Martyrs, the 2008 French horror film written and directed by Pascal Laugier, has divided opinion since its release. Some say it?s nothing more than ?torture porn?, in the vein of SAW or Hostel, whilst others claim it?s the greatest horror movie ever made, unflinching in its daring depiction of violence and gore. My opinion aligns with neither of those views. Martyrs is most certainly in no way ? I can?t stress this enough ? Martyrs is most certainly in no way torture porn. To dismiss it as that is to completely misunderstand it, and in doing so, misrepresent it to a degree that should be criminal. But, nor is it simply a daring violent and gory horror movie. To dismiss, or perhaps embrace, it as THAT, is, again, a misunderstanding and a misrepresentation, albeit not a criminal one.
Martyrs is a masterpiece. A film on another level. A film that can barely even be described with anything even approaching accuracy. It must be seen to be believed. And it must be seen more than once. It is layered like nothing I have ever experienced, and yet, at the same time, there is an unmistakable literalness to it that bites into you with huge fangs, grips and holds onto you, and won?t let you go until the very final frame of the credits has drifted by, which you won?t even notice until you find yourself back at the bluray menu screen, sobbing, as the haunting, and perfectly chosen menu music, gently serenades your broken mind.
Yes, I cried at this film. The only horror film to ever evoke such emotion from me. And I think it?s important to fully explain why, because to understand that, is to truly understand what makes this film stand out from everything that has come before or after, and why it means so much to me personally.
So, what is Martyrs then? Well, it starts out simply enough. We see a young girl, Lucie, running down a road, bloodied and bruised. We assume she has escaped from some horrific experience, and pretty quickly we are proved right. She has been terribly abused. But not sexually. I think it?s important to note that (and the film actually makes a point of telling us this itself) because this film is not really about abuse.
Lucie is taken to a hospital of some kind, where she befriends Anna, another young girl who we can assume has also suffered in some way. Almost immediately the film starts us down its perceived horror path as we see some awful, and somewhat cliched, hellish monster stalking and terrorising Lucie in the girls? shared bedroom. This is all by design however. We are meant to be deceived into thinking this is going to be nothing more than a run and hide from the horrible thing chasing us movie.
We then cut to 15 years later, and what follows is perhaps one of the most shocking sequences I have ever seen in any film. We open on what appears to be a regular family waking up and having breakfast. A nice family. The dad makes toast, the mum is a DIY enthusiast, the daughter is a medal winning swimmer, and the son is talking about not wanting to be a lawyer, something that his mother is not happy about. It?s all very normal family stuff, and we are expected to think that these people will be the protagonists. Victims of some horror based carnage, against which they will work out their differences, barely emerging on the other side, scarred but ultimately happy ever after. We?d be wrong. Lucie knocks on the door, and immediately kills everyone with a double-barrelled shotgun. Turns out, the mother is the woman who kept her captive, and abused her, all those years before, for reasons we still don?t know. Then Anna shows up. The two of them have spent the past 15 years searching for these people. And now they?ve found them. And it?s over.
But it?s not over. It?s NEVER over. The monster appears again, attacking Lucie, grabbing a piece of broken glass, and hacking away and slashing at her back, arms, and hands. ?She hurt me worse than before,? Lucie sobs. ?Will I ever be free of this?? she asks. The monster, a hideous looking woman of unknown origin or meaning, has seemingly stuck around all these years. Ever since that first visit in the bedroom. Which wasn?t the first visit really. There was a scene early on where Anna discovers Lucie in the hospital bathroom, wrists all cut up. ?Why?d you do that?? Anna asks. ?I didn?t,? replies Lucie. The foreshadowing is strong with this one.
All of that sets the stage perfectly for what is to come. An absolute visceral, raw, powerful, uncompromising, display of mental suffering in all its brutal and upsetting glory. You see, this film isn?t about abuse, it?s about suffering. Mental suffering. And it covers all of the phases, and all of the angles, in complete graphic detail so that you can?t help but understand how bad some people really have it in life.
At about the halfway mark, we discover that the monster isn?t real ? she is just a figment of Lucie?s tortured mind, a manifestation of guilt over the fact that during her escape, Lucie didn?t help another woman, and left her there to suffer more. But more than that, the monster is the mirror image of Lucie; the darkness, the pain, the anguish, the inner demon she must fight against all the time. And when the monster attacks, hacking and slashing, Lucie is doing it to herself. It?s the ultimate struggle of the tortured mind, fighting itself. For peace. For release. To be free. To let go. This is all perfectly demonstrated to us via these assaults and fights. The frenetic and frenzied pushing and shoving, punching, cutting, banging your head against the wall in utter frustration at the unrelenting realisation that you can?t ever escape.
