One thing that’s very handy for someone such as myself, with an interest in fucked-up cinema, is when an entirely new genre emerges — this particular one being labelled the “New French Extreme” – it contains many of the films I’ve seen and loved, all because they knock you back into your chair like a shotgun blast to the stomach.
The problem with extreme cinema is finding the balance between extremity, context and story – on one end you’ve got a film that’s really great but confronts an audience a little too much (Irreversible) or on the other, a film that’s so concerned with being extreme it forgets to have a story, or in the end confront its audience too much (The Human Centipede). But somewhere in the middle lies Martyrs, a film that, in terms of content is probably more extreme than A Serbian Film or Irreversible - but in execution takes that content, wraps it up in one hell of a mystery and metres out its extremity over the course of one solidly good movie.
The film begins with a young girl running away from an industrial complex, panicked and bloodied. And by young I mean about 12 years old, if not less. This is 57 seconds into the film, and we already know we’re in an edgier film than most. She runs away, limping and screaming. This is Lucie.
We then see documentary footage of the aftermath of Lucie running away. Doctors examine her, and it’s confirmed that she’s been suffering horrendous abuse — although for once in a movie I’m reviewing, no rape occurs — it’s a small mercy. Lucie’s disappearance and recovery creates a media storm, but no abductors are ever found, and Lucie is placed into a boarding school where she meets Anna, a kind girl who agrees to help her adjust back to normal life. Lucie is extremely traumatised, except around Anna where she shows some calm. Lucie wants her abductors caught, but she can’t remember much, and is plagued by visions, and seems to have been attacked a few times by an unseen presence. This is confirmed when Lucie wakes up one night to see a mysterious figure at the end of her bed — which then attacks her before we cut to the title screen.
15 years later, we cut to a girl running terrified through her house in her pyjamas, tackled by an unknown assailant — who turns out to be her brother (played by Xavier Dolan, from I Killed My Mother). He just wants a letter from his girlfriend back from his sister’s clutches. Their dad comes in and tells them to stop fucking around and get to breakfast, The mother comes in from the yard, and they have some friendly, though realistic, family banter. The kids pick on each other, the parents hassle the brother about University…but it seems like a pretty genuine loving family, living in a modern, but homely, home. The doorbell rings, and the father goes to answer it:
So yeah, it’s Lucie, 15 years later, with a shotgun and a vengeance. She shoots the father and the mother. She tells the son to sit down, and asks him if he knows what his parents did. Lucie hesitates, and it looks like she might let him go but he gets a gutful of buckshot before Lucie tracks down the sister and kills her too. It’s intense, it’s violent, it’s gory, but it’s compelling — you don’t want to shy away from the screen.
The second that Lucie has ended her carnage, she breaks down in tears, traumatised at what she’s done. She finds the mother’s body, and tries to ask “Why did you do that to me?” but funnily enough gets no response from a corpse. She becomes enraged and fires her gun into the air. We then cut to Anna sitting in a car near a payphone, waiting for it to ring. When Lucie calls her, it becomes clear that Anna sent Lucie to find these people and ascertain if they were her abductors…only Lucie went with a shotgun. Anna demands to know the address so she can come and sort things out.
We then see a bloodstained Lucie waiting for Anna to arrive, only to hear strange noises from the house. She loads the shotgun and heads to the kitchen where she sees a skeletal abomination hovering over the bodies. At this, she drops the shotgun, picks up a switchblade and covers her hand in blood, shouting out “I did it!” as though she cut herself to appease this monster. But the monster jumps Lucie, and it is terrifying – just the noise it makes is enough to render your bones with a severe case of shivers. It hurls Lucie around the room, before grabbing a blade and carving trenches into her back, while Lucie screams in agony. She gets away and locks herself in a room, while the monster pounds on it from the outside.
Lucie then flashes back to her captivity all those years before, and when she regains her composure in the present time, it seems the monster has gone. She peeks outside the room but it attacks her hands, and Lucie flees. Outside, she runs into Anna, who bandages her wounds. Anna goes to look around at the carnage Lucie has created — but the monster is gone. She is visibly upset by what she finds, but goes about mending Lucie’s wounds and cleaning up the bodies.
It soon becomes clear that Anna is not entirely convinced that Lucie was correct in her assumptions. There’s no evidence beyond Lucie’s shady memory and a circumstantial-at-best newspaper clipping that these people were her abductors. Lucie freaks out at this assumption, and resents Anna’s repulsion at her crime.
