Depending on personal thresholds for graphic violence, the French New Wave of Gore (Irreversible, Switchblade Romance, Frontier(s), Inside) reaches its zenith or nadir with Martyrs.
A gasp and gag experience, it’s difficult to imagine a movie that will so decisively split audiences.
France – early 70s. A young girl named Lucie, beaten and bloodied, runs screaming from an abandoned warehouse.
Claiming a man and woman have been systematically torturing her for months, the lack of sexual abuse renders reasons for the abuse a mystery. In a psychiatric hospital she befriends Anna, and the two become inseparable.
15 years later, Lucie (Jampanoi) is convinced she has found her tormentors; a middle class couple with 2 kids and a large house. While Anna (Alaoui) waits nearby, Lucie turns up on the family's doorstep brandishing a shotgun.
Like other masterpieces of terror Audition and Hard Candy, Martyrs works best when its twists and surprises are not revealed.
Despite the carnage, it’s the strong characterisation, beyond the call of duty performances from Jampanoi and Alaoui, and the suggestion of the horrific lengths people will go to for enlightenment that really linger.
Laugier nods to Asian horror with a nightmarish lank-haired, stiff-limbed apparition who haunts the cracked Lucie, while the slippery story fuels doubts that the damaged girl may have the wrong people.
Some audiences will be unable to get past the brutality, which includes but is not restricted to infanticide, mutilation, self-mutilation, unnecessary surgery and a stomach somersaulting bludgeoning.
Make no mistake, this is Horror, and Laugier’s technical expertise and Benoit Lestang’s grim make-up spare no-one; you’ll emerge bruised, hollowed-out, but exhilarated.
Or, you’ll find it unforgivably bad taste, possibly misogynistic, and its notions of transcendence through trauma so much garlic soaked intellectual posturing.
In other words, Martyrs is a five star example of what modern horror can do, or a one star mugging of all that is decent.
Forgive us if we go with the former.