What is it about the French that gives them the ability to turn out some of the most gut-wrenching, disturbing horror films these days? Their ability to deliver extreme, cringe-inducing horror is closing in on '70s-era Italian cannibal and zombie films, '80s American slashers, and late '90s-early '00s Japanese ghost stories. With these specialties from around the world, it should be quite easy to program a special "Horror 'Round the World" movie network. In any case, Martyrs is the latest example of twisted horror that I have seen, hot on the heels of Haute Tension, Inside, and Frontier(s) (and that doesn't even touch on dramas like Irreversible). What sets this apart from those other examples is the metaphysical aspect of the tale, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Four years ago I was introduced to the work of Pascal Laugier with his big screen screenwriting and directorial debut, House of Voices (released in France as Saint Ange). That supernatural ghost tale was a mediocre entry into the genre, and I cannot say I expected to see more from him. Now, along comes his followup film, Martyrs, and I have to admit that the jump in quality between his debut and sophomore efforts is similar to that of Rob Zombie from House of 1000 Corpses to The Devil's Rejects. In other words, it is considerable and very much welcome.
Martyrs opens with a young girl emerging from a building on the industrial side of town, bruised, bloody, barefoot, and screaming. The girl's name is Lucie and it she was held captive for an unknown period of time. She does not remember much of what happened, is not sure who did it, and does not trust anyone. That begins to change when she befriends Anna, another girl with a troubled past living in the same group home. Their friendship is sealed the day Anna sees Lucie cutting herself, only to have Anna say that it was someone else who did it. From this moment on, the two become inseparable friends.
Jump ahead fifteen years and meet a seemingly normal suburban family. They are getting ready to start their day when the doorbell rings. They answer the door and the woman on the outside proceeds to lay them down with a succession of shotgun blasts. It is Lucie.
That's right, the story begins as a tale of revenge. Lucie was able to uncover who it was who held her captive for so very long. The question remains, at least for Anna, are these people the right ones? How can Lucie be so sure? We do not know, we are not given the necessary information and must rely on Lucie, who seems to be rather unbalanced. Can you blame her?
The two women stay at the house to clean up their mess, but Lucie is bad shape. She is haunted by a mysterious figure and her sanity is taking a leave of absence. Meanwhile, Anna is having her doubts while trying to keep the pieces together.
At this stage of the story everything changes. What we thought we knew, what we think will happen, everything stops in its tracks to be picked up completely off the rails and set down on another track and sent along its way in an entirely new direction running perpendicular to the original thread, and most definitely not parallel.
What comes next, I dare not say. Let me just say that it is dark, violent, and uncompromising. It is a disturbing passage of film that has seared itself into my mind. There are moments that made me cringe, images that urged me to turn it off, passages that made me question the filmmaker's humanity. Then, when we learn of why they are doing it, let's just say it is jaw-dropping and will leave you questioning just what happened. It is clear that they use a different, but valid, definition for the word "martyr," for what they are are doing borders on the spiritual as a witness is sought. You see, the villain is not doing this for the sake of torturing someone or inflicting pain — they have a goal of attaining a different level of being, or at least bearing witness to that level. Yes, the metaphysical elements.