Anna kisses Lucie on the mouth, and it seems unclear as to what this indicates — possibly their friendship has turned into a romantic relationship, but Lucie seems surprised by the kiss and asks her what she’s doing. Either way, what we get here is that they have an incredibly close friendship, and that Anna is willing to help her friend out of this mess. Lucie sleeps while Anna moves the bodies to a mass grave, but she still has flashes back to her captivity. Seeing a 12-year-old girl being mercilessly beaten around is hard going. When Anna returns from moving one of the bodies, she pauses to look at herself in the mirror, only to see that the would-be-dead mother is looking back at her. She regains consciousness and starts to wail in pain, while Anna begs her to stay quiet. Lucie comes to investigate, but Anna lies, pretending nothing happened.
Anna carries the daughter’s body outside (as part of the charade) only to hear glass smashing inside. When she heads back, she finds Lucie trapped in the bathroom, again plagued by the monster. Anna tries to get in, but it’s locked. We see the monster properly this time — she’s a skeletal woman, mouth sewn shut, covered in blood and death. And terrifying. The images here don’t do her justice. She attacks Lucie, once again carving and hacking great amounts of flesh out of the poor girl. Anna finally bursts in, grabs Lucie and takes her to safety. Lucie screams at the monster, demanding to know what it wants. She cries out that she killed the family for her, even the children. So why isn’t the monster happy?
We then cut back to Lucie as a child, right before she escapes. She attacks the woman who is attacking her, and before she makes her final break for it, she hears a howl of pain from another room. Inside, she finds a woman, also being held prisoner. This woman reaches out to Lucie, begging for rescue, but there’s no time – Lucie flees.
Shuddering back into the house, Lucie tries to leave the room she’s in, but Anna’s locked it, while she tries to help the mother, who is still clinging to life. Lucie starts freaking out a little, and slips dangerously along the antagonist side of the Character scale. Anna tries to get the mother out of the house, but Lucie breaks free of her locked-room and finishes the mother off — gruesomely…with a hammer. There is apparently no kill like overkill, and the mother is definitely dead now.
Lucie then has a rant at Anna, smashing things up with hammer and almost looking like she’s gonna kill her too. Anna cowers on the ground, while Lucie bemoans that clearly Anna thinks she’s crazy (and at this point, we the audience are wondering what possible excuses Lucie has to think that she isn’t?) and we hear a familiar shriek — that of the monster. It’s considerably calmer this time, as it twists itself down the stairs towards her. Lucie tells it that now the mother is dead, they won’t be harming her (the monster) anymore, and although we already suspected it, we see that the monster is the woman Lucie saw as she was running away. The monster comes down and embraces Lucie, creepily, and starts slicing up her arms — badly. Like, all the way down to the wrists from the shoulder. Then it gently takes Lucie’s head and starts smashing it against the wall.
HOWEVER – we see this from Anna’s point of view, and another thing we’ve grown to suspect is confirmed. The monster isn’t real. It’s Lucie’s guilt, guilt at not being able to save the woman. Over time, that guilt has manifested in Lucie’s mind as a monster pursuing her, but in realty, Lucie has been doing MASSIVE amounts of self-harm.
Lucie breaks free of “the monster” only to sprint towards one of the many plate glass windows in the house. She breaks through it, onto the lawn and out into the rain. Anna follows, crying out to her, but nothing will do. Lucie grabs one of the shards of glass and slits her throat. It’s…startlingly realistic, despite the slow motion. Anna runs to her devastated but it’s too late. Lucie is finished, as is the first half of the film.
What’s that I hear you say? This is only the first half? Some of the most intense and high-tension cinema ever witnessed, and it’s only 50% done? Well! Read on!
The next morning, still at the house, Anna is trying to clean up the slaughter. Still. Thankfully, or at least to the film’s credit, she is still devastated by yesterday’s events. She tries to find some comfort by calling her mother, but her mother is more concerned with chewing her out for not calling her for so long. The mother also decries her relationship with Lucie, calling her a slut and a troublemaker. While Anna is on the phone, she sees a block of wood fall down onto a bench…and then a few moments later disappear.
Anna investigates and finds a hidden chamber behind the wall, which leads down into a very modern, very sophisticated, very classy but also very definitely – torture chamber. Along the walls are large, lit pictures of women at their deaths, and they’re increasingly disturbing. Anna struggles to comprehend as she investigates further, but it becomes quickly clear that Lucie was right. These people were in fact her torturers.
