Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi
“What….the hell….was that?”
That was pretty much my internal monologue once the credits rolled on this French horror/torture porn. Here was a film that I knew almost nothing about, a film builds up suspense in one area, only to change the tone half way through, and with an ending that I am still not entirely comfortable with.
Martyrs opens on a young girl, Lucie, who has obviously been beaten and tortured, running through an industrial estate. Eventually found by the authorities, she is put into an orphanage, and is monitored for any physical and mental damage caused by the trauma. Unfortunately, she does not wish to talk about the ordeal, but does befriend one of the other girls in the orphanage, Anna, forming a very close bond. It soon becomes clear that Lucie is haunted by her past, and is attacked by a crazed demonic-looking woman.
The film shoots forward 15 years, where a now-adult Lucie attacks and kills an entire family, whom she believes were involved in her captivity. Anna, who has remained close to Lucie and sees herself as responsible for the strange girl, eventually arrives at the house and the two girls try to cover up the murder.
Unfortunately, it is not long until a mentally fragile Lucie, wracked with the guilt of her actions, is confronted by a now-scared Anna, who has seen her oldest friend reach an all-time low. A somewhat surprising outcome is followed by an altogether more surprising second half of the film. For the purposes of mystery and intrigue, I will not discuss what happens in the second half, except that it has religious overtones.
Performance wise, the two female leads do a tremendous part in selling their individual stories, although the chemistry between them is perhaps not as strong as you might hope.
Jampanoi as the adult Lucie is terrifying. There is something in the eyes that tell you this girl is not all there, and capable of dark deeds. She is also able to convey a decently healthy portion of vulnerability. We all know that her craziness is a product of the terrible circumstance she suffered as a child, and even though she is dishing out punishment, once we know why she is doing it, we sympathise with her somewhat. All thanks to Jampanoi’s fine work in front of the camera.
As for Alaoui, her performance in the first half of the film is ok, however she is not given too much to do. That being said, she really grows into the role and the second half is her time to shine. At times in the last half hour, what we see from Alaoui is so raw that it is almost easy to forget this is just a movie.
These two French actresses are probably fairly unknown outside of their native country, but both did enough here to suggest their careers could be worth watching. World beaters, they may not be, but certainly a break into the mainstream is possible.
Visually, Martyrs is a brutal, visceral experience. Lucie’s story is filled with murder, and a hint of the supernatural. The demonic woman that she encounters throughout is almost a thing of nightmares, which is helped by the director only delivering glimpses of her to increase the horror element.
On the other side, Anna’s suffering is so deeply dark that it leaves no offer of hope. Writer and director Pascal Laugier, who also brought last year’s slightly underrated The Tall Man, goes to great lengths to depict a scenario that I would not even wish to bestow on an enemy. Kudos to him and the entire creative team, who certainly used their modest budget to good effect, as the actions and the setting look sleek, yet terrifying.
As I have intimated above, there is a religious motive behind some of the scenes in Martyrs. I will be honest, at times it was a little difficult to actually nail down exactly what was happening and why. Perhaps it was lost in translation, but the story does get a little muddled at times, which isn’t helped by an ending that will divide opinion.
In this humble reviewer’s opinion, French films usually have great style, but not enough substance. Martyrs is another example of that, and whilst I am left a little confused by the message it is trying to convey, and certainly there are other flaws, there is enough here in the second half to at least interest the average horror aficionado.
Did you know? There are plans to remake the film for an American audience, and Kirsten Stewart was rumoured to be one of the actresses that could have a lead role.