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Tuesday, June 11, 2013 

Film review: Martyrs.

(Spoilers ahead, although I have tried to limit them on this occasion.)

One thing worth remembering at a time when the easy availability of pornography (violent or not) and extremist material is being blamed for the actions of individuals, with the Daily Mail wailing that something must be done, even if it doesn't have the slightest understanding of what it's talking about, is that we have been here before. Every five years or so a moral panic breaks out, whether it be about horror comics, Teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks, video nasties, gatherings of ten or more people listening to repetitive beats, or, lest we forget, emos.  Regardless of the content, only extremely rarely do individuals become so obsessed with such material on its own that it inspires them to act upon it in such a way as to harm others. More usually it requires the meeting of like minds, as seen in the plot to attack the EDL rally in Leeds, for such fantasies and grievances to come close to being acted upon.

When it comes to horror films, as Mark Kermode has always argued, watching them is not about sadism, it's about masochism. I'd go so far as to argue that the same is also true of the vast majority of those who visit "true gore" sites, where the content also seems to become ever more brutal. Where once it was the hell of Chechnya and Iraq during the worst of the conflicts in both countries that provided most of the material, so now it's Syria and Mexico that are the backdrops for the recorded bloodletting.

One thing that has thankfully not yet been recorded and released to the internet, although you can't help but sadly imagine it is now only a matter of time, is the torture of a kidnap victim over a long time period. The most notable recent film to attempt to portray something along those lines is Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier and another of those movies I've only just got around to watching.  Hyped from the beginning, with festival performances supposedly resulting not just in walk outs but carry outs, the director himself admitted that the film would be compared to the slew of films lumped together under the silly moniker of torture porn, a sobriquet which has nonetheless stuck.

While the film most certainly does owe a debt to both Hostel and Saw (more on which in a moment), it also takes just as much influence from the recent wave of French extreme cinema, Baise-Moi, Irreversible, and Haute Tension to name but three, as well as the early work of Michael Haneke.  Shot on 16mm in Montreal, the film opens with a young girl escaping from captivity, quickly followed by Super 8 footage apparently filmed by the doctors at the home where she is sent to recuperate.  Here we learn her name is Lucie, and she forms a friendship or perhaps attachment is a better description with another damaged girl, Anna.

We then move to what seems to be a normal domestic household, a brother and sister playfighting, and then a breakfast scene, all of which reminds of Haneke's Funny Games.  They're interrupted by a knock at the door.  As you might have guessed, from this point on all hell breaks loose.  Lucie, now grown up, has become convinced by a photograph in a local newspaper that the brother and sister's parents were responsible for her suffering.  From the outset though it's difficult to know what's real and what isn't; Lucie is stalked repeatedly by a human looking monster which sometimes she manages to escape from and which sometimes brutally slashes her.  Anna, alerted by Lucie to what's happened finds herself having to deal not just with the aftermath of her friend's actions but also her increasing apparent derangement.

Then everything flips on its axis.  From being a reasonably straightforward if unconventional revenge horror, it becomes, seemingly, something much deeper.  Who really was it that had kept Lucie captive in the first place?  Is it the work of a religious cult, or a ring of people who believe that the key to knowing what comes after death is through the transfiguration of long term suffering?  Is Lauiger making some kind of political point, whether about Guantanamo Bay and the rendition programme, or closer to home, the making of an idol out of Joan of Arc?  Is it a comment on the belief some Catholics have that it's through suffering that you get closest to God?  Is it, more simply, that regardless of the reasoning behind violence and torture, all such acts are essentially meaningless to the victim?

The answer to the last bunch of questions is no.  The ending, without giving it away, makes it abundantly clear that Lauiger is laughing at you for having imagined there was any deeper meaning to the past 100 minutes than this simply being a work inspired in part by Hostel and Saw.  There was, if you searched hard enough, an extremely slight social comment in the Hostel films on rich businessmen paying to kill middle class kids who had sought out their own pleasures of the flesh in eastern Europe, and the conceit in Saw is that Jigsaw is dying of cancer and seeks out those who he believes are wasting their lives to take part in his "games", hopeful that the catharsis they experience if they escape will make them change their ways.  Neither though was taken seriously as it was apparent these were just plot excuses to get the ketchup flying.

With Martyrs the last quarter of the film, which is close to being unwatchable such is the cruelty depicted, genuinely seems to be urging the viewer to think about why this is happening and also why it is that you're continuing to look at the screen.  Only then when you're expecting there to be some answers does Lauiger do the cinematic equivalent of sticking a middle finger right in your face.  Only then does it come apparent that you've been watching one of the most dishonest and pretentious films of the last few years, one that pretends to be saying something profound and then points and snickers at you for being so gullible as to fall for it.  All that's to be found in Martyrs is masochism, nothing more and nothing less.

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