"Martyrs", the second film by French Horror auteur Pascal Laugier, is a film you will doubtless already have heard a lot about, and you can resign yourself to hearing much more talk of it for some time to come. Already slated for the depressingly obligatory English language remake (surely a close competitor with Michael Haneke's own "Funny Games" for most pointless remake of all time), the film is one of those nightmare propositions for any film reviewer since almost everything that needs to be said about it would be, in all truth, already too much of a give away, and would inevitably lessen the carefully calculated impact Laugier's self-penned screenplay intends, and that the astonishingly rendered film itself superbly delivers. But robbed of the kind of synoptic analysis which this film (of all films) most surely cries out for, the hard-pressed reviewer is left with little of his critical armoury remaining other than a whole heap of worn-out superlatives - or scornful reproaches, depending on where you stand.
And that is perhaps the film's greatest achievement: Laugier has spoken of his belief in the Horror genre as a cinema of transgression; and of his intention of making a film on which audience's would be required to take a stand; a film which would force the viewer to decide whether they are "for or against" it. He has certainly done that - although, as is always the case, reading gushing reviews like this one inevitably sets up the kind of expectation that no film can realistically meet, which is why you should stop reading this now (even though I am not going to give any contextual details of the plot whatsoever) and go and see it immediately before reading on.
This film has been designed to unsettle on virtually every level. It upsets not just via the expected channels, i. e, with its relentless - almost monotonous - and very 'now', depiction of degradation through brute violence (not since the final minutes of Passolini's "Salo" have I been so disturbed by this sort of imagery); or with its macabre gallery of haunting images that manages the contortion of human suffering into some of the most uncanny forms of outré body horror in recent Horror cinema - but it constantly utterly wrong foots and seeks to disorientate its audience's unspoken expectations of narrative convention, on a genre level, too. Strangely enough, this maybe the most contentious issue with the film, despite the truly stomach churning events depicted. "Martyrs" is equal part clinical, arthouse, clever-clever commentary on the current state of the genre, while also embodying the most no-holds-barred example of the French Cinéma de l'extrémité - a punishing master-class in putting the audience's senses through the proverbial wringer, the like of which probably hasn't been experienced by a cinema-going viewer-ship since audiences first cowered to the original "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" or feared for their eternal Souls with "The Exorcist" - but here made all the more unexpected by forcing you to think about some unpalatable ideas as you're retching up your lunch!
This is one they should still be talking of as a classic in years to come - that is, if foreign language cinema was at all accepted by the general mass of multiplex-going English-speaking audiences. It remains to be seen if the remake can deliver anything like the same gut-punch to these casual viewers as the French original has to the core Horror fan community. My hunch is it will not. For instance, the original version of "The Vanishing" remains the little-known classic it always was, but who remembers, or even gives a damn about, the Jeff Bridges-starring remake?
But the fact that relative newcomer Laugier has managed to even come close to achieving such a feat in these jaded, seen-it-all-before/anything goes times is a testament to the technical skill and deft lightness of touch (ironically enough, given the film's visceral force) on display in his writing and direction. Clearly a Horror fan, Laugier has created a film which is so blatantly manipulative in its deployment of just about every Horror cliché of the last fifteen years or so: a screenplay with a story contrived to lead the viewer from revenge drama to "torture porn" via supernatural Japanese-style Horror, and which almost incidentally tips its hat to all the 'Masters' of the genre, casually but expertly evoking key texts such as "The Brood" and "Tenebrea" (if only Argento still had even a fraction of this bravura friction) - even "Rosmary's Baby" is brought to mind along the way - that the film could have so easily have been nothing but a self-satisfied exercise in post modern navel gazing, or an enjoyable but superficial Tarantino-style joyride through the top twenty Horror tropes.
Instead Laugier uses all this material to craft a profound, deeply moving and always unerringly disturbing examination of why we want to watch any of this stuff in the first place, with a plot that continually pulls the rug from beneath one's feet every time one thinks they have a handle on what's coming next. The final act is as unsparingly, starkly unsettling as the rest of the experience - all the more so for its perpetration of the ultimate mind-fuck in somehow contriving to discover a kind of nobility and spiritual beauty in the suffering and all-consuming bleakness of nihilism. It goes without saying that the performances by the two female leads (from the films of Jean Rollin to Alexandre Aja's "Haute Tension", French Horror cinema sure loves its co-dependent female protagonists - especially when they come in elfin-featured, vest-clad form!) are exemplary: particularly Morjana Alaoui, who's character, Anna, you will have both fallen in love with and wept real tears for by the end of the film's harrowing ninety-two minutes.
Optimum Releasing present the film in both DVD and Blue-ray formats. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the BBFC has not made any cuts.
The film comes with a one hour twenty-five minute "Making Of" documentary which is as detailed and as essential a document of the making of this incredible film as Rob Zombie's similarly comprehensive documentary on the shoot of "The Devil's Rejects". Pascal Laugier proves to be an extremely knowledgeable and articulate defendant for the Horror film (the genre in general, as well as his own efforts), while the documentary manages to capture all the detailed preparation, the frustrations and the fretful worries (lead Morjana Alaoui breaks her leg near the end of the shoot, causing much panic and consternation) that go into making a film of this type. As well as this fantastic extra, the disc includes two interviews running close to twenty-minutes each, one with Laugier and another with special effects wizard Benoit Lestang (who sadly died last year).
This is, needless to say, an essential addition to every Horror fan's collection. It definitely won't be to all tastes, so completely does it sweep away the safety nets of categorisation provided by genre pigeonholing; and the distinction between exploitation and "serious" French art house cinema has been well and truly mangled beyond all recognition. But, the fact is, you don't know modern Horror until you have seen (or at least attempted to sit through) this intense, deeply troubling film.