Film-Book dot Com is proud to announce the addition of another writer to our ranks: Paul Clemens. Paul is a first time writer to an “official” online publication though is able to write persuasive Film Reviews. Even if the reader is not in agreement with Paul’s conclusions, he usually gives you something to think about. What I found most interesting is his passion for writing his full opinion on a film in an unorthodox setting: Customer Reviews. His Film Review for Martyrs from that very arena:
I freely admit I had dangerously high expectations going into this film, having read SO many positive reviews (and some rabidly negative ones as well — as this is one of those love-it-or-loathe-it experiences), but I’m happy to say that, for me, ‘Martyrs’ lived up to every bit of the hype, and then some.
The problem is that, for most people, they are simply NOT going to be anticipating what this film actually IS, as opposed to what they’ve been led to BELIEVE it is. Namely, though it contains many ASPECTS typical of the genre, ‘Martyrs’ is NOT really a “horror film” in the usual sense.
Don’t get me wrong, though — the film certainly IS horrifying at times, on a number of different levels. And it has a kind of nightmare poetry which continues to haunt me.
‘Martyrs’ also manages to convey an overwhelming sense of cumulative dread and a hellishly pervasive sense of cold, heartless, systematically calculating evil. But it actually has a lot more in common with Gaspar Noe’s uncompromising ‘Irreversible’ and the dark lyricism of Franju’s ‘Eyes Without A Face’ than it does with films like ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel’.
For, while it does have some extremely disturbing violence and gore, it’s somewhat less extreme in that respect than either ‘High Tension’ or ‘Inside’ — two other notable examples of the new wave of French horror cinema.
But ‘Martyrs’ affected me far more than any of the above-named films (excepting ‘Irreversible’ and ‘Eyes…’ ), because of the IDEAS being dealt with and because of Pascal Laugier’s remarkably artful handling of his material, aided tremendously by the harrowing, raw-nerved excellence of the acting, as well as the superb cinematography, editing, music, and make-up effects.
Indeed, ‘Martyrs’ is an “art film” in many ways. In fact, at a couple points it actually elicited tears from me — not my typical response to most horror films — as well as a few genuinely appalled exclamations of “Oh my God… Oh my God…”, such was the level of my empathy and identification with the main characters and their ordeal.
In fact, it was this aspect of the film which enabled me to get past what would otherwise have been a big stumbling block for me, in terms of conventional movie logic — i.e. the critical caveat of illogical behavior on the part of the characters when faced with a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation and NOT getting the hell OUT of there! In fact, at a very key point in the narrative, not only do the two main characters refuse to extricate themselves from a very risky and potentially dangerous locale, they positively LINGER there for what seems like DAYS!
Now, normally this would have had me crazy and screaming in frustration at the seeming stupidity or obtuseness of the characters. But, miraculously, in the case of ‘Martyrs’ I hardly even registered any of this because of the particular relationship dynamic of Lucie and Anna and their unique personal/psychological histories. In other words, given the very particular qualities of these two women, a specific case could be made for what would otherwise have seemed infuriatingly inappropriate behavior.
I find it both apt and reassuring that Laugier has referred to his film as the “anti-‘Funny Games'”, referencing Michael Haneke’s deeply unpleasant, repellently grueling exercise in audience participation/endurance. For while ‘Funny Games’ was also not a horror film in the exploitative/commercial sense, neither did it have, for me, the inherent spiritual aspects or, dare I say, compassion, which make me willing to return to ‘Martyrs’, whereas I never feel myself eager to play more ‘Funny Games’.
But, more than anything, ‘Martyrs’ lingers in my mind as a deeply sad, disturbing, and ultimately moving meditation on the theme of pain and transcendence. And though I can see many viewers recoiling from the experience, disgusted by its brutal savagery and depressed and offended by its seeming nihilism (with the emphasis on “seeming”), I find that the film’s intriguing ambiguities and moral questions make for a rich cinematic tapestry, reflective of both heaven and hell. And yet, paradoxically, it is perhaps the film’s unnerving ability to convey a world of bottomless evil and merciless cruelty that kept me from giving ‘Martyrs’ a full five stars. Almost as though a part of me would feel guilty in doing this — as if that would be akin to giving my implicit endorsement or tacit approval of the film’s pitch-black heart of darkness.
Perhaps, Mr. Laugier, you did your job a bit TOO well!
Be that as it may, clearly this film has a lot more on its mind than simply grossing out or traumatizing its audiences, though it certainly managed that, as well, during some of its controversial festival screenings. Yet I would still hesitate to recommend it to most people I know. ‘Martyrs’ is, decidedly and emphatically, NOT a film for everyone.
But, for those looking to be challenged as well as shaken — for those willing to be taken to deeply uncomfortable places and shown terrible things in new and unexpected ways — for those yearning to FEEL a visceral response again after years of mindless, numbing “movie-violence”… For all these people ‘Martyrs’ will be a welcome, if not necessarily pleasant experience, leaving them with something to actually THINK about once the end credits have rolled.
A very sad postscript to a very sad film:
Benoit Lestang, a close friend of the director, and the man who contributed the film’s jaw-droppingly powerful special make-up effects, committed suicide shortly after the film’s completion. He did get to see the film prior to his death and apparently was proud of his work and moved to tears by the film. As to the specific reasons for his tragic decision, little has been spoken or written about that. And, given the film’s specific subject matter, one could all too easily be drawn into the temptation of making inappropriate connections and drawing conclusions, which I shall assiduously avoid.
Laugier himself has been very candid about his own personal feelings, both in regard to the emotional devastation of losing his friend, as well as the fact that the creative genesis of ‘Martyrs’ sprang from a long period of Laugier’s own depression. And he has indicated that, in some ways, the film was perhaps his response to that depression — partially expiating it through channeling his own darkness and pain into that of the film’s theme and characters.
Suffice it to say, ‘Martyrs’ will provide a lasting and worthy final monument to Mr. Lestang’s extraordinary gifts as a supremely talented artist and craftsman. And it is precisely that artistry, in conjunction with that of Laugier and the rest of his remarkable team, that resulted in startling images of strange and terrible beauty. Images which, like the film itself, continue to linger in the mind long after the final curtain.
Peace be with you, Benoit.
Paul will begin helping us out with Film Reviews starting very soon. Please join me in welcoming him to Film-Book dot Com.