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Martyrs (Pascal Lugier, 2008)


     As any fan of the genre already knows, the most inventive and daring horror films of recent years have been receiving a cursory theatrical release in the United States, at best, before finding their audiences on home video. Whether this is due to the surge in the number of subtitled genre efforts, the saturating effect that PG-13 rated, studio-distributed scary movies have had, or the dawning realization that horror fans are a profitable, but somewhat firmly defined, niche, the realities of the market have ensured that people who are only seeing mainstream horror films are missing out on the genreís most exciting recent output. Itís perhaps no surprise, then, that Pascal Lugierís Martyrs, which is probably the fiercest, most uncompromising horror film of the decade, has found itself premiering on DVD in America.


     What most distinguishes Martyrs from other recent horror films is its level of ambition. To talk about its plot is to rob the film of its considerable visceral impact. Perhaps itís best just to note that itís willing to fully explore its themes, risking audience betrayal as it continually redefines what kind of movie itís trying to be. More than any film in recent memory, it toys with the audienceís desire to identify with a protagonist. As this twisted journey into guilt, revenge, and psychosis unfolds, we find ourselves successively aligned with two institutionalized girls, an average nuclear familył a woman attacked by some kind of demon, her beleaguered friend (and unrequited lover), and the members of a secret society. As motivations grow clearer in Martyrs, audience sympathies are made to shift, forcing us to question our role as viewers.  Once the full level of the Lugierís depravity is revealed, the film reveals itself as a meditation on the nature of victimization, taking us to a place where the lines between victim and victimizer become indistinct, wallowing in a kind of anguish that canít be achieved through cheap scares alone.


     Martyrs possesses a plot that is not only split into discrete acts, but also is willing to shift into wholly different subgenres of the horror film to achieve its goals, which certainly include raising audience awareness about their relationship with the mayhem it portrays. It is alternatively a psychological thriller, a slasher movie, a monster movie, and a torture porn endurance test. While the story is designed to keep viewers guessing, itís also determined to challenge our assumptions about what level of on-screen suffering we can find acceptable. In both duration and detail, the violence in Martyrs constantly challenges us. In this respect, the film is unflinching, but hardly single-minded. Throughout the course of the film, gore is used to shock, to gross out, to please aesthetically, to make us squirm, and to make us sympathize with the sufferer.


     As people are maimed or killed, Lugier zeroes in on the inability of any of the bloodshed to distract from the emotional torment that his heroines feel, and the filmís constant redefinition of itself similarly keeps us from reaching any catharsis. When a third-act twist begins to present such violence as something repetitive and numbing, itís likely that most viewers will be both disturbed that they are having such a reaction to such horrors and feel thankful for the respite from whatís come before. In this respect, Martyrs ends up transcending any audience bloodlust, posing the question of whether extreme depictions of screen violence can take audiences any closer to universal truths about our nature. In its myriad contortions, it seems to question why we indulge ourselves by watching horror movies at all.


     The last act of Martyrs is problematic, but it is thrilling all the same. It shocks precisely because it subverts expectations of the torture film genre and provides a motive beyond mere sadism, simultaneously giving some insight into Lugierís own pretensions. The extended final sequence of the film is unexciting, by design, but it encapsulates the same hopelessness that the rest of the movie strives for. As Martyrs moves toward its conclusion, it gets enticingly close to blowing the subtextual rumblings of the horror genre into the open, forcing its audience to grapple with some ugly truths. It concludes with a final confirmation of hopelessness; an ultimate despair that sends viewers out of its diegetic world with a shock crueler than any display of blood and guts could manage. Perhaps more than any other horror film, Martyrs demonstrates the range of the genreís capabilities to find ways to excite, provoke, and disturb us. It tries, and accomplishes, so much that it makes most contemporary movies, regardless of genre, seem complacent.




Jeremy Heilman