Anna continues to explore, and makes one of the more startling discoveries in the film — that family’scurrent victim. It’s a horribly malnourished woman with horrible metal devices fucking stapled to her. A large metal circle bound to her head with a cross piece atop her skull, and what could only be described as metallic underwear. She’s also chained down here in the dark, naked. She’s barely human. All Anna can do is take her upstairs, out of the chamber, but this poor woman is no longer living, really. Sure her body is alive, but what can she live for? She tries to pull the devices off her, but they’re very much attached. Anna runs out with disinfectant, but sadly mourns that this woman is beyond help, and that she cannot help her. Anna takes her to a bath, where the girl freaks out (possibly reminiscent of some water-based torture) but Anna calms her. She then proceeds to take a screwdriver to pry the metal staples out of the girl’s head. Much blood and screaming ensues. Anna manages to remove the metal-pain-helmet but the pain is unbearable to the girl, and she freaks. After this, Anna comes to understand what Lucie must have been put through, and goes to her corpse and apologises for it.
The torture victim.
Later in the day, the girl from the torture chamber attacks Anna after trying to stop her kill herself. In the ensuing freak out, we come to see that not only is the girl well beyond sanity, she’s very similar to Lucie’s guilt-monster. Out of nowhere, the girl gets shot in the head, as a team of black-clad people enter the house. They’re mysterious and devious, and drag Anna down into the chamber, while they finish off her work of cleaning up the bodies. Before too long, the leader of this crew of scoundrels, known only as “Mademoiselle” arrives, to not only let us know what the fuck has been happening in this movie, but also, what’s to come to poor Anna.
THE REVEAL: (and incidentally, the biggest spoilers)
So it turns out there’s a crew of people who work below the surface of society, systematically torturing a select few people. Remember that Lucie wasn’t at all sexually assaulted? Well that’s because this torture isn’t being done as something for their thrills. It’s a means to an end. It turns out that these people are torturing these women, because a select few become…wait for it…Martyrs! Mademoiselle points out the pictures of the women on the walls – and makes Anna take note of their eyes. At some point, these women become completely detached from the pain they’re suffering, but also from their own humanity and the world around them. The torturers believe that these women have transcended this existence and witnessed the afterlife.
They also point out that the vast majority of women become victims, not martyrs. They succumb to the torture, and die. And, as the creepy Mademoiselle makes clear, Anna is going to be subjected to all of this now.
Much of the rest of the film details the torture of Anna. First she is chained to a chair in the torture chamber. And, despite it actually being something of a convenience for her, it seems even worse that her chair has a hole in the seat and a bucket underneath for latrine needs. Something about it is dehumanising.
The next scene shows her being force-fed gruel. It looks disgusting, and apparently it is. Anna really struggles to eat it down. When she gags, the woman feeding her beats her. It’s a simple scene, but amazingly well done in showing someone being fed as a torturous act.
Next, and assuming some time has passed, we see an incredibly weary Anna urinating into the bucket — it seems that this is a milestone in her departure from comfort – she finds it really upsetting, possibly for the same reasons I found the initial presence of the bucket dehumanising.
The next scene shows a man descending the ladder and unchaining her. She doesn’t attempt anything once unshackled. He stands her up against the wall, and then steps away, deliberately leaving access to the ladder. She tries to run for it, but he catches her, punches her in the gut, then at the exact moment she’s regained her breath, punches her again.
Then comes the mandatory cutting-of-the-hair that absolutely any cinematic torture victim endures. This is the closest the film comes to clichéd, but I suppose that they don’t shave it, they just cut it choppily. Anyway, we next see her being fed, still resisting the gruel, but not gagging as much.
Next is another no-holds-barred beating, but this time Anna barely reacts.
After another undetermined time period passes, we see one of the torturers cleaning Anna. They’ve now moved her to a bed, and her hair is now shaved. Now, cleaning may seem like a mercy to her, but this film even manages to make the act of giving her a sponge bath a torturous act.
Yet another no-holds barred beating, and this time Anna is pretty much catatonic, except for one punch she tries to deliver but is only met with even more violence
Then comes an absolutely heartbreaking scene. Anna, now delusional from the torture, stares blankly ahead, as she hears Lucie’s voice. Anna asks her how she was never afraid, and Lucie tells her she has to let herself go. The next scene shows Anna calmly eating the gruel as it is fed to her, and we definitely know the humanity she had is long gone. The score is similarly heartbreaking, a tender piano piece that ramps up the sadness. More beatings occur, though Anna isn’t there in her mind to respond anymore, except once hearing Lucie tell her she’s not afraid anymore.
The next scene, indicating a long time has passed, has one of the torturers come down, and gently caress Anna’s face. Anna responds by holding her hand, some instinctive gesture of needing comfort. The woman tells her that it’s going to be ok, that the suffering is nearly over. There’s only one stage left.
