Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: Martyrs (2008)

French filmmaker Pascal Laugier has done something that happens only about once in a decade. He has created an original, coherent, and uncompromising vision of horror. It is, IMHO, the first truly great horror movie of the 21st century: Martyrs.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the film was controversial, but had carefully avoided reading too much about it. I knew that it was a divisive film, scoring a perfect 50% on the Tomatometer.

I became further intrigued after putting in the DVD and selecting an option for the filmmaker’s introduction. Laugier (I kid you not) apologizes for what you are about to see. I've never seen that before. It’s no grindhouse gimmick. He doesn’t plea with you to repeat “It’s only a movie” as a mantra to get yourself through it. He seems utterly casual and sincere in his apology. He seems to be saying: “This is the vision that came to me and now you must wrestle with it as I have.”

Where to begin? The narrative has so many clever redirects, so many jogs to the left when you thought you were going right, so many mind fucks, and so much yummy subtext that a plot summary almost does it a disservice.

But here is the setup: Lucie is a young girl who escapes a hellish torture chamber in an industrial building. She is brought to a hospital where she is haunted by the vision of an attacking demon, and is befriended by another orphan named Anna … a helping, loving giving tree of kindness, who is pained by her friend’s torment.

That’s everything up until the opening titles. Then, its 15 years later. That’s all I can say without a …


Instead of going through the clever plot twists (a plot synopsis is available on Wikipedia if you must know), I really want to get into the character of Anna and the ending which is, I assume, where much of the controversy lies.

Anna, our ultimate final girl, is a good soul. She is also a ragingly co-dependent lesbian stuck on damaged, psychotic straight girl Lucie. But she always tries to do the right thing. Though she is stuck in a universe devoid of moral absolutes, she is compelled to try to save everybody. But it is she that needs saving. And you want her to be saved. You would reach into the screen and do it yourself if you could break that fourth wall.


We want to save Anna so much that when, in the 3rd act, her relatively good deeds land her in the hot seat of torture, it is a miserable experience. And her ultimate fate incites deep dread.

I imagine many viewers might interpret Anna’s "transformation and enlightenment" after her abuse as a statement that women (and perhaps gays) are meant to be beaten, tortured, and abused. That they/we are put here on the earth to carry the sins of the unenlightened.

But that is not the meaning I got from Martyrs. I got quite the opposite.

For in the end, Anna’s abusers, led by the evil Madamoiselle, are revealed to be a bunch of twisted soulless religious wackos looking outside themselves for meaning, literalizing the idea of martyrdom, and trying to steal spirit from someone who has the heart and soul they lack. In the end, what they get for their evil deeds is nothing. They are still as hopeless and devoid of meaning as when their fiendish plot was devised.

Yes, Anna quite literally transcends the flesh to become pure consciousness. She is the Christ. Their calculated martyrdom of Anna “works.” It is perhaps true that people who are subjected to horrible amounts of cruelty may have no other place to go than to the deeper realm of spirit and/or psyche.

But the misguided, selfish (and doomed) fools who have engineered her martyrdom for their own salvation (instead of looking within) are ultimately left with nothing. In that sense, it doesn't work. It fails miserably.

The closing scene (and especially the closing line) delivers the true theme of the piece. It is what, I believe, reveals Laugier’s true intention. Watching it made me realize that Martyrs was both a direct dick punch to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and a French existentialist fuck you to Christian fundamentalism.


In the last scene, Madamoiselle, having received reports from martyred Anna on the secrets of the afterlife, gets ready to report her findings to her anxious flock. After causing the suffering of so many innocents to steal the essence of their consciousness, what is the message that Madamoiselle has to relay?

“Keep Doubting.”

Then she blows her brains out.


Fuck you, Mel Gibson.


  1. I cannot express how much I love this movie. Many do not share my point of view, but to me this is one of my favourite horror flicks ever. I kid you not. So brutal, so beautiful...

  2. this post inspired my next post. which doesn't happen alot. but it's kind of unstoppable when the muse responds.

    here's hoping it work out the way I want it to come out. :)

  3. the JC post is not the post in response to this post. still working on it :) sorry for the mislead! I'll let you know hwen it's up. yawn!

  4. i can say this, I hope to one day use, "She is a ragingly co-dependent lesbian." in a conversation. Because that's just awesome, that sentence!

  5. When I first saw this film I thought "Madamoiselle" and her gang had more mundane reasons other than salvation. It sounds more like a scientific experimentation to make a point to re-affirm (or confirm) their faith. Curiosity rather than salvation.

    (Sorry the bad English…)