Halloween in December: “Martyrs (2008)”

30 straight days of horror films is what it took to get to this point. And this particular horror film is a doozy- Martyrs (yes, the original one) is a twisted and utterly depraved bit of New French Extremity that retains much of the hallmarks of its contemporaries but then goes far beyond them, perhaps being one of the most metaphorically personal pieces of New French Extremity ever put out.

Honestly, if you’re coming here expecting to see a rundown of the plot, I’m not going to give one. This film is best watched as raw as humanly possible, and even the most restricted summary would be laden with spoilers that take away from its impact. All you need to know is that a young woman seeks revenge on those who kidnapped and tortured her when she was a child, and her friend from an orphanage accompanies her. That’s all you get from me.

This film is inherently full of philosophical contradictions, which is entirely the point- Pascal Laugier has said that this film was written while he was in an intense state of depression, and it shows. At points throughout the film, there seems to be hope, there seems to be emptiness, there seems to be everything ranging the human emotional spectrum on the subject of death. Is it articulated in an arthouse way? Not if you’re expecting visual imagery comparable to, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky. What we are delivered is instead a series of mostly literal events, albeit sometimes with connotations extending past what the audience versus the character is seeing. Perspective is what helps add to the weight this film carries, and that philosophy is carried throughout the entire runtime of this movie.

The comparisons to torture porn like Hostel are quick and easy, but almost completely unrelated when legitimately placed side by side. The association with New French Extremity saved this film from simply being automatically placed alongside regular torture porn, as there is an encompassing sort of theme- a purpose given to the violence on screen that goes beyond torture for torture’s sake, choosing to talk about pain instead of torture. This film is not some random fascination with violence and death, this is almost close to a psychological study into the mental state surrounding it, a theme fairly common in its peers. At the same time, as this is quite a personal and highly individualized examination of those topics, it naturally is more excluding than a work that is intended to be interpreted en masse. Without some form of personal connection to that feeling of sadness and suffering, this film likely takes quite a hit in quality. But in trying to broaden the scope of communicating that message, you would lose nearly everything that makes this film work on a foundational level.

And I do love this movie. It is not without its issues, but its slip-ups are miniscule in comparison to its triumps in both theme and execution. Add in two fantastic performances from Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï and you get the workings of a great piece of cinema, as perturbing as it may be. This is not an experience for everyone, and it’s a film that will likely have a pit in your heart and stomach when you are finished, but its an experience worth having if you are willing to brave it. I give this film a 9 out of 10.

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