Thursday, December 16, 2010

Martyrs (2008)

A young girl escapes from someone who was abusing her. While in the hospital she meets a girl who will become her friend. Years later the two girls track down the people responsible for the abuse and...well, that's the movie. What starts off as a simple revenge tale quickly becomes something else, something different, something more disturbing.

I had heard a good number of stories about how twisted, horrible and horrifying this French film was. I was prepared for something that fell into the category of torture porn, but I wasn't prepared for what I actually got. This actually lived up to its billing, where say the equally praised High Tension did not. This is a slowly building tale that is unnerving from the get go and only gets worse. It starts off as one thing, then changes and changes again. It then plays out each new twist for as far as it can go before changing again. It's a pattern that's repeated several times over the course of the film. It keeps you on your toes and makes it impossible to steel yourself for the next thing.

What makes Martyrs difficult to dismiss as just another torture porn film (and trust me this is as close to one as one can get), is that the film has more on its mind than just torture. This is not just the cruelty of Saw or Hostel, or any of the other films that are essentially a madman carving some one up (Laid To Rest anyone?). There is a weird rationale to it. You may argue that I'm splitting hairs, but trust me I've seen enough to know what is what and where to draw the line between frivolous violence, and violence for the plot.

I'd love to discuss this film in greater detail, but to do so might take the edge off the film. Not knowing where it's going is what makes the film so powerful. Having your expectations confounded and destroyed is what disturbs the hell out of you. We in the audience are left shaken and stunned, wondering what the hell we saw.

The film works because of how it's filmed. The cinematography is polished, as are the locations; these are not run-down, depraved places.

The story construction is clever. It's a series of ever expanding boxes that take us as far as we can go without things collapsing on themselves.

The performances are real. These are real people. They are not just figures behaving according to movie laws; rather they are people behaving in ways that people might. Certainly the blind rage that fuels the revenge is palpable. The behavior, for all of its cruelty, is understandable. We have the girl who wants revenge and was pushed to the point of animistic violence. And the people who are looking for answers are the sort of academic Nimrods who don't think, and don't feel that scientific niceties apply to them (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan anyone?). I'm not condoning the violence, I'm just explaining that in context it does work. Strangely, other than the gashes and the final bit of nastiness, much of the gore is fleeting with the level of blood relatively low. It's our minds that inflict the pain and suffering way beyond the levels of what we see.

Months after seeing the film I can't shake it. It's frightening and disturbing. More so in that it actually seems to be about something. It's not some nut job running about like Texas Chainsaw or Friday The 13th or Halloween. There is something there. I really do feel that way. I don't think the film would be as disturbing if it was just a shape killing cattle. There is some kernel of truth in there that will not let me let the film go, nor will it let me even consider dismissing it.

Certainly I can't dismiss this any more than I could the work of Gaspar Noe, whose films like Irreversible or I Stand Alone are equally brutal, but less fantastical. I don't know what the director might think of my take on the film; he seems to want to distance himself from it. Nor do I know if he meant anything beyond a calling card or horror film, but even if he didn't I think he's fashioned a film that does have something more than violence and uncomfortableness. I do think this film has a reason to exist beyond the profit motive.

You will probably be repulsed by the film.

I am on many levels and yet at the same time I'm fascinated by it. This is a film that is a trip on the dark side that is more than just torture porn. It is not just a catalog of pain and suffering. There is a twisted reasoning behind it (and in a weird way a historical precedent which makes it even more bothersome). Speaking in a video introduction the director admits to not being comfortable for having made the film, and invites the audience to hate him for doing it.

I'm not comfortable admiring the film.

Not for the squeamish, this is a head trip for those who think they can take it. I thought I could and yet it still messed me up. Most amazingly, one of the final images, one of the least graphic, is one of the things that disturbed me the most.

A bloody, blood soaked masterpiece only for those who want to stare into the abyss. Reluctantly it may be one of the best films I saw in 2009.

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