There's a very thin line between being pretentious or intelligent. Beat your ideas over my head long enough and I'll slot you into the former adjective's lane and tune off. Try to pass off something that's really little more than sadistic manslaughter on screen as some form of high-art and I'll promptly laugh before shaking my head in disgust.
Which is why Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008, from France, but just released on unrated DVD here in America this week) is such a fascinating film, still bouncing around in my head a mere 16 hours since watching it for the second time last night, this time amongst daring friends. The film's second half is a true sucker punch, a midway tonal shift similar in the thinnest sense to that of Eli Roth's Hostel, when Roth's sick mind turned a funnier, raunchier Euro Trip clone into dare-to-watch torture. The switch-up in Martyrs is much beefier, and, frankly, vastly superior. A detour from a breakneck hybrid of elements of both supercharged Japanese-cinema horror elements and blood-drenched home invasion flicks into a somewhat-existential, slower-paced experiment in transfiguration.
Many who have seen Martyrs hate the latter section, feeling that the film jumps the shark once the tempo hits the brakes for more-patient anarchy. That opinion is horseshit to me, but understandable horseshit. Polarizing films aren't meant to please the world. Laugier, as proven in his pre-movie DVD introduction, never intended to make a crowdpleaser; the man had some truly compelling ideas about life, death, and humanity and went for broke with them. Does it all gel? Not exactly, but the overall product is so daring and unlike anything you've ever seen before that I can't see anybody declaring Martyrs anything less than a success. Even if you can't endure and shut it off before its devastating coda.
"Plot" is pretty meaningless in Martyrs, but for those wondering what the hell this film that I'm mentally invested in is about, here goes: 15 years ago, a little girl named Lucie escaped from a seedy, nightmarish building in which she was being held prisoner and tortured. Once she was discovered afte the escape, Lucie was placed in a home for troubled children, where she made only one friend, Anna. Flash-forward to the present, Lucie (played as an adult by the stunning and intense Mylene Jampanoi) bumrushes the family she believes to be responsible for what happened in her childhood and dispatches of them. Anna comes to help her cover up the scene, and from this point on the two girls unexpectedly ride a downward spiral into Hell.
Again, though, the plot here is merely a driving force for Laugier to tackle some deeper ideas, brutally cyncial thoughts that I won't delve into too deeply here (Martyrs is a film I want that I really want people to watch so we can discuss). The theme is right there in the film's title, however---martyrdom. Not the type of martyr you read about in books of religion, the people who killed themselves or were voluntarily murdered for a greater good. Laugier is concerned with a martyr as a "witness," as believed in Greek history. A person who, after enduring unfathomable degrees of pain and suffering, sees something that nobody else can.///// That's as far as I want to go, for now. I've got the feeling that after I watch this flick for a third time I'll want to write down my post-game thoughts here, spoilers and all. A sort of mental exercise, a one-man debate.
Where myself and some others who've seen Martyrs differ is that I never felt that Laugier's script was talking down to me, slapping my better judgment with pretentious bullshit. The IMDB.com message boards are loaded with commenters violently angry at this film, either labeling it "pure garbage" or that p-word again. Opinions are like the assholes who sign online just to comment negatively on something to start a message board pissing contest, of course, so I can't totally knock those folks. Completely disagree with them, though, is something I can do at will. Martyrs deserves respect and admiration off of sheer ballsiness alone, not to mention topical originality and visual panache.
Some have argued that the characters in Martyrs are quite underdeveloped. Facet-less pawns in Laugier's game of sick chess. If any scene in the film counters this point with conviction it's Anna's attack on the unsuspecting family's quiet house. The insanely-massive shotgun blasts aren't shown in slow-motion; they're presented in real time, dropping the audience right headsmack into the scene with little set-up. That's exactly the degree of immediacy that Laugier, in my opinion, is trying to convey with the film as a whole. Putting us uncomfortably in the moment, so that we're susceptible to whatever he throws our way. A few flashbacks into Lucie's pre-teen captivity stint are intertwined, but even those are quick and unflinching. Also important, since these flashbacks explain everything about Lucie's present-day state that we need to know. And isn't that what character development is supposed to do?
The first time I watched it, Martyrs fucked with my head something proper. When I thought the story was heading in one direction, Laugier's script gave me the head-fake and headed for an uncontested touchdown. Confidently zigged when I expected it to conventionally zag. There's a plot turn signaled by Anna (played by exceptional actress Morjana Alaoui), who, by the way, is gorgeous in a total Dania-Ramirez-lookalike way) and a bathroom mirror that a million guesses never would've predicted. Later, as one character is repeatedly beaten down to a bruised, catatonic pulp, a line of any-other-filmmaker-would-stop-this-brutality-right-now is crossed and left in mushroom clouds of dust. By the time we're presented with a lightshow no doubt inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Martyrs pushes itself beyond simple "horror." I won't say that it becomes an example of brilliant art, but the film does qualify for deserved post-viewing intellectual deliberation. The final scene is one of the more awesomely inconclusive things I've seen in I-don't-know-how-long.
Whether anybody pulls their trigger and seeks Martyrs out or not, I really can't concern myself with, or stress. It just pains me when people's only exposure to what horror films can truly accomplish is limited to that holding-your-hand-in-anxiety reaction their significant other emits while seated in a dark theater watching The Haunting in Connecticut. Give foreign genre films the likes of Martyrs a fair shot and you'll see just how thought-provoking and fearless this type of filmmaking can get, if created with no corporate interference and by skilled hands.