Monday, May 18, 2009

Martyrs, Spoiled

Me: Psst. Did you see Martyrs?

You: No.

Me: Go away.

You: Dude(tte). What’s your problem?

Me: I can’t go into any detail whatsoever about this movie without spoiling it grosser than a gallon of milk left open in an Elm St. boiler room.

You: Oh.

Me: Yeah.

You: So...should I, like, watch the movie?

Me: Yes.

You: Is it great?

Me: Eh. Yes. No.

You: Yes or no?

Me: I’m not sure. But it’s definitely very good.

You: Okay.

Me: Yeah.

You: Um, later.

Me: I’m glad we had this conversation.

That’s right folks. I did indeed major in Playwriting and English and graduate cum laude. Onto the review, which, in case my Shakespearean dialogue was a little too dense, contains SPOILERS that will make you want to throw hungry wolverine clawed kittens in my direction.

You’ve been warned:

Like many works of art and the artists that create them, a good deal of horror films struggle with identity crises. Their makers have clearly seen enough canon to know what’s expected of their genre and strive to recreate what’s worked in the past while occasionally casting a line out to catch something fresh. The recent (and recently reviewed) Frontier(s), for example, hit all the notes of backwoods horror birthed by classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or the earlier and beloved Spider Baby), but hinted at something new with Nazi undertones and a disappointingly unexplored dystopian setting. Unfortunately, Frontier(s) stopped short of forming anything revolutionary. For all the moody chaos in the bleak police state future, it delivered straight--if exceptionally well-done--gore cinema (known today as the heavily stigmatized torture porn).

Martyrs, the Canadian/French sleeper that has been making its prestigious rounds through the DVD community this past year, turns the confines of horror sub-genres into a fascinating, intelligent, and imperfect collage. Just when you think you know what type of film auteur Pascal Laugier is delivering (mangled ghostly girl? J-horror!), one shockingly explicit action transforms the story and style into another (shotgun in suburbia? home invasion!) and another (secret torture den? Underground society conspiracy!) until finally, the last 30 minutes lets Martyrs come into its own... for better and worse.

Quick Plot: Somewhere I never want to go in an industrial area of France, a young girl runs screaming through an empty morning street. We soon learn that this is Lucie, a mysterious orphan who was held captive and tortured, though no culprit or motive has been discovered. The understandably disturbed child is befriended by the pretty and maternal Anna, her roommate at a sad little orphanage that seems not entirely safe from the ghosts of Lucie’s past.

15 years later, the action shifts to a secluded upper middle class home where a typical family eats breakfast over the usual morning bickering. The doorbell rings. Father answers it, his face registering confusion, fear, and (possibly) recognition before a blast of shotgun busts through his stomach. At the other end of the smoking weapon is a now grown Lucie, her face still holding all the fear and hell of the little girl we met ten minutes earlier.

And then other stuff happens.

I could continue to describe the story, but if you’re reading this far, you already know it (and if you don’t and therefore haven’t heeded my SPOILER warning, you deserve a large heaping of force-fed gruel and systematic beatdowns). A lot of things happen in Martyrs, and none of them are good. Okay, a lot of things happen in Martyrs and none of them are any more pleasant than a route canal performed by Steve Martin’s dentist character in Little Shop of Horrors. At the same time, this isn’t a Saw sausage fest that tries to top itself or other extreme films with cinematic violence for shock’s sake. Bad things happen because the story demands them. Bad things happen because there are people in this world that do them.

Long haunted by a gollum-ish female, Lucie shoots some people--two innocent, two not. This does nothing to quell the demon that hunts her. When Anna meets the inspiration for Lucie’s trauma, she (and we) is equally repulsed, terrified, and heartbroken. It’s almost a relief to see her head blown off, for both the character’s sake and our own.

Like the film itself, there is no clear morality in the universe. People torture young women to unlock a mystery that probably shouldn’t be unlocked. Lives are destroyed in beyond painful ways. Yet the head mistress of this diabolical underground community gets her answer: a martyr is made in Anna, a skinless Joan of Arc without the independence to do anything with her bravery.

Or maybe Anna wins. What she tells the grand torturess, we never know. Maybe she lies. Maybe she whispers horrors of what lies beyond this world to terrify and guilt this macabre madame into suicide. Maybe she creates an imaginary eden to lure the old woman closer and quicker to an eternity of hell. Or maybe she has nothing to report and proves that the years of cruelty were for naught. We don’t know.

Personally, I’m not ready to rank Martyrs as a Great Film just yet. It’s an excellent movie, yes, and one that is clearly made by an artist with the potential to steer the genre in a solidly new direction. Technically, Martyrs is near perfect; the acting is spot on, the visuals are beautiful, and the editing is effective. If there’s a flaw, it comes somewhere at the 40 minute mark, where, despite what I recall as being tense and engrossing staging, something starts to drag. Maybe it’s the Haute Tension-ish look sparked by a pretty girl in a bloody tanktop or the not-too-surprising first reveal of Lucie’s real tormentor. I can’t put my finger on it, but at some point, I fell out before coming back.

