I had to see MARTYRS since everyone seemed to be talking about it. The problem was, I was just not in the mood. I know the French have been kicking ass lately in the horror arena, but lately I have been more keen on the goofy spitball fun of a film like DRAG ME TO HELL rather than the drag me through the mud endurance test of something like FRONTIER(S). I mean I loved FRONTIER(S), but it left me covered with a layer of mental soap scum that even OXI CLEAN could not remove. From what I had heard about MARTYRS it was not exactly TEEN WITCH. Horror cred be damned, when I was honest with myself, I thought I’d rather be hanging out in Stars Hollow than chained to a metal chair in an abandoned warehouse being spoon-fed gruel for two hours.
Much of that apprehension was lifted in an introduction to the film available on the DVD where director PASCAL LAUGIER invited me to hate his movie as much as I liked, and that I should feel free to hate him on a personal level too. When he added that he was not so sure if he liked the movie or himself either, I was putty in his hands. (I just can’t resist self effacement, like letter writing and macramé, it’s a dead art. ) Plus, PASCAL was standing in front of what appeared to be his impressive DVD library (size does matter); I think I’ve found my new BFF! When can I come over?
So as it turns out my new pal, that little rascal PASCAL, made a very powerful movie that yours truly happily did not enjoy in the least! I kept flashing back to my older brother’s non-hilarious routine of holding my head under water in the family swimming pool until I was nearly dead. MARTYRS is just merciless. I wanted to turn it off a million times but I couldn’t. It’s absolute torture, plain and simple, sparked by moments of serene beauty and peace. It’s exactly the horrible, yet gratifying experience I was afraid it was going to be. Good job PASCAL, you nut!
Set up like a FRANCIS BACON triptych, the first part is a nasty revenge flick, the second, psychological horror (some great stuff about nursing your own demons there) and the third part is…wholly crap… I dunno, TURISTAS interpreted by TARKOVSKY? All I know is that it made my little head hurt. Some complain that the film’s conclusion reads like an empty afterthought to justify its ape shit violence, but I disagree. I think the intention was to put the viewer through a similar spirit-breaking desensitizing ordeal as the film’s protagonists. PASCAL then brilliantly leaves some empty canvas for the viewer to paint themselves (a literal white space in one instance). Are you a victim to the film’s violence and see nothing, or are you a MARTYR who sees more?
MARTYRS is about as much fun as a baby on an airplane, but as it forces you to think about the horror of human cruelty. It also takes time to honor the endurance of those who suffer and to salve their wounds. When in the heart of its bleakest moment a character conjures the voice of a dead loved one to spur her further on, it sprouts a rose in a field of manure whose fragrance over powers all. Like a sonnet written with a blood-soaked mop or a lullaby with crashing symbol accompaniment, MARTYRS’ harsh delivery might be a hurdle for some, but there is something here beyond the savagery. Scratching off the upper layer of deceptive sadism will reveal a film with a healthy fascination with the choices one makes in response to hardship and the very human question of whether it is all worth it. PASCAL, consider me a reluctant convert.