A film like "Martyrs" is honestly pretty difficult to get through, even for the most hardened of people like myself. It's filled with such brutality, dreariness, and bleakness that's it's not fun to watch, it's not even necessarily entertaining, at least in the classic sense that we generally watch movies to be "entertained". But in some dark corner of the mind, there is a bit of beauty in it's depravity. It's certainly not violent just for the sake of violence, it's high concept storytelling that just happens to be darkly disturbing. There's a very bold and original story being told behind the nastiness, one that pushes the boundaries of the medium. Much like a movie I reviewed earlier, "Inside", this is a product of the French extreme movement that revolutionized the act of storytelling in the genre. A big part of me wants to skirt around the entire movie because the less you know about it, the more impact it will make, but whatev, as the kids say.
You know you're in for an interesting ride when the movie starts with an introduction from the writer and director, basically apologising to you, the audience, for making what you are about to see. He obviously means that in a bit of a lighthearted way, as he's obviously very proud of the film, but he knows that it's not going to be easy for you to digest. The movie starts off with a panicked young girl, running for her life, away from some run down warehouse. We can tell just from looking at her, that this poor girl has been through hell. Beat up, bruised, cut, hair buzzed off, limping with injury, she's obviously desperate to get away. During the opening credits, we're shown some old grainy news-type footage of a group of doctors talking about "This is the area where the girl was found,", etc. We see the girl, who we will come to know as Lucie, being somewhat rehabilitated. We see her getting adjusted as she now lives in some sort of home for sick or disabled children. It's obvious that she's scarred from what she's been through.
She's made friends with a girl named Anna, who has taken on the role of Lucie's protector, so to speak. She watches over her, takes care of her. We find out very quickly that these two little girls have a deep connection. Ann finds Lucie hiding in a bathtub, covered in cuts, with her yelling "don't tell anyone! I didn't do it!". Then we see that Lucie is always being haunted by this dark, gangly humanoid. Cut to 15 years later. We're in a house, on a Sunday morning with a picture perfectly, normal family. Husband is fixing breakfast, mother is working in the yard, two teenager kids are arguing at the table. Knock on the door, and a mysterious hooded woman blasts him away with a shotgun. She then shoots the mother in the back, shoots the son sitting at the table, then chases and shoots the daughter. The quickness and just shock in the way this unfolds is unsettling. Who is this woman, and why did she just murder this seemingly normal family in cold blood? After the deed, our mystery woman is upset, almost remorseful that it came to this. She's asking, "Why did you have to do this to me???".
Cut to a woman sitting in a car, rocking back and forth anxiously. When a neary payphone rings, she runs to answer it and we hear "It's them, Anna. I did what I had to do.". So our shooter is Lucie. Were these people connected to what happened to her when she was a kid? Apparently. But Lucie is still being haunted by this creature, and even starts yelling "I did it! I did it!", in a way of saying "I did what you wanted me to!". Anna shows up to the house, in an effort to clean up the mess, so to speak. We're shown through a flashback, exactly how Lucie escaped her torment as a child, and in her escape, she found this woman, chained up and tortured in the same way she's been. Scared to death, Lucie ran, instead of helping the woman escape. So this woman that she failed to help escape, and this woman/creature that's still haunting her, are the same thing. It's that she's being haunted by the memory and metaphorical demon of the woman. See? Constantly tormented by this seemingly demonic creature, and the regret of it all, Lucie succumbs to it all and ends her own life.
This is where the first half of the film ends and it begins to shift into another beast. After hearing a noise, Anna begins to search the house and finds a secret door, which takes her into this bottom layer of the house. Set up like some kind of medical lab or research facility, she finds another woman, bound and chained, obviously having been tortured like the others. During an episode with this woman, out of nowhere a group of people show up, dressed in black, a cross between a group of Nazi's and mob/scientists, show up in the house and shoot the tortured woman. They investigate the house, dispose of all the bodies, and detain Anna and lock her up in the basement. Anna is then interrogated by an elderly woman referred to as Mademoiselle. She informs us that Lucie had escaped them 15 years ago. She tells us how "all the others have been victims", and then how easy it is to create victims in this world. This is one of the big ideas explored in this movie. And that when people are victimized for so long, they eventually crack, being consumed by nothingness, by things that aren't really there. "There are nothing but victims left in this world", Mademoiselle says. She then talks about how martyrs are rare, extraordinary beings. They survive pain, they survive adversity, they bear all the sins of the world. She puts an emphasis on how they transcend themselves and transfigure themselves. She shows us several disturbing pictures of people who were in the very last stages of life, and they all shared a certain look in their eyes in those last moments. The idea is that martyrdom isn't in invention of the religions, but is something that is real, but something that a very few special people experience.
So the easiest way to explain the grand idea of these people, is they take a young woman, keep her detained and chained up in a dark room, and pretty much beat them into constant submission all of the time. My interpretation is that after someone going through so much trauma and pain, they get to a point, before death, to where they physically, mentally, and spiritually, give up the ghost. They let go. The point of their experiments is to get someone to that point, to cross that threshold, and see and experience what lies beyond death, but then still be alive to talk about it. And no, this wasn't stolen from "Flatliners" with Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts. So for an unspecified amount of time, they keep poor Anna held captive and viciously beat and abuse her. After so much violence, Anna reaches that point where she gives up and lets go. The last stage of this process, as they call it, is undoubtedly the most disturbing. They tie her down to a gurney and skin her alive, and hang her under a light. Mademoiselle asks Anna what she seen on the other other side, and Anna whispers something to her.
The end is a bit questionable to me. After our captors inform Mademoiselle that Anna has reached that point, then her, followed by a group of wealthy, upper class people arrive to the house, as if they're having a social gathering. They're informed that the experiment was successful, and that they will be informed of what she said she seen beyond death. I won't spoil the VERY end, as maybe we get a bit of an answer as to what Anna actually did see. I'm assuming that maybe this a group of wealthy people who have been funding this experiment for all these years? Are they a cult? Perhaps they're a metaphor for how those that *don't* have are seen as victims by those that *do* have. There are certainly a lot of subtexts and big ideas here. These poor girls were martyrs, but only because of the curiosity of the privileged. They had to suffer in order to find the answer for a question that the curious wanted answered. That's my interpretation, anyhow. This is the kind of movie that people spend years analyzing and trying to explain. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. Not to sound like I'm better than anyone, but I can see the vast majority of people either just hating this movie, or more likely, just not understanding it at all. But this isn't "Hostel". Watch. Think. Talk, and find your own conclusions...
"Martyrs" gets 9 family-friendly, wholesome rainbows and buttercups out of 10!