Martyrs is a powerful and divisive French film released a few years back which generated a fair share of buzz among viewers seeking something 'more' out of their horror flicks. While it's loosely rooted in the torture porn genre ala Hostel, what Pascal Laugier has come up with here is a film which begs a question: how much suffering can one individual withstand, and when all hope and sensation has been removed, what is one then left with? Let me preface anything else by stating that this is a grueling, uncomfortable piece, made more for the audience's displeasure than pleasure, and some might have a hard time processing it's central theme. After watching this with my girlfriend, for example, she screamed at me for about an hour, having felt that her spirit was soiled by the film's gruesome assertions. So, just a heads up guys and gals, don't watch this with anyone overly sensitive to pain or terrifying situations.
The film does experience a slight disparity of tone between the first and second acts. In the first half, Lucie (played by the lovely Mylène Jampanoï) is a girl who escaped at a young age from a terrifying torture cult, and decides to exact a bloody revenge later upon those responsible. She is joined by a fellow orphan Anna (Morjana Alaoui), and then we get a bloody 'boxed in' sequence not unlike The Strangers or Funny Games, only there is more to this: Lucie, like many troubled folks, is haunted by visions, one of which causes her to inflict great bodily harm upon her person. This is all very early in the film, and then it takes a strange turn which I'm not going to reveal, but let's just say that Martyrs curiously lives up to its name as it cycles into its metaphysical and conspiratorial elements, and the film curbs from a gore-soaked break-in to something far more trying upon the viewer...
Martyrs wouldn't work if the actresses couldn't pull it off, but both are incredibly believable as they 'live' out this harrowing situation. The camera angles and sets here have been designed to accentuate it's clinical levels of discomfort, and no blood has been spared through the murder and torture sequences. I did feel that there was a bit of a disconnect to its halves, but this only adds to the strange surprises in store, and about the only real complaint I have with the plot is the series of fade in/fade out scenes deeper into its durations which feel exhausting and repetitive. Granted, in any realistic situation like the one that develops here, repetition plays an important role in the victims' suffering, but it's hardly entertaining film-making and, had it been truncated about 5-6 minutes, the picture would have flowed more evenly.
That said, this is one fucked foray into the limits of human endurance, and while it might seem like it's going nowhere, there is actually a convoluted point to it all. I'll repeat that this is not necessarily a film tweaked towards its viewers' 'enjoyment', but a study in audience constitution, one of those rare films that transcends the slasher genre into something far more unexpected and uncanny. You might not 'get it' at first, though it's not incredibly complex, but there are enough scenes of shock and blood to carry forth the attention of even the most jaded gore guru to its closing, bewildering moments, and the makeup and acting here are top notch. The plot itself is not perfect, and a few scenes feel extraneous, but it's worth watching if you've got the stomach for its bewitching pandemonium. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to pick up some candy and flowers to dig myself out of the doghouse.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10]