So something almost unbearably cruel happens, and they skin Anna. I’ve never seen this in a movie; the closest I’ve seen was when Willow skinned Warren in Buffy, which was hardly pleasant, but it was a fucking cakewalk next to this. Not only do they skin her, they then hoist her into a machine that suspends her above the ground, and they turn a heat lamp on above her. The worst thing though, is that they leave her face attached. It takes something that’s already horrible and makes it astoundingly creepy. This, ladies and gentlemen is nightmare fuel. And I’ve included a photo below, but avoid if you are weak of stomach.
Now have some cuteness!
The torturers then call Mademoiselle, because what they wanted is happening — Anna is no longer seeing what happens around her; she is seeing whatever it is the other martyrs saw, strongly implied to be the afterlife. Mademoiselle races to the house, and asks Anna what she’s seen. This is the first time they’ve been able to speak to the martyr after they’ve been martyred, so it’s a big deal. We never find out what Anna saw though – she whispers it in Mademoiselle’s ear, and the movie hides it from us.
We then cut to upstairs in the house. A large crowd of people has gathered to hear what Anna saw. It seems that they’re quite respectful of Anna, despite the atrocities they delivered unto her. Mademoiselle’s assistant goes to inform her that the crowd is waiting for her, as she is getting ready for the speech. She accuses him of never truly believing in their cause. He admits that he did indeed have his doubts. She tells him to keep doubting, and then swallows a bullet.
Before the film ends, it gives us a definition of the word “martyr”:
Martyr; noun, adjective.
From the Greek ‘marturos':
We close on a final shot of the skinned Anna, and the credits roll alongside footage of Anna and Lucie as young girls.
This is one of the better films I’ve ever seen in my pursuit of fucked up movies. It is also undoubtedly one of the most intense and extreme, and I’m actually quite surprised there hasn’t been more controversy around its release in Australia.
Now, while the violence is indeed brutal, savage, extreme and intense (and all the other adjectives I keep repeating in these reviews) this is also one of the most compelling films I’ve ever seen. You don’t know what’s happening for most of the film, and you’ll find the violence extreme and fucked up, but at the same time, the story will pull you in and make you want to keep watching, incredible as that sounds.
Technically, the film is also incredible. It’s beautifully shot, which helps make the violence so unpalatable, because it’s contrasted well against the otherwise glossy film. The modern set of the house is also utilised well. It does feel homey when the family are still alive, pre-Lucie, but afterwards, it becomes cold and sterile, and torturous.
But the biggest achievement of the film is most certainly its two leads. I’ve read reviews accusing the characters of being one-note, but that’s ridiculous. These girls are frightened, traumatised, panicked and heart-racing the entire time they’re on screen. Acting those emotions for the length of time it takes to shoot a film is an incredible feat, especially because they do it so convincingly.
Also, the characters are interestingly crafted – you never know how Lucie is going to act as she’s really unpredictable, Anna’s an interesting character and even when she does silly things, you don’t judge her for them, and Mademoiselle is, despite being the Big Bad of the film, not a character you hate or boo and hiss at. When she kills herself, it’s not a moment to cheer at.
Now — despite my enthusiasm for the film, I can definitely say that it is NOT one to recommend. In terms of impact the film has, this probably sits just below A Serbian Film. It’s a really, really good movie, but it’s a full-on sucker punch of a film. It kind of leaves you reeling, because a movie has rarely been so cruel.
But the cruelty of the film is a bit like the torturers themselves; it’s not malicious. It’s not a film trying to shock you and repulse you, like any number of torture-porn films of the current ilk, an obvious case beingHostel or a more obvious example in the malignant A Serbian Film. Its cruelty is naturally derived from the intensity of the story; toning the violence down would make the mystery in the story less effective. It’s full on, but it’s contextual, and never exploitative.
So should you see it?
For the fair majority of people, I’d say no. Brilliant though it is, it’s the kind of movie that will leave you saddened, and you’ll feel despair at what poor Anna is put through, instead of seeing it as part of a compelling mystery. It’s the kind of movie that will make you wonder why people make movies like this, if you’re not already steeled for it.
But if you’re a fan of fucked up movies, certainly. If you’re the kind of person who boasts about how strong your stomach is and how no horror movie even makes you flinch, yes – this will take you down a peg. If you enjoy provocative and interesting cinema, have no problem reading subtitles, and are prepared to be shocked by a film that does it well, certainly yes.
And certainly, as an example of the New French Extreme, this film is perfect.
Copied over from my Facebook on inception of the blog. Originally written 8/3/2011