Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs” is one of those movies that you cannot possibly dismiss, whether you love it or hate it. Its relentlessly tenebrous discourse, and its willingness to test its viewers’ tolerance have amassed an incredible amount of controversy in festivals around the world; a testament to Laugier’s radical and bold approach to exploring torture, martyrdom and the taboo that lurks around them. This movie does not shy away from agonizing depictions of human beings tortured to the point of dehumanization. It is crude and offensively gory yet the glooming sense of realism behind this excruciating story, and the undeniable sentimentality underlying it, elevates this horror movie from torture porn status to intellectual sadism. For a movie about torture, “Martyrs” ironically stands as quite the masochistic experience, so much so that recommending it can be quite a sensitive issue. Consequently, I do not know many people that I would recommend this movie to, in fact, I am still not sure whether I enjoyed it, however I am grateful to have experienced it and admire the movie’s audacity.

It has been a while since I’ve been haunted by a movie for days, constantly revisiting the world it created, pondering upon its deeper meaning and the reasons why I cannot get it out of my mind. It has been even longer since a horror movie has had that effect on me. In fact, I don’t even remember the last time I considered a horror movie to be truly horrifying… Back in the 1970’s, movies like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Exorcist” were infamous for traumatizing their audience with bold imagery and sinister storytelling. For those, as I, who were not lucky enough to have experienced those movies at the time they were released, the feeling of overwhelming gloom that comes after the screening of a horror movie has not really existed. When was the last time a horror movie has truly marked an entire generation since the 1970’s? The last one to even come close to achieving that was “The Blair Witch Project”. Although nowadays its relevance has become obsolete, when it first came out, it was considered audacious and radical. It dared to push the proverbial envelope and tap into the abysmal imaginary of its viewers with one simple gimmick: recounting events from the subjective point of view of the protagonist’s camcorder.

Although it was not the first movie to explore such a gimmick (“C’est Arrive Près de Chez Vous”, a 1992 Belgium film, was shot the exact same way and is a far superior film), “The Blair Witch Project” came with an omnipresent buzz and a relentless word of mouth which consequently made of it a movie that will stand in the annals of horror movies as one of those films that people went to see not to be entertained, but to live the experience. In that sense, “The Blair With Project” is much like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Exorcist” in that it stands as a horror movie event. Do not get me wrong, “The Blair Witch Project” is far from being one of my favourite horror movies, however, I do believe it is the last one to have truly reinvigorated its genre while achieving mainstream status.

The only reason that I can come up with for the lack of horror movie events is that the audience has become too aware of the filmmaking process. Resultantly, the contemporary moviemakers’ storytelling has been handicapped with an overwhelming sense of self-awareness. How can a horror movie have a true impact on someone’s psyche when it itself is more concerned with being self-referential than forthright with its intent? “Scream”, “Saw”, “Hostel” and all of their knockoffs are movies that, although really entertaining, are more busy trying to outsmart and play around with its audience than rattling its core with a haunting narrative. Their directors are not adamant about the stories they are telling, nor inspired by a dire need to explore taboos, but rather challenged by the notion of pushing sensationalism to new grounds, a feat that is to be acknowledged but that I cannot help but dismiss as gratuitous and simple. Similarly, the Japanese horror movie wave (“The Ring”, “The Grudge”, “The Eye”), although quite deserving of its appraise, seems more preoccupied with its moralistic undertones than with truly tapping into the fears of its audience. Once again, although my discourse may sound cynical, I am a fan of all of those movies, and appreciate them for what they are, however, after having seen “Martyrs”, I have now gotten a taste of horror moviemaking at its best; the kind that harasses your intellect and shatters your mind.

“Martyrs” is definitely hard to describe and even harder to compare. Think “Funny Games”, “Irreversible”, “Hostel” and “The Grudge” blended into one and pumped up on steroids. The reason behind the odd comparison stems from the fact that Laugier’s narrative is clearly divided into three acts, each having a distinctive narrative and/or visual style. Whereas the first two acts are completely devoid of glitzy cinematography and over-indulgent camera angles, basking in gritty and straightforward realism, the closing act’s visual style is hauntingly imaginative and at the risk of sounding psychotic, aesthetically stunning. Additionally, Laugier’s script’s sinuous storytelling provides, with each new act, a deeper and more multidimensional insight on the psyche of its characters as well as the purpose of their journey, transforming what may preliminarily seem as a gratuitous showcase of violence, into a hypnotizing and transcending experience. That not only stands as one of the countless ways that “Martyrs” challenges horror movie standards, but as a testament to its audacity seeing that despite its eclectic discourse, the movie still remains surprisingly cohesive. That being said, it is besides the point to recount the movie’s story, as most of its impact originates from the fact that the audience never truly knows where the story is going, and cannot possibly anticipate its purpose, meaning or conclusion. It is why, despite its flaws, which mostly stem from its borderline condescending tendency to explain its meaning through expository scenes that could have easily been cut, “Martyrs” is a movie of the unforgettable kind.

Another notable asset of “Martyrs” is its special effects. The gore in this movie is very persuasive. There is no excessive blood gushing supported with tasteless sound effects. Every act of violence is depicted with astonishing anatomic accuracy. Resultantly, this film is almost unbearable to watch. In fact, I dare anyone to keep a straight face while watching this film, as each scene is more cringe-inducing than the next, pushing the audience’s tolerance towards violence to lengths never before reached. Eventually a sense of fatalistic numbness creeps over, the brain unable to fathom the atrocities it witnesses. In that same vein, the performances of the two main protagonists played by Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoi are flawlessly layered considering the source material. Never once is their agony ever doubted and despite their characters’ flaws and peculiar state of mind, they manage to remain heartbreakingly relatable. It is why “Martyrs” is so polarizing. Whereas its story and context are excruciatingly and torturously gruesome, its technical merits, its dreadful humanity and its long-lasting impact are undeniably venerable.

In many ways, Pascal Laugier’s film stands more as a psychological experiment than as a horror film, testing its viewers’ tolerance and limitations. It is one of the few films that aspire to ignite discussion and to push the boundaries of their medium. Whereas this film will most likely never gain the mainstream exposure and appraise that films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Exorcist” garnered, it certainly stands as their contemporary equal. Here’s hoping that “Martyrs” is only the beginning of a new horror movie trend.

Review by Ralph Arida