1971: a child named Lucie is discovered running down a city street in her underwear, filthy, bloody, dehydrated, malnourished. She'd been held captive and abused for months, perhaps years, and is institutionalized, unwilling to speak. She spends years in the institution, befriending only one other girl, Anna, who, despite being the younger of the two, feels the need to take care of the traumatized girl.
Lucie can be quite a handful, however. Not only does she have emotional scars, but she seems to be followed by a mysterious, feral naked woman who's prone to attacking Lucie whenever she's alone. As such, Anna rarely leaves her side.
Lucie's captors were never apprehended, but although Lucie herself claimed as a child that she didn't remember who tortured her, as an adult she has never stopped trying to find the culprits. Finally, she believes her search is over when she locates a middle-aged couple living in a French suburb. But these people seem to be perfectly normal; they have teenaged kids, 9-to-5 jobs and a lovely house. Could Lucie's thirst for revenge have blinded her judgment? By the time Anna can act to stop her, it's too late. Lucie's past, the innocent (or not) family, the crazy naked woman and a dark secret lying beneath the house all collide in a disturbing, unpredictable orgy of violence.
The End Product
Like Funny Games (both versions), Martyrs is a dark, uncompromisingly brutal film that's more admirable than truly enjoyable. In a videotaped introduction to the film at the 2008 Screamfest in Los Angeles, writer/director Pascal Laugier (who previously directed the ghost story Saint Ange, a film whose restrained, gothic tone runs in sharp contrast to this one) seemed almost embarrassed by his work and confessed a love-hate relationship with it -- although he asked viewers to watch it with an open mind.
It's exactly this openness that raises Martyrs above your standard brainless gorefest. You sense a certain nihilistic freedom in Laugier's script, as if he were thumbing his nose at the movie industry (the industry that, incidentally, proceeded to slap his film with the French equivalent of an X rating). The story seems to break all the rules, jumping from disparate plot point to disparate plot point, and in the final third, repeating scenes over and over again ad nauseum, seemingly going nowhere in as painful a manner as possible.
And yet, despite wearing a repulsed grimace for much of the movie, once I was removed from the carnage, I found myself liking it. It's got the devil-may-care attitude and boundary-pushing content that great art should possess -- not that Martyrs is exactly great art -- not to mention the sort of jaw-dropping climax that leaves viewers in stunned disbelief, for better or worse.
Depending on your point of view, the ending could be either completely silly and repulsive or shockingly brilliant. For me, initial disgust grew into a perverse admiration that Laugier could pull together a film that seemed headed into oblivion and manage to come up with a viable conclusion. It's disturbing, yes, but while you might be tempted to label it as the latest in a game of macabre one-upsmanship between French horror directors, it ends with a sense that there in fact was a method to the madness.
- Acting: B (Strong from the two main female stars, considering the grueling emotional content.)
- Direction: B- (Evokes many of the intense emotions intended.)
- Script: C (All over the place, like three movies jammed into one, although it wraps up well in the end.)
- Gore/Effects: B+ (Hyper-realism contributes to the disturbing package.)
- Overall: B- (Admirably free-spirited, if hard-to-stomach.)
Martyrs is directed by Pascal Laugier and is not rated. DVD release date: February 24, 2009.