What do you have to do to stop being afraid?
Even though I loved gory horror as a teenager in the 1980s, the tone of it seemed to change in the 2000s, leaving behind the kid who enjoyed the goopy posters in Fangoria and ineptly campy low budget bloodbaths like Bloodsucking Freaks. the Japanese in the 1990s and, later, the French began exploring "Extreme Horror" — movies that not only pushed the limits of gore into new territory, but reveled in the sadism of it, dwelling on extended scenes of torture — with mainstream success, influencing what eventually became known in the U.S. as "Torture Porn" through hits like Saw and Hostel. One of the most highly acclaimed movies from this genre is Pascal Laugier's intense French thriller Martyrs, which is often cited in lists of the most difficult movies to endure, but which also includes maybe a higher purpose to its brilliantly staged sequences of gruesomely realistic horror.
Martyrs is, at first, about a young girl, Lucie (Jessie Pham), who escapes from a torturous kidnapping; 15 years later, still traumatized by the experience, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) discovers her captors' identities and exacts revenge. Lucie's devoted childhood friend, Anna (Morjana Alaoui), wants desperately to help her but is as horrified by Lucie's actions as she is devoted to taking care of her.
During its first hour, while shockingly grim and violent, Martyrs also brilliantly builds suspense through withholding information, keeping the audience always one or two steps behind the motivations and reality of what is happening and why. Martyrs takes a dramatic narrative shift at the hour mark, and it's at this point that it's perhaps at its most controversial, and also where its fans feel like it distinguishes itself as a great film, as opposed to simply well-wrought splatter. Without getting into spoiling details, I'm not sure, after one viewing, how I feel about this part of Martyrs. It does have purpose, surely, but I'm not persuaded that the concept that it explores in its final act was serious enough to earn its extended scenes or torture and suffering. Granted, in those scenes of gratuitous abuse, there is greater artistry than is found in many of Martyrs' peers. Especially in the final 15 minutes, Martyrs seems to making intentional visual references to Carl Theodor Dreyer's iconic silent drama The Passion of Joan of Arc, with Alaoui in close-up, hair shorn, evoking Maria Falconetti's famously anguished performance in the title role. However, on immediate reflection, Martyrs' premise — vaguely, that attempts by secular zealots to co-opt and explore human mysticism via scientific means are not going to end well for anyone — seems too thinly developed to support an allusion to Joan of Arc.
Martyrs' most profound element, to me, was its consistent depiction of Anna as a figure of deep love and empathy, even in the midst of unspeakable horrors. Alaoui is quite good in the role, although she is tasked with expressing so many extremes that she rarely gets a chance to display any subtlety. Even if the ultimate point rings hollow, Martyrs is, at least, interesting and, when it allows a breath, moving in a way that most horror films aren't, and its first half is a considerable feat of minimalist plotting and execution. the second half may be where it wins or loses you, and it may take multiple viewings of this tough and harrowing movie to figure out which way you fall.
Martyrs was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Ryan Swinimer, who can be found on Flickchart under the username Swinny. He ranks it on his chart at #18 / 5602 (100%), where it tops his list of the 66 Religious Horror movies he's seen. Martyrs ranked on my Flickchart at #1239 (68%), putting it at #10 out of 30 Religious Horror movies.
As movies are added to this list, I'll add them to Letterboxd, here: