5.09.2009

Martyrs (2008): “Fucking Nihilists”


I never thought I’d be quoting The Big Lebowski for a review of a horror film.

I wanted to see this film for so long before I actually had the opportunity to watch it. After seeing it, I felt that I needed some distance from it before writing a review. It’s one of those movies that is difficult to talk about, both in terms of a casual description and a critical discussion.

I've seen this image many times, but I just realized she's not actually cuffed...

This is not a film I loved or hated. It certainly wasn’t what I had expected, which appears to be the most consistent response to the film (aside from the mountains of praise it has received in the horror community). Martyrs had a difficult job ahead of itself before I even hit play on the remote. The hype, acclaim, or even lore surrounding this film is hard to ignore. On the DVD, there is an introduction from director Pascal Laugier in which he encourages us to forget everything we’ve heard about the film and experience it with our own eyes. I tried my best to follow his advice, but his admonition was my first warning. Laugier begins with an apology, apologizing for making such a film as Martyrs. He admits he sometimes loves and sometimes hates his film. While I respected his statements and valued his candidness, I knew that Martyrs was not going to be a fun viewing experience.

Why did you make this film Pascal, why?!

Usually people add a caveat to their recommendation of this film, saying that it’s not for everyone, but a spectacular piece of filmmaking nonetheless. I would change the first part of that statement to: this film is hardly for anyone, meaning that there are very few people I know that would actually enjoy or find value in watching Martyrs. Those interested in extreme horror films are definitely in the minority to begin with. However, Martyrs stands out from the “torture porn” sub-genre that has emerged; it’s not the graphic violence that is most disturbing but the cold worldview that Laugier portrays. While physical repulsion and destruction of the human form are certainly crucial to the film’s structure, the core lies in an intellectual violence that is much more frightening: nihilism. Martyrs is a negation of everything, which is why it is so difficult to swallow. It negates the body, the mind, the family, the world, reality, religion, faith, and love. Nothing is safe in Laugier’s cinematic context.

Yet another depressing image.

These factors make Martyrs both a repulsive and remarkable film. The repulsiveness is undoubtedly part of its purpose. I have never felt that all films should be made to please us; there is a distinction between entertainment and art. Cinema transcends and blurs the division between the two. Martyrs does the same. The first half of the film had me intrigued, anxious, excited, involved, invested, and eager to continue. I was entertained, eating up the emotionally-charged revenge story mixed in with fantastical (and genuinely creepy) elements. The next half of the film takes us down a different road and it ceases to be a piece of entertainment. It becomes a dark philosophical expression through the filmic medium. Monotonous torture sequences place us within the mindset of the victim: What will they do next? How much time has passed? Who are these people? Is there even a chance of escape? Is fighting back futile? When will this end? And this is an uncomfortable place to be for the spectator, justifying Laugier’s apology for such an experience. The answers to these questions encourage further apologies.

Did these girls ever get dehydrated on set?

It seems strange to talk about Martyrs in the way I would normally review a film—analyzing its narrative and visual components. The acting and direction (at least in terms of directing the actors) is superb. I believe every moment of this film, rendering it such a powerful viewing experience. The story is well-composed, maintaining interest and never force-feeding us the answers that we crave. The action is a slow build to an incomprehensible conclusion. Laugier’s shot design is decent, but predictable at times and unmotivated at others. The rest of the technical elements are effective, but not spectacular. The cinematography and editing could have definitely heightened the impact of the film, but then again, the story and performances speak for themselves.

Did I like Martyrs? Yes. Did I enjoy watching it? No. Would I watch it again? No. Would I recommend it? Maybe.

13 comments:

  1. I really did not like this movie.

    - Zac

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  2. I'm not one who likes excessive violence and cruelty, but I liked this movie a lot.

    I'll be curious to see what Laugier does with the Hellraiser remake.

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  3. Wow...when a director admits they sometimes hate their movie, that's not a good sign.

    I really have trouble "getting" the whole torture-porn thing. I don't like being depressed...I like laughing when people on screen die.

    The screen caps here say it all, I guess (by the way, your caption "Yet another depressing image" is the best caption ever!).

    Billy

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  4. Well this film has a lot more to it than onscreen violence for sure.

    Maybe I should do some reviews that are just a series of screenshots with captions. haha

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  5. I thought the movie was pretty good. ur right about the nihilist stuff lol. Europeans sigh. It had an interesting voice, although one that is philosophically cynical towards the concept of value. It wasn't that the third act was too sickening, it just lacked in identifiably with the character. She turns into an object. This is fine since they are using her, but a good director usually realizes he has an audience, which isn't gonna to share his cynicism of the world. Now that I hear he is doing the hellraiser reboot gets me excited and scared. Hellraiser and Clive Baker are both metaphysical creatures who believe in some sort of order (the point of the cenobites) , while its obvious that Laugier doesn't (not only from Martyrs, but also from past interviews.)

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  6. I love the movie because it makes a good conversation piece. Normally when I watch a movie with friends, the post-movie-viewing conversation consists of only a few words, but this film just raises so many arguements about why the violence in the film is justified, why it ISN'T, so on and so forth. And I actually would watch it again... numerous times. I need a movie like this to kick me in the balls every once in a while. Anyway, good review as always!

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  7. I believe anyone who witnesses this film lands in a different place with it. As a nihilist at heart, I found the final moments strangely compelling, and the greater horror being the transformation of the viewer from defender of our protagonist to another member of this secret cadre wanting to know what owuld come fro tmhose skinned lips.

    And I agree that this is a noe-time view. No reasotno g o back to the bklneses ancoe you've been there, but damn if it wasn't one of the more powerful trips I've taken lately.

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  8. I love how Bo is "a nihilist at heart". Do Nihilists have a heart? Its not very nihilistic to express that you have some sort of core or essential condition. So at heart u arent a nihilist if you think there is anything resembling a heart or core to thought.

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  9. I tend to steer towards the disregard of social and moral institutions part of nihilism, not the more existentialist "is anything real" aspect, so I think there's room to have a heart, even f you think the rest of the world is jacked. Then again, maybe I am more of an existentialist...

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  10. Thanks for linking me back to this one Becky, I had to skip the review originally because I hadnt seen it yet! Glad to see we share many of the same views on the film, I am hoping I can find more to like on the second watch through so I can be one of the cool kids

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  11. A metaphor for religion.. spoon feeding lies, the shackles of rules, the promise of a better life/truth which when ultimately reached leaves one more confused than ever and still without answers..

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