For the past 15 years or so, there has been a dedicated cadre of filmmakers who belong to a movement called “New French Extremism.” These filmmakers have been on a mission to make movies as violent and extreme as possible, and they include such people as Gaspar Noé, the director of “Irreversible,” and Alexandre Aja of “Haute Tension” fame.
Filmmakers from other countries have followed the lead of their French colleagues, most notably with 2010’s “A Serbian Film,” which has taken on legendary status among people who watch movies for their gross-out value, in an effort to one-up each other. The metric used to describe the artistic merit of these films is “brutal,” as in, “This movie was so brutal,” or “This movie was more brutal than (fill in the blank).”
For the most part, these movies have few, if any, redeeming qualities, and are the cinematic equivalent of a two-hour “What’s grosser than gross?” joke. Unfortunately, one movie that absolutely doesn’t belong in the company of the company of the aforementioned films has been horribly miscategorized and resides amongst them.
The movie is 2008’s “Martyrs,” directed by Pascal Laugier. It’s violent as all hell, so it certainly has that in common with other movies lumped into the genre. But it has a powerful emotional effect and is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen, that it belongs to its own genre, whatever that might be.
“Martyrs” is really two movies in one. The first half concerns Lucie, who was imprisoned and tortured as a child, but managed to escape. She’s put in an orphanage, where she meets and bonds with a girl named Anna. Lucie is regularly attacked by a horribly disfigured and scarred woman, and Anna is the only person she trusts with this information.
The movie jumps ahead fifteen years, and Lucie, now an adult, enters the home of a seemingly average family and murders them all brutally, including the children. We learn that she does this in the hopes of stopping the monster from attacking her.
I can’t say too much more about the plot, especially what happens in the second half. The movie imparts information in a very unorthodox way, and it benefits from the viewer not being 100% certain that what’s going on is really what’s going on. It sets you up to make particular assumptions, and then pulls the rug out from under you multiple times. I can’t reveal too much, but I also can’t really recommend this movie. I don’t want to be the person who was responsible for you seeing it.
The movie is full of disturbing images that get stuck in your head and just hang around in there for weeks. I know this to be the case because everyone I speak to about this movie says the same thing. A friend of mine said that the movie ruined his life (his exact words), and that’s not hyperbole. It’s a very upsetting movie doesn’t allow the viewer a moment of relief, then lets you dwell on the nightmare for weeks thereafter. I probably lost six weeks of my life to it.
“Martyrs” is a truly great film, a unique work of towering artistry with excellent performances, an unpredictable plot and a point of view worth experiencing. My refusal to recommend it has nothing to do with quality. My refusal to recommend it comes from the fact that it utterly traumatized me, and I don’t want anyone else to go through that.
“Martyrs” is an artistic masterpiece of bravura filmmaking with an ingenious script, excellent performances and a story that keeps you guessing right up to the end. If you decide to see it, great, but that’s on you. If you would be so good as to sign a legally binding document releasing me from any responsibility for that decision, I would consider it a solid.
P.S. The movie was remade for American audiences in 2016. They changed the ending, which is unforgivable, and generally watered it down to “Why bother?” status. I strenuously urge you to avoid the remake entirely, unless someone’s paying you for your time.