Soon after, Lucie sadly kills herself. Well, at least the suffering is over now, right? No! IT?S NEVER OVER! Anna goes on to discover a secret basement under the house. She opens a trap door, climbs down a ladder, and there she finds a woman chained up, wearing a crazy mask nailed into her skull. She takes her upstairs and tries to treat her wounds. She falls asleep, and when she awakes, the woman is trying to cut off her own skin, and again, banging her head against the walls. It?s the same woman that Lucie left behind all those years ago. She?s real this time though. She fights with Anna now. And then BAM, somebody shoots her in the head. Mysterious people have arrived. At first we think maybe they?re the police, and that NOW it?s over. BUT NO! IT?S NEVER OVER! How many times do I have to say this?
Who are these people? We don?t know exactly. But they grab Anna, drag her down to the basement, and chain HER up. An older woman arrives, named only Mademoiselle. She shows Anna pictures. Pictures of people taken when they were still alive, but after they had endured terrible suffering. This is our first indication of a larger and much more sinister story surrounding all these events, as Mademoiselle talks about transcending suffering to the point of reaching some kind of spiritualistic martyrdom.
Anna is locked in the basement and is subjected to even more terrible abuse. But, again, none of it sexual. This is not about abuse. None of these people are taking any perverse, deviant, sick pleasure in doing any of this. It all has a higher purpose. And that purpose is to make a person suffer so much that they ?let go?. They get to a place where they transcend the suffering. A place that might allow them to see the ?other world?; the afterlife essentially. That is the goal of this cult. They?re trying to glimpse the afterlife ? glimpse God even ? whilst still being alive to know it.
And this is the real depth of Martyrs. The real brilliance. The real insight. It?s the portrayal of mental suffering through all its manifestation and stages. When we start out, the suffering is minimal. A few cuts to Lucie?s arm; a little monster stalking us. We then move into the next phase. The constant frenzied battles with your own mind. The feeling that you just can?t do anything. You?re just banging your head against the wall in utter frustration. And you feel like this could almost definitely be the work of some demon from hell, inflicting its demonic wrath on you. After that, the demonic monster fades away, and people become our enemy. The people around us. We become frustrated with them. Why can?t they help us? Why can?t they understand? What are they doing? It?s their fault! This is the cult, dressed drably in black, their lack of emotion and engagement, just another reflection of ourselves, as they just beat us up all day everyday. At first, as ever, we?re defiant. I?ll show you! You can?t break me! But then, slowly, we lose all the fight and all our strength, and the days and weeks and even years just smudge together. There is nothing. Nothing to enjoy. Nothing to feel. We just sit there, eating to survive. Everything reduced to the lovely green goo that Anna is served for nourishment. And as depicted, we basically just eat, sleep, and shit, and suffer more. And that is all there is. The minimum requirements to continue. We?re gone. Vacated. The end.
It?s at this point, with Anna just sitting there, face broken, echoes of Lucie whispering ?You?re not scared now? that I felt those tears coming. I?ve been there. I know it all too well. I also know that many people suffer much much worse. Some people go through awful things in life. Things we can?t even imagine. And these scenes in the basement just so perfectly capture that sense, and reveal it us in a subtle, flavourless way. It?s brilliant, if heartbreaking at the same time. So, is it over yet? No, because?it?s never over, is it?
That?s when we get the idea that perhaps there is meaning to our suffering. There must be, right? What kind of vengeful and evil God would allow this to happen? What kind of world would permit such things? Such suffering? WHAT KIND? No kind! Obviously! It would be sick! And yet, it happens, is happening, and will happen again. So could it all be for a reason? Is fate subjecting us to all this for a greater good? Are we to suffer and die for a noble cause that will bring about a truly wonderful thing? Are we martyrs? No. We?re not. And we weren?t suffering for some grand plan. We?re suffering because of the selfish desires of others. Their weaknesses. Their bitterness and anger at their own failings. We?re suffering for them. Mademoiselle and her cult. Being sold a lie all along. We get nothing. But they get nothing too. In the end, Anna is skinned alive, and hung like Christ on the cross. She reaches ?martyrdom? as described by the cult. She glimpses the next world, and she tells Mademoiselle all about it. More people arrive to hear the good news. But alas, Mademoiselle, in her ultimate self interest, kills herself before telling anyone else about what she heard, leaving them all to ?keep doubting? ? her final words on the entire matter ? and leaving the whole ugly cycle free to continue again and again. Heartbreaking. More than a little. I shed a few more tears for good measure.
Martyrs has absolutely entered my top movies of all time list. Never before have I experienced a film that was so real, and as I said early on, raw and visceral and uncompromising, in its depiction and undertanding of suffering. I read that Pascal Laugier wrote this film when he himself was suffering with depression. I don?t know how true that is, but I can certainly believe it. I can feel it. It?s like if I couldn?t explain how this feels, so decided to just open up my brain and splash out the insides onto a screen, THIS is what would form. This is what it would look like. It means a lot to me. I?m not typically one for hyperbole, but to see it dismissed as mere torture porn, offends me. This is the most heartfelt film you could ever see. The fact that its sentiment is encased in horrific violence and brutal suffering, doesn?t change that. There?s a reason we refer to the truth as ugly.