(The following review contains spoilers about the film)
Martyrs is a French film that is part of the French New Wave horror movement. It joins classic French horror films like Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance, High Tension), Frontiers, Sheitan (Satan), Irreversible and L’Interior (Inside). It was made in 2008 and directed by Pascal Laugier who also made House of Voices (2004) and later the American movie The Tall Man (2012).
I was interested in seeing this because I loved the aforementioned films and because Martyrs consistently tops the lists of most disturbing movies ever made. With a run time of 99 minutes, they wasted no time in getting straight to the gore and disturbing scenes. Martyrs tells the tale of two women, Lucy and Anna, who met as children in an orphanage. As a child Lucy was kidnapped and suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her captors. Anna shared a similiar history and the two bonded through their shared experiences. Lucy has frightening hallucinations and flashbacks that make it difficult for her to function. The film takes us on the flashbacks with her and shows how she escaped her captors. Then we flash forward to 15 years later. Lucy believes she has found the husband and wife who were responsible for her abuse, and she wants revenge. Lucy calls Anna and asks for her assistance . From here the film starts to go back and forth between the past and the present. It shows us vivid and creepy hallucinations that leave us wondering if they are all in Lucys’ head or if she has somehow manifested the demons that haunt her.
When it is revealed that the home contains several underground torture chambers , the film gives us glimpses of the madness about to unfold. The hallway of the main torture chamber is lined with eerie photos of people with grievous bodily injuries that all have their eyes upturned towards the sky . There is a doomed woman who Anna tries to save, as she learns more about the perpetrators. A group of adults led by a matriarch are responsible for the torture. They believe that through suffering, a state of enlightenment can be obtained. They call it “Transfiguration” . They believe there are 7 stages of suffering that lead to the ultimate state of rapture. We watch as Anna is put through these stages, which include isolation, starvation, abuse and disfiguring injuries. I was pleasantly surprised to find there is no rape in the movie though the violence may be stomach churning for some.
I really wanted to like this movie, or at least find it interesting but I’m afraid I didn’t. The violence and shocking images felt like they were just there for the sake of violence and barbarity. The plot, is in my opinion, is not told in a coherent manner and feels disjointed. Due to the graphic nature I can certainly see why this film tops lists of disturbing movies, but that doesn’t mean its good. If you are looking to experience the wave of French horror, I would recommend Frontiers or Haute Tension over this.