Saturday, February 9, 2013

Martyrs - it's a ______ type of Movie

I'm a fan of foreign horror films. REC, Let the Right One In, etc. Terror can travel through subtitles quite easily. Martyrs came out of France with a bang and put a rather polarized hole into the horror genre. Love it or hate it, here is how it is.

Click here to skip to the end for a SPOILER-FREE REVIEW

The dark cloud that hangs over the entire film blows in with the opening credits. A young women, Lucie, is seen running/escaping from an industrial sector, bloodied and bruised. A quick recap, via doctor's medical records, tell us that Lucie has been silent about her experience while still very disturbed by them. She was starved and physically abused, but never sexually. Another young women, Anna, gains Lucie's confidence and trust, but still doesn't understand Lucie's growing paranoia and violent injuries. The movie jumps forward fifteen years to a happy French family in their well-to-do home, when an adult Lucie bursts in and methodically guns down the family. Lucie calls a near by Anna, and we learn that the family was Lucie's childhood captors. Waiting for Anna, Lucie is attacked by a tortured,  feral woman. Anna clearly sees that Lucie is delusional, that the wounds and attacks of the feral women, are Lucie's own self mutilations. Unable to deal with the delusions, Lucie slits her throat and dies in Anna's arms. Anna, grieved at her beloved's death, moves the body only to find a secret passage. Down the passage she finds a holding cell containing a women, long tortured and mutilated. Anna helps and tends to the women, but she displays the same psychosis and delusions as Lucie. A shadowy, but organized group thugs shows up and kills the women and imprisons Anna. They explain that they torture and kill individuals to watch them achieve a state of transcendence e.i. martyrdom. Then begins the painfully grueling saga of Anna's torture. She is force feed, physically abused, and totally isolated. This goes on for awhile until Anna gains a measure of situational acceptance. At which point they literally skin her alive. The handlers then observe a specific look in Anna's eyes and they inform their superiors. Anna dictates to the director everything she sees, which is prepared as a report to be given to a council of the organization  They explain that Anna has seen a vision of the afterlife and what it holds, but before that report can be given by the director, she kills herself.

What was good and what was bad
Simply put  most of this film fits into the latter, but we'll start positive.

This is a movie of very raw emotion. Abuse, revenge, despair,  acceptance. The screen is doused with bucket-loads of these powerful emotions. The exhaustively long torture/degradation scenes is literally wordless, forcing the "message" to come through the talented acting. Anna (Morjana Alaoui) rides a roller coaster of emotion; loving Lucie, disgust at the murders and abused women, grief over Lucie's death, accepting her tortured fate. It is remarkable to see an actress so believable in such a difficult role.

The Plot?
This is gonna be short review, because as you might have guessed, I didn't like this movie. Mostly I was confused at what Martyrs was trying to be. For the first bit I thought it was a demon possession movie, but that got shot down when we saw that the feral women was simply the delusion of Lucie's battered mind. Then I saw it as thriller, with the shadow organization and its clearly explained goals. Then I figured it would be a torture-porn flick, but the abuse didn't involve bizarre body mutilations  That is, until the end when Anna is skinned, and then the movie wanders around aimlessly until ending in a classic horror movie no-explanations ending. As the credits rolled all I could think was, "What the hell did I just watch?"

In my struggles with depression I have discovered via therapy that I have a tendency to label people and actions in rather simplistic terms. Or as I like to think of it, I like to categorize stuff. It makes the world easier to understand. Now add that to the fact that I'm in the midst of studying the horror genre at large, and you can see why I didn't like this movie. This movie refuses to be defined. It looks like a supernatural possession akin to The Grudge or The Ring. It looks like a torture-porn splatter flick like Saw or Hostel.  Make up your mind! 

But the biggest offence is that of the plot itself. The viewer's plot goal is for Lucie to free herself of the demons attacking her. Lucie's death ends that pretty quick and a new goal of helping the imprisoned woman is established. A quick bullet to the brain ends that and a new goal of escaping and understanding the shadow origination comes up. The end result leaves the viewer with a dead Anna, no explanation of her martyrdom, and a sick feeling having just watched 30 mins of women's abuse. This is no way to tell a story! I'm sure some devotees of foreign-film-horror, would tell me otherwise  but there was not enough of central message or meaningful cinematography to even give the plot a panacea of an artistic movie.  

If you like movies that make sense, keep going. Martyrs bounces around plot lines like a super ball down a stairwell. And it leaves you with confusion. It's not a movie for the weak spirited, but not because of gore as much as repetitive inhumanity and non-graphic torture. Martyrs does give you a few jumps with a creepy, albeit short lived, monster, but it's not enough of a scare to impress me. I was left confused and frustrated at my loss of two hours. Click skip on Martyrs and go watch Lifetime if you want to see women being beaten. 

Final Grade: D+




  1. This is definitely a film that splits people. I really liked it because I never knew what was coming next. I thought I knew what was happening and then everything changed. My view on the abuse of the main character is that as a viewer I always sided with her and wanted her to escape. In a very bleak way she does get her revenge at the end of the film.

    Not a film for everyone though. (My brother wasn't too keen either.)

