacal Laugier, Martyrs is a landmark film that put French horror on the map. But this is not for the faint of heart, and those watching won’t find any respite from the action on screen. Good, but not something you are likely to want to repeat in a hurry. JB

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