In the first jarring shot, battered and traumatized young Lucie escapes the abandoned slaughterhouse where she was imprisoned and tortured. Still haunted by both her abuse and a cruel, emaciated apparition, Lucie is placed in an orphanage where she befriends Anna, who struggles to understand whether Lucie’s fears