image credit: Wild Bunch

Review: Martyrs (2008) ****

How the heck do you review a movie like Martyrs?

The story is this: a ten-year-old girl escapes extreme torture, and nobody knows why she was being tortured in such a way. She meets another girl at an orphanage. The two of them grow up together and become extremely close. Fifteen years after her escape, she seeks revenge, and things…don’t go great.

As part of the French New Extremist movement in cinema, Martyrs (2008) is intended to be unpleasant to watch. The director said it himself. The plot of the movie involves subjecting young women to so much pain that they transcend it and become martyrs (witnesses) to the afterlife. To paraphrase the director, simply watching the movie is meant to somewhat turn viewers into martyrs too. It’s that kind of unpleasant. Cruelty is the point.

I often review movies based on my enjoyment, so how do you review something you’re not meant to enjoy?

Certainly I found the project thought-provoking, though not in all good ways. It seems terribly convenient that a man would write a script claiming young women are the best martyrs, which then lets him make a whole movie where beautiful young (often mostly naked) women are pantomiming extreme suffering. I’ve come across way too many men who get their jollies off on women who suffer — but also women who *transcend* the suffering, giving the men a sense of benevolence, because the women are better than being broken by it. I’ve got a particular loathing for this kind of misogyny. It’s all over Martyrs…and horror in general, honestly.

You’ll hear fans (is anyone a fan, really?) say that Martyrs is making a point about the way society uses women and their pain — or horror itself uses them — but if it’s meant to be criticism, then it’s the kind of criticism where they do exactly the thing they criticize. You know? How much of a critical leg does someone have to stand upon when they do the thing they say is bad? Why would you do it if you *really* think it’s bad? Creators are in full control of their message and its execution, after all. He could have said this in a way that didn’t involve a bunch of attractive naked actresses acting extreme suffering. But he did. So he must bear the same criticism ~fans claim the movie is making, in my opinion.

That said, it’s kind of naive to expect horror (especially of this movement) to do anything else. I feel like I have to set aside the above because Martyrs is what it is.

Once I get over all that, I’m left with the impression of a masterfully made movie. It’s shot beautifully, sorta, as much as a gory movie can be beautiful. The sound design (mostly a lot of screaming) is more impactful than the visuals, and the visual effects are beyond impressive. The editing is great. The score is lovely. The tender relationship between characters is genuinely touching, and they didn’t have to center such loving relationships in such a shocker of a film.

Very little is explicitly stated in Martyrs, which leaves ample room for interpretation. I always enjoy that. Why did Mademoiselle do what she did at the end, for instance? You have to comb back through the movie and watch the actress closely to draw your own conclusions about the motivations from character, plot, and theme. There is a sense of meaning — albeit possibly illusory meaning — to all the pain, and the way it demands time for analysis manages to make the film itself transcend torture porn to become actual art.

This is why I’m left giving it a four star review, even though I might wanna fight the director if we ever ate dinner at the same restaurant, and it wasn’t fun to watch, and I’m not sure I’ll watch it again. Martyrs is really skillfully made and it’s worth thinking about.

All the above said, I might actually watch it again because I think I missed whole levels to the flick. For instance: I didn’t realize the two main women would be considered nonwhite by the French filmmakers. I’m an American, and we absolutely have tons of racist biases, but I honestly just registered them as French. I feel so silly typing that out! But it means there is not just a gendered element to the people chosen as Martyrs, but also a racial element I didn’t begin considering. I mostly thought about gender, Catholicism, and the creator’s desperate need for therapy (said lovingly).

It makes me wonder if I even have enough context on French culture and cinema to really crack this movie. I’ve got to be missing tons of nuance. And I do think there’s lots of nuance.

Martyrs is the kind of movie you can’t really recommend to anyone, but if you think you can stomach extremely bleak and violent horror, it’s good to swing by at least once. Don’t watch it. I think I have to tell you not to watch it just in case.

(image credit: Wild Bunch)

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