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As Hollywood horror slowly drowns in a mire of teen friendly remakes, over the last few years, it is arguably the French who have given genre addicts their much needed fixes, including such gruesome gems as “Switchblade Romance”, “Frontiers” and “Inside”. Following these comes “Martyrs”, from “House of Voices” writer director Pascal Laugier, which has been one of the most talked about horror films in years, gathering praise and shocked awe from festivals around the world. Controversial and challenging, it is easy to see why the film has been grabbing so much attention, though perhaps less easy to understand why it has apparently been picked up for a needless US makeover. The film now arrives on UK DVD via Optimum, and comes with several extras including a making of featurette and interviews with Laugier and make up artist Benoit Lestang.
Without wishing to give away too much of the plot, the film begins as a 10 year old girl called Lucie escapes from unseen captors in a disused factory where she has been held and tortured for months. Taken to a hospital, she remains mute and aggressive until she meets and befriends another young girl called Anna. Fast forward 15 years and Lucie (now played by the gorgeous half Chinese actress Mylène Jampanoï, also in “Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse” and soon to be seen in the new Serge Gainsbourg biopic) turns up at the house of the people she believes to have been her tormentors. Knowing that her friend has bloody revenge on her mind, Anna (Morjana Alaoui) tries to keep her from going too far, but quickly realises that things are not as they seem.
It is hard to imagine a film more imbued with pain and suffering, emotionally psychologically, and of course, physically than “Martyrs”, and its reputation for graphic violence is more than deserved. Incredibly cruel and visceral throughout its running time, the film is frequently hard to watch but impossible to look away. The scenes of torture and self mutilation are intense and rival anything else in recent years, with the possible exception of “Inside”. Whilst for fans of extreme cinema this will of course mark the film as a must-see, other viewers should be warned, as it certainly pulls no punches.
However, to dwell solely upon its unflinching brutality is to do the film a great disservice, as these scenes are only part of its intensity. The story is superb, expertly paced and tense with well timed revelations that keep the viewer breathless and guessing without feeling manipulated. The real genius of the film lies in the shift which kicks in around two-thirds of the way through the running time. At this point, it may well lose those looking for a more traditional horror or revenge film, as it heads into far more challenging territory and becomes a more intellectually impressive, if somewhat high concept proposition. In a genre known for its unfortunate lack of originality and unwillingness to diverge from accepted formulas, this in itself is obviously a huge risk, though Laugier pulls it off without missing a beat. The final half hour is thought provoking and somehow manages to make the violence all the more disturbing before building to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.
Laugier’s direction is ruthless, and reminiscent of Cronenberg, whose penchant for body horror and transfiguration were surely an influence. The film has a cold, metallic look, and he shows a real talent for torturing the viewer along with the characters, not only through the gore, but through the sound effects and the ever lurking threat of agony. As a result, it is easy to see why Laugier is being touted for the apparently forthcoming “Hellraiser” remake/reboot as the film certainly strays into the same thematic ballpark.
Simply put, “Martyrs” is a masterpiece and one of the best films of any kind in recent memory. Transcending its incredible violence and indeed the horror genre in general, it stands as a towering achievement that is guaranteed to stay in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
Pascal Laugier (director) / Pascal Laugier (screenplay)
CAST: Morjana Alaoui … Anna
Mylène Jampanoï … Lucie
Catherine Bégin … Mademoiselle
Robert Toupin … Le père
Patricia Tulasne … La mère
Juliette Gosselin … Marie
Xavier Dolan-Tadros … Antoine