Resolutely bleak, extraordinarily harrowing, and relentlessly upsetting, Martyrs is a shocking, disturbing French arthouse horror that earns its reputation, a memorable journey of vile deeds that one does not wish to remember but cannot forget. It’s a grisly thought provoker that’s nearly overwhelming in its capacity to provoke not only thoughts, but disgust, chills, nausea, and everything in between.
A young girl, Lucie, escapes from an abattoir where she has been imprisoned and abused. Upon being placed in an orphanage, she is befriended by Anna, who discovers that Lucie believes she is being terrorized by a ghost as a result of her neglect. When Lucie and Anna attempt to find her captors, they discover something far more ghastly, and end up in the hands of a martyrdom cult.
Martyrs is cleanly broken up into three parts. The first 40 minutes is a standalone, brutally effective revenge thriller, with Lucie stalking and tracking down those responsible for her childhood and exacting vengeance in bloody fashion. The second portion functions as a mystery, with a potent dungeon revelation by Anna acting as the set-up for the last 30 minutes, where Martyrs crosses lines never before contemplated by most filmmakers. It culminates in one of the cruelest acts of violence ever put on screen.
Premiering at Cannes, Martyrs – written and directed by Pascal Laugier on a budget of three million euros – is the latest example of New French Extremity, a term originally coined by Artforum critic James Quandt to refer to a collection of transgressive contemporary films by French directors. The films often associated with the movement include Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, and Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside.
Most famously, provocateur Gaspar Noé rocked Cannes in 2002 with Irréversible, which Roger Ebert, in a positive review, famously called “unwatchable“. Martyrs is just as demanding, and just as sickening, without the perverse “redemptiveness” of Irréversible’s reverse timeline. In Martyrs, there is nowhere to hide: things start off bad and get worse. Even the villains see themselves as scientific pioneers, with the transcendence possibly achieved through suffering (or, more specifically, making others suffer) more than compensating for the struggle.
The absolutely terrifying truth about Martyrs is that it is not only a serious directorial and cinematographic accomplishment that is well-acted and paced, but it is undeniably powerful. It is not mere button-pushing; it means to deeply shake its audience, and it succeeds around every corner, long before it reaches its climax.
In this way, Martyrs can almost be compared to the Finnegans Wake of cinema; if far from enjoyable, it nonetheless speaks to the limitless boundaries of the medium to exert maximum and profound impact. Indeed, the fact that Martyrs is so very un-enjoyable is the point: by definition, it is not torture porn, because it does not revel in the misery or provide the slightest opportunity for catharsis or relief. Laugier presents everything at face value, not shying away, not dramatizing, but forcing viewers to endure every act of barbarity and to consider its meaning (or lack thereof).
Like many of the works of Michael Haneke, even a slap or an expression of contempt triggers revulsion, despite the feeling that it seems paltry compared to the other atrocities committed. Martyrs maintains a despairing, nihilistic tone that cannot be compared with Saw or Hostel, or to the most savage scenes of Tarantino’s epics, such as the trauma inflicted on the cop in Reservoir Dogs to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle With You”. On the contrast, Martyrs conveys a sense of vivid pity, as if to embody the perspective of an observer that is incredulous at what can be perpetrated by human beings.
To be clear, this is not a road to be traversed by anyone but the hyper-aware and the hyper-resilient. Laugier, like Noé, has fashioned a work that haunts dreams, prompts anger, and leaves one shuddering in the cold. Both offer to take one places that one would not otherwise go, because they are leading one off a cliff and into the abyss. But in the long fall to the bottom, anything can happen. For most people, such a tradeoff is ridiculous; for the select few (and I mean the very, very few), Martyrs beckons.
2.5/4 (3.5/4 for technical execution, 1.5/4 for moral reprehensibility)