A lot of big claims have been made for Pascal Laugier’s psychological and physiological horror film. The best this, the most that.
Well let’s slice through the hype and make it clear that French fear flick Martyrs isn’t the anything. It is, however, one of the – one of the most extreme pictures ever made, one of the finest horror movies of the last decade.
It’s also one of the hardest films to review. Why? Because what begins as an archetypal genre piece soon twists and snaps in unexpected directions, its dizzying plunges down midnight-black rabbit holes keeping viewers disorientated and vulnerable.
So, for now, know only this: a blood-splattered child is found fleeing an industrial complex in 1971. Fifteen years later, she and a friend (Mylène Jampanoi and Morjana Alaoui, both excellent) seek revenge. Some very bad shit happens.
A torture-porn movie for Guardian readers, Martyrs is, according to Laugier, the “anti-Hostel”, its savagery devoid of glee and its scalpel scraping at mind and soul as much as bruised, flailed body. In one incredible, indelible shot, the camera even burrows deep into a dilated iris for a 2001-stylee lightshow – the ecstasy in the agony.
Of course, suggesting that any gain can emerge from such pain is contentious at best, irresponsible at worst, and whether Laugier fully explains or explores his titular theme is debatable. But Martyrs is a technically brilliant, emotionally resonant, uncommonly cerebral horror film that dares to bend every rule, blend every mood.
The first half comprises a reeling camera, disjointed cutting and a half-glimpsed phantom that owes as much to Raphael and Bacon as the ghouls of J-horror. The second half is mechanical and methodical, evoking Michael Haneke’s cruel austerity yet infused with genuine tenderness. Extraordinary.
Arthouse? Grindhouse? The Passion Of Joan Of Arc: Unrated Edition? Defying all boundaries, Martyrs relentlessly dishes the visceral pain and emerges as a work of not just ceaseless terror but also gravity and beauty.