I'd been warned about Martyrs. First by site contributor, Monkeyman (whose review of the film can be read here), then by other friends, various forum postings, and, ultimately - in an introduction to the film on the DVD - by Martyr's director, Pascal Laugier, himself. But none of that prepared me for what it was I was about to see. But, despite all I'd heard, it wasn't the level of violence or the amount of gore that shocked me; it was the intrinsic beauty of the film and it's unexpectedly hopeful message that truly astounded.
Martyrs opens with a young girl running half-naked and bloodied through an abandoned factory district. The girl, Lucie (Jampanoi), ends up in an orphanage where she meets Anna (Alaoui), and the two develop a close friendship in which Anna - despite being the same age as the other girl - becomes something of a surrogate mother to Lucie.
We flash forward several years. Lucie and Anna are now young adults, but their relationship hasn't changed. Lucie is still overwhelmed by the trauma in her past, and Anna is still her caretaker, sacrificing everything to help Lucie in her quest to silence the demons that haunt her (literally). When Lucie sees a photo of a family in the newspaper, she's certain that these are the very same people who abducted and tortured her years before, and the two girls pay the family a visit to confront them. Lucie, however, has other ideas, and massacres the family, leaving it up to Anna to clean up her friend's mess, despite being uncertain as to whether or not these people were truly responsible for what happened to Lucie as a child. A chance discovery erases all doubt, however, as Anna not only uncovers the truth about her friend's torturous past, but now stands to repeat it, herself.
Pascal Laugier's Martyrs is an incredible piece of cinema that manages to be at once a shockingly brutal horror film and a profound study of faith, love, and inner strength. This is a film that tests the mettle of both its characters and its audience, putting all through an emotional wringer that offers unimaginable rewards once the screaming stops; it's just a matter as to how long you can hang in there. While viewers with weaker stomachs most likely won't even make it to the final act, even the most hardened of gore enthusiasts will find themselves challenged by the unspeakable acts of cruelty and depravity on display here. I won't go into detail, as I don't want to ruin the surprises the film has in store, but I will say that Martyrs is unlike any film that you have seen, and the violence and gore are only a fraction of the reasons why that is.
Weinstein/Genius brings Martyrs to DVD with the aforementioned Laugier introduction, as well as a fascinating and comprehensive one-hour documentary titled The Making of Martyrs, which is essential viewing after seeing the film as it both expands on what you've just seen, and also serves as a reminder that it was only a movie. For some, the latter bit will prove very comforting.
Martyrs is an instant classic; a film that stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best examples of horror cinema, but it's more than that. This is a film that transcends genre; a provocative and challenging piece of cinema along the lines of such subversive fare as Pasolini's Salo , Jodorowsky's El Topo , or Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ. Martyrs is destined to divide audiences - to sicken and confuse as many as it enlightens. In the end, whether you love the film or hate it with every fiber of your being, one thing is certain; it's a motion picture experience that will get you talking, and one which you may never forget. If that's not the power of cinema, I don't know what is.