Martyrs – Movie Review by Alexandra Ferguson

Production Companies: Canal Horizons Canal+ CinéCinéma Crédit d’Impôt Cinéma et Télévision (with the participation of) Crédit d’Impôt pour la Production Cinématographique ou Magnétoscopique Canadienne (with the participation of) Eskwad TCB Film Wild Bunch

Rating: 4/5

Martyrs Film Poster
Country: France
Certificate: 18
Director: Pascal Laugier
Writer: Pascal Laugier

Morjana Alaoui – Anna
Mylène Jampanoï – Lucie

Horror movies are often notorious, whether it’s the allegations of animal cruelty in Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or just the Chinese whispers of stitching a mouth to an anus in Tom Six’s Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009). What we love about horror is the possibility that anything can happen.

However, there are some movies that are notorious because not only do they cross the line of decency, but they do it in such a way that as the film ends, the audience finds themselves questioning their own enjoyment.

Martyrs is one of those films.

It begins with the story of Lucie (Jampanoi) who is captured and imprisoned as a child but somehow manages to escape.

Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008)
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008)

She then ends up in a children’s home where she befriends Anna (Alaoui). However, Lucie is haunted by disturbing visions of a decaying woman who violently attacks her throughout the day and night. Lucie can only confide in Anna, who then accompanies her on a quest for revenge in the years that follow.

When Lucie is convinced she has found the family who were responsible for her kidnapping as a child, she indulges in brutal and satisfying revenge. Unfortunately, Lucie’s actions are only the beginning, and the true brutality lies waiting for Anna in the aftermath.

Martyrs is unquestionably a film of two halves.

The first half of Laugier’s film is a high calibre horror in the style of Asian classics such as Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), but with less atmosphere and more nasty grit. It’s tough to watch, violent, gory and utterly bizarre. It is also scary, which is a quality often missing from many so-called ‘horror’ movies.

As the screen fades to black at roughly forty-five minutes in, the film transforms into something else entirely. The second half of the movie serves to explain the events of the first half, but abandons the Asian style and grit, and instead subtly moves more towards a glossy documentary. The violence in the second half of the film is unruly and powerful. Minutes go by without dialogue or soundtrack and instead only the sounds of assault and pain come through the speakers.

It’s worth mentioning that the violence in the movie is all towards women, as with many of the most popular horror movies of the past. Martyrs has an explanation for its use of women, and also makes a point of bluntly saying that sexual violence is not involved in the first few moments of the film.

What is so interesting about Martyrs, is that it does leave you questioning why you would enjoy such violence and pain, and why you would endure watching an entire movie of it. The plot of the film is centred on suffering and this is pretty much evident in every single scene of the film. The juxtaposition of the two halves is also fascinating, as the first half seems to lure you in and tick the boxes of many conventional horror films; while the second half completely removes you from the events of act one, and as it ends you are left with pieces and images, rather than the whole.

The performances from Alaoui, and particularly Jampanoi, are fantastic. They are both feminine without being simply female,

Morjana Alaoui as Anna in Martyrs (2008)
Morjana Alaoui as Anna in Martyrs (2008)

and are authentic from the very first moments. The film also looks wonderful and is the perfect balance of natural light, shadows, intense atmosphere and clinical lighting.

Ultimately, Martyrs is disturbing and extremely violent. There are plenty of people who will never understand why anyone would make a film like this, let alone why anyone would watch it. But what is most disturbing is that the film is so natural in its violence that it doesn’t feel imaginary.

There are so many horrific stories of women locked in attics or basements, tortured, raped and killed; and Martyrs is really just a reaction to this. The explanations for ‘why’ people do these things can be anything they want, and as uncomfortable as it may be to admit you want to watch a film about it, there’s lots of us who do.