Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) has a reputation as one of those films that is so controversial that its audacity is allowed to trump all aesthetic and moral considerations. Having seen too many films over the years that have gotten this genre-fan carte blanche—like The Human Centipede, for instance—I am unable to give Laugier’s terrible film a pass. It’s just gotten the Blu Ray treatment, but even in such excruciatingly high definition it’s nothing but repetitive, unimaginative schlock. I hereby label it with the most damaging word a horror fan can apply to a horror film: boring.
The setup follows Lucie, a young woman (Mylene Jampanoi) who is the victim of a childhood of unspeakable torture (though we are told from the beginning that the abuse was“not sexual,”so we don’t have to feel that bad about it.) She grows up in an orphanage of sorts, where her only friend is Anna, another young woman who looks almost exactly like her (Morjana Alaoui). Smash forward about 15 years, and only a few minutes into the film, we are treated to the spectacle of Lucie blowing a suburban French family away with a double-barreled shotgun, Dirty Harry style. Anna appears and duly helps Lucie mop up the blood as Lucie insists that this bourgeois family presided over her torture, in a hidden basement labyrinth, for years on end. At this point, the audience is left to wonder: is she insane? Is it all in her head? Does she do this over and over to different families all the time, like Guy Pearce in Memento? Or is she actually onto something?
Unfortunately, that single moment of uncertainty is as interesting and imaginative as the film ever gets; Martyrs soon devolves into a mishmosh of generic female victimization jazzed up with a frisson of religious-cult overtones. The bulk of the “scary”part of the film revolves around Anna being captured by Lucie’s former tormentors and subjected to all manner of torture in the pursuit, we’re told, of forcing her to the brink of death so she can report back about what lies beyond this mortal coil (hence the title). Of course, Laugier has made the architect of both girls’ suffering, the death-obsessed cult leader, a post-menopausal woman. He’s even given her an inexplicable turban (reminiscent of whatever Ruth Gordon was wearing in Rosemary’s Baby) to make her seem foreign and suspicious. Many birds, one stone.
Towards the end of the film, this evil woman comments on her choice of victim by saying,“It turns out that women are more receptive to transfiguration. Young women.” Well, Laura Mulvey needn’t have bothered with her theories of the male gaze after all! Our insatiable craving for exploitative images of young women, then, must have to do with their innate closeness to the beyond, the other world, the holy, the timeless…fill in whatever derivative post-Christian fantasy you want. The point is, it’s not bad to look at bodies like Anna’s being beaten. In fact, it’s in service of something positively enlightened. In this way, the film manages to create a tautology by condemning Anna’s torturers while still presenting the spectacle of her torture as something titillating (and guilt-free) to watch. So, we watch as Anna is force-fed by an evil nurse, beaten by a silent hit man, and has all her hair shorn off by some other faceless goon. She isn’t protected from the viewer any more than she is from her captors—we even get to watch her urinate, into a special chair she’s been chained to. How shocking! How edgy!
How vapid. Martyrs has precisely nothing to say, and no innovative way of saying it. For all the blood it spills and all the hateful imagery it gleefully cobbles together of incredible violence against female bodies, it’s surprisingly boring. Every plot twist is yawn-inducing for anyone familiar with recent genre fare. There really seems to be nothing new under the sun—especially, for some reason, when it comes to horror flicks, directed by Frenchmen, about women getting tortured. Cases in point: Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac. Aja’s film equated female homosexual desire with murderous psychosis (a trope that Martyrs also gestures toward, briefly), and Khalfoun’s remake of Lustig’s Maniac was a study in the dehumanizing effect of female objectification. Martyrs retreads everything that this new wave of French horror has already done, and borrows many of the most “shocking” elements of films like The Human Centipede and the Hostel series too, for good measure. Laugier seems aware that he needs all the help he can get. The result, not surprisingly, is as silly and terrible as all those other films put together.
– By Lita Robinson