Martyrs (2008)
By: J.R. Gregory on September 15, 2011  | 
Dimension Films (USA) | Region 1, NTSC | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | French DD 5.1 | 97 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Pascal Laugier
Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne
Screenplay: Pascal Laugier
Country: France
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Martyrs is a brutal, unrelenting, savage piece of film-making, continuing the trend of extreme French cinema. Martyrs pushes boundaries about what is possible, or permissible, in story-telling. Writer/Director Laugier has created a scarifying feature, an endurance test that takes the audience into realms they would not ordinarily enter. Martyrs is a challenging and confronting film, stretching what is possible in extreme film-making, and may leave some viewers cold but definitely moved.

Martyrs opens with a terrified young girl, Lucie (Jessie Pham), running along a road in an industrial area. She is bloodied, terrified and traumatised. She is found by the police who take her to a clinic where she is unable to tell the authorities anything about her ordeal. Lucie is unable to describe who they are or what her captors looked like, nor about what she went through. Shy and withdrawn, Lucie eventually makes friends with another girl at the clinic/orphanage, Anna (Erika Scott). Lucie is further terrorised by another girl who is horribly disfigured and haunts her wherever she goes.

Moving forward fifteen years, we meet the Belfond family, a traditional upper-middle class nuclear family. While they begin to eat, the doorbell rings and it is Lucie (now played by Mylene Jampanoi) at the front door. She then proceeds to brutally murder the entire family, believing them to be the ones who imprisoned and tortured her all those years ago. Once the deed has been done, Lucie calls on Anna (Morjana Alaoui) to help her. Anna is shocked at what she discovers and doubts her friend has killed the right people, even going so far as trying to assist one of the family who she finds is still alive to escape. The bonds between the two women are tested as we only have Lucie's assertions to depend on, and Anna continues to doubt that anything other than a massacre has just occurred. Lucie's tenuous grip on reality loosens completely when she is continually attacked by the creature that has followed her since childhood. Anna is then left alone to solve the riddle that is what happend to her friend.

At this point Martyrs completely shifts gears from what has been a graphically violent revenge film into altogether new territory. Those who are after a traditional horror story are going to be utterly confused and left behind. For those who after something with intellectual sinew, this is as challenging and confronting a change as you can imagine. Not content to have the viewer as simply a bystander, Martyrs forces you to sympathise with the two protagonists. You are unable to just watch this film without being affected.

The first thought in comparing this film is to other notable French horror films, the obvious choice being Inside with its violence and blood-letting, but this is a superficial comparison. Martyrs is a different film altogether, moving at a frenetic pace, changing focus before moving into more intellectual territory. Laugier is attempting to give a deeper explanation for the cruelty shown onscreen, adding an intellectual layer that is as much discomforting as it is unexpected. Unlike other recent French films, the violence at the core of Martyrs is given a level of intellectual and philosophical vigour. The violence then puts this film in the region of Salo, making for a genuinely chilling and uncomfortable viewing experience.

There is a large amount of cinematic skill demonstrated in Martyrs. Pascal Laugier displays significant expertise in developing tension and in staging bloody, violent set-pieces. These shocks happen so frequently, with such visceral intensity, that you are left feeling winded, barely able to comprehend all that you've seen. With your expectations manipulated in one direction, Laugier then tops it all with a twist that is both clever and unexpected, the dark violence continuing, piling shock upon shock. These images and sounds will remain with the viewer well after the film has finished.

For Martyrs to be so affecting requires more than just graphic shocks but strong performances as well. With the two female leads, Mylene Jampanoi and Morjana Alaoui, the pain, fear, confusion and horror is writ large in every scene and look. Particularly Morjana Alaoui as Anna, what she puts herself through in this performance is especially heartbreaking as she attempts to support and understand her friend. For almost the entire movie they appear harangued and distressed. The story itself does not give much scope to characterisation, for instance Anna's reasons for remaining with Lucie are not explored, as both appear to be victims of circumstance. They are constrained by the violence that they have endured and continue to experience and that has taken over their sense of self.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio enhanced for widescreen viewing. Presented as somewhat washed-out and dark, no detail is lost and the look complements the overall grim tone of the film.
Presented in the original French or dubbed English in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound on this disc is crystal-clear throughout. With a mixture of subtle background noises, such as chains rattling, far-off cries, and full-force effects from shotgun blasts and fists hitting flesh every effect is captured and passed onto the viewer. The soundtrack used in this film is sombrely understated, underpinning the emotions rather than signposting them.
Extra Features
Extras on this disc include the Teaser trailer, cinematic trailer, an introduction from Writer/Director Pascal Laugier and a documentary on the making of Martyrs. The introduction is interesting in that the director is almost apologetic for making Martyrs but also proud of what he has created. The making of featurette (51 minutes) gives a good perspective on what goes on in constructing this film. It is quite comprehensive in its insights into the process and the hardships confronted during the filming process.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
At turns suspenseful, bloody, unflinchingly violent, and confronting, Martyrs is a film that will challenge most viewers. Beautifully shot and working in difficult emotional terrain, this is not the sort of movie you would turn to for entertainment. Instead, Laugier has constructed a story that will provoke audiences. Martyrs tempo change and philosophical explanation in the third act will confound and frustrate some audience members who are more used to "conventional" horror. Martyrs is an undeniably powerful and unforgettable experience.

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