by Jason Coffman
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The phrase “torture porn” has been worn out for a long while now. Lazy critics have been tagging any standard horror or thriller with even a hint of inflicted suffering as part of this basically nonexistent subgenre for so long that it’s become even more meaningless than it was when it was first slapped onto one of the Saw movies. Films that actually fit into the literal meaning of “torture porn,” however, are few and far between and mostly way under the radar of mainstream horror films. Films like the August Underground series, Andrey Iskanov’s Philosophy of a Knife and other extreme underground horror films depict protracted scenes of queasily convincing torture and murder. Films that actually fit the definition of “torture porn” make Turistas look like Don’t Drink the Water.
So it makes perfect sense that now, years after the popularization of the phrase, a filmmaker of the New Wave of French Horror (as it’s now being called) has created what is either the genre’s transcendent masterpiece or its absolute nadir. Depending on which camp you’re in, Martyrs could be either. Director Pascal Laugier’s vicious take on the “torture porn” film has been playing festivals and severely dividing audiences for a while, and it was picked up for DVD release through Dimension Extreme here in the States.
Martyrs opens with a young girl running from what appears to be an abandoned warehouse. The girl, Lucie, is found and taken to an orphanage. There she forms an uneasy bond with another girl named Anna. Anna becomes Lucie’s caretaker and is obsessively devoted to her. Time passes and the girls grow up together, but the mystery of Lucie’s kidnapping remains unresolved. After the opening scenes the film jumps ahead fifteen years to find Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) out for revenge with Anna (Morjana Alaoui) her not entirely willing partner.
Whereas director Laugier’s previous film, House of Voices was a more deliberately-paced and mannered ghost story, Martyrs kicks the audience in the teeth right out of the gate and almost never lets up. While the two films share a similar sterile look, the tone is completely different. House of Voices delivered gothic haunted-house chills with a surreal edge; Martyrs seems committed to seeing how far the audience is willing to endure the gruesome goings-on along with its characters. The present-day part of the film opens with a prolonged home invasion and takes several seriously bizarre twists as it hurtles toward its third act.
It’s exceptionally difficult to explain what’s wrong with Martyrs without giving away any of those twists. The twists themselves are a part of the problem— it seems less like Laugier is trying to shock the audience with left turns than that he’s just making things up as he goes along. There are some horror fans who are drawn to any film with a hint of intelligence, but too often that turns out to be simple pretension, and that seems to be the case here. Especially given the film’s ridiculous ending, which seems like an absurdly lazy cop-out given the hell the characters and the audience have to go through to get there.
But then maybe that’s the point. Martyrs is either a pointless exercise in audience abuse or an audience-baiting prank worthy of Michael Haneke. Regardless of how you look at it, Laugier has taken the concept of “torture porn” and given its audience what they want and then some. It’s the filmmaking equivalent of force-feeding, which seems an apt description on multiple levels. Whichever way one chooses to see the film, there’s no question that Laugier has created a singularly difficult picture. If that alone is worth it to you, I suppose that’s the highest praise I can give it.
Martyrs was released by Dimension Extreme on 28 April 2009. Special features include an introduction to the film by director Pascal Laugier and a 60-minute “making of” featurette.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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