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.
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.
SPOILER FREE REVIEW
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+