    1. True. I never stopped to think that Anna does get her revenge in the end, but that was probably because two seconds after the suicide, the credits roll and I was preoccupied with thinking, "What the hell did I just watch?" I don't even get the time to enjoy a just revenge. Like most of my dates, it just left me hot and bothered in the end.

  2. This isn't a scary movie and it was never meant to be - it's a story about these two girls, first Lucie then Anna, and the kind of people they are. Lucie is a tragic victim and Anna is a hero. This is a gorgeous movie and I love it, but I can understand people that have a hard time getting into it. It changes plot seemingly from one scene to another (which is actually one of the things I love about it), and doesn't offer any real satisfying answers at the end. But I don't always need my movies to be tied up all nice and pretty for me - the images are sometimes brutal, but also beautiful, and it is a real experience to watch this movie for the first time and take the journey.

  3. I enjoyed the review--especially since you and I differed so different on the film so I liked to hear what you took away from the film. I agree with you that the film is very chaotic on the spectrum of what type of horror film it is as it literally is three different types of horror. This type of jump can either be a deal breaker or deal maker for the audience. Some get thrown off or just don't like the change and others dig it. Not to mention the open-ended ending is something that doesn't offer much closure and leaves A LOT to interpretation and that also can be the deal maker or breaker. Overall, I enjoyed your review and really liked your tag at the beginning about Martyrs being a *blank* type of horror film. It's a great tag line for the film and your review because it literally is that--it's not one type of film.

  4. Martyrs is a film about emotions, not explanations. People expecting a thrilling plot will most certainly be dissapointed by it, not because it's a bad movie but because they watch it with wrong expectiations.
    Here's a quote from the director Pascal Laugier that nails it for me quite well: "The cynicism of our system has killed everything, people are more isolated and lonely than ever."
    I think Lagier wanted to express certain emotions to the audience and he choose a horror film to do achieve his goal. The story is realy not the important part of the film.

    1. Like I've said before, I'm quite positive I lack a creative/interpretative vision when it comes to most movies (I almost fell asleep during Eraserhead for heavens sake). But in this movie I just find myself not caring about the emotional/social/humanistic messages "conveyed" though haymakers to Anna's face. I don't even want to try and re-watch it. If 'story' or 'plot' was meat, I'd be dropping this piece of toast for a big Philly Cheese Steak (aka Nightmare on Elm St.)

  5. Just saw your comment on my Martyrs review. I answered it on my blog as well (, but I wanted to comment here.

    Martyrs is the sort of movie where 10 people will walk in and all 10 will leave with different emotions, opinions, and interpretations which I find really exciting. You shouldn't write of your opinion by saying that you lack a creative vision; it's a weird fucking movie! Even though the transition between its two halves is jarring (and can understandably be a turn-off) I think each portion is extremely successful in its own right. The way that mental disorders are physically embodied in the first half is perhaps more original than the protracted torture at the end, but I think the questions Martyrs raises about the lengths people will dive to in order to understand the mysteries of the universe are important.

    Are you a fan of any other existentialist material? Have you read any Jean-Paul Sartre? There are some interesting thematic links between Martyrs and No Exit.

  6. Hi there, i saw Martyrs a few weeks ago, and i wasn't sure about te ending at all. first. i read in the internet, so many different opinios. then, the more i did think about it, (and I did a lot), the more i was sure about the reason behind the ending. i posted it in a forum at forums already and i copy paste it here, if this is ok:

    what the martyr told the old lady was "clear like crystal, and precise", and she "can see no other interpretation......"

    but, that does not mean, the martyr told her from an afterlife.

    that is, what the old lady and all others were hoping to hear.

    what the martyr told her, was a n y t h i n g e l s e, but an afterlife experience. without any doubt (no other interpretation...clear like crystal).

    but what did the martyr tell her? actually, it doesn't matter. it could have been spoken words like an insane person speaks, sentences which make no sense. any monologue. or, (to make my point clear) for example, it could have been spoken lyrics from a song or a poem, spoken in a loop. (something everyone knows, something well known. this would explain: - there is no other interpretation - it was clear - precise)
    the pain and torture made the martyr insane.

    so the experiment did neither prove nor disprove the existance of an afterlife.

    all the pain and torture (and "work") was useless. the old lady failed. the "work" of her life failed. she kills herself.

    an additional explanation for the very last words of the old lady (which fits my theory):

    old lady: "Etienne, have you ever tried to imagine the other world?"
    Etienne:: "I am afraid - not"

    old Lady: "keep doubting Etienne.."
    and she kills herself.

    which means:
    we still have no answers, Etienne. you can keep doubting... but I am going to find it out myself. right now! (and she kills herself).
    end copy+paste

    i think, many people who watched this movie, (me included) felt in that wide open trap, the movie has opened: a martyr witnesses an afterlife experience from the other world. and who dosn't want to know, what that is? everyone wants to know that answer and tends to think: what i want to happen, will happen. but the story of the movie goes a different way, an unsatisfying way which the viewer doesn't want. all the torture can't have been "useless". the real story of the movie is: this "organisation" did a horrible crime, words can't describe, for many years, and it wasn't succesful. the pain and torture the victims went through, was for "nothing". a sad story.