Laugier does not reinvent the horror film, but he does reshape what’s already there with fascinating results. One hour in, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where this film was going. I haven’t really felt that way since the total surprise of The Descent. Where Neil Marshall’s spelunking scarefest led us into a nightmare with jumps and fear, Laugier’s Martyrs starts with hell and philosophically transforms it into purgatory.

High Points
Although we never get to truly know either character, both Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jamponoi make intensely sympathetic and haunted characters

The minimalist score constantly evolves throughout the film, never settling on a predictable pattern to warn us of mood shifts

From the snowing feather gunshot to Anna’s gleaming eyes, Laugier creates some incredibly memorable visuals

Low Points
While I originally admired the opening Peeping Tom-esque home movie documentary feel of the child Anna and Lucie, it’s abandoned so quickly that I wonder if it was a simple exposition device

Lessons Learned
Overachieving in butterfly swimming competitions is just asking for trouble

When your shower is clogged, the best solution is to dig a ten foot hole in your front yard and find the little mouse bastard that’s been hanging out in the pipes

There are few things more frightening than old French ladies with money and Norma Desmond headwraps

You need to see this movie, if only to throw your hat into the discussion of what the fuss is all about. (But then, if you’re reading this far, you’ve already seen it.) As I explained in my yesterday’s posting, Martyrs didn’t quite live up to the hype I’d been hearing about it through podcasts and the blogosphere, but it definitely did leave an equally deep emotional and philosophical impression. Because of its ambiguous ending, it’s also a film to share and discuss, so I could certainly endorse a buy from your local independent dealer. A thorough making-of is included in the extras, giving you detailed discussions about every aspect of filming. All in all, it’s a solid, unique, and thoughtful horror that highlights Pascal Laugier as a filmmaker to watch with two open eyes. As the man tapped to helm the remake (reboot? I can’t keep up with the evolving language of stale cinematic trends) of Hellraiser, it’s guaranteed that we’ll be seeing more of him. Let’s hope he continues to make cinema his own.


  1. I think you and I are on the same page on this one, Emily. Although we probably disagree on the rationale, we end up with the same result. This one could have been perfect, but it's not. Still way, way better than most recent horror cinema. Great prose, as usual.

  2. I am surprisingly psyched for Hellraiser. I'm guessing Martyrs will age decently, but more importantly, I'm reallllly hoping Laugier continues to experiment with horror cinema. The more comfortable he gets behind the camera, the more I hope he breaks away from established genre patterns.

  3. While I loved Martyrs a little more than yourself, I am with you on your spot on review and pretty much everything you said in it.

    I loved the fact that I had no clue what was going on, or what may possibly happen in the film. I like to have that feeling in watching a movie and having no clue what will happen, only that it is something "crazy!" and unexpected. I felt very silent and completely focused on the final act just trying to figure out where the movie was going and it all came together and blew my mind when the old lady said that one word...doubt.

    I haven't seen the film a second time yet and can't wait to see how it plays when expectations are changed. I have a feeling that it will hold up for me and I will find more to enjoy about it upon repeated viewings.

    As for Hellraiser, I am very excited as I think Laugier is the perfect person to do it justice. Martyrs was inspired by Hostel (a movie I like enough) and if this dude makes a movie like Martyrs out of his inspiration from Hostel...then imagine what he could do with the subject matter of Hellraiser!

  4. I really wish Laugier had done a commentary for the film for some of those same reasons, Matt. I hadn't heard about the Hostel inspiration, but that in itself is pretty fascinating. Both Hostels have some truly haunting ideas at their core--how everything is for sale and why a 'normal' man or woman would want take someone else's life--but obviously, Martyrs takes the sort of 'essence' of torture into a totally different direction. I'm fine with him being inspired by other genre pictures because he clearly is out to carve something new out of the old. I have HUGE expectations for Hellraiser. I can see Laugier making it his own. Aint It Cool News did a great interview with him where he discusses how he's expecting to combat the studios. I'll try to dig it up later.

  5. I look forward to a long discussion about this movie tomorrow night when I see you but in the meantime I have a few thoughts to share.

    1) I agree it wasn't great. It was good. I'm not sitting here going "I need to see that again, I enjoyed it so much." I can see why some people may consider it great though. I think all in all it made me too uncomfortable to consider sitting throught it again.

    2) It freaked me out. Note that I'm watching it alone, in my office. But still it's board daylight out and I had to pause it and glance around over my shoulder more than once.

    3) I had no idea where it was going. Which I figure you know already based on my text message halfway through the movie of "what the fuuuuuuuck?" But that was a good thing for the most part. While predictable movies can also be loads of fun (i.e. Drag Me to Hell) it's always more fun when you don't see where something is headed.

    I'm going to go watch something cheery with singing now to lighten my mood.

  6. On point number 3, I didn't respond to your text for exactly that reason. I was going to say "just wait till the last 20 minutes," but then I realized I'd be doing that whole over-hyping thing that I think originally hurt the film for both of us in the first place. Hence, I left you to fend off freaky Frenchies on your own. I'm proud of you for surviving. Can't wait to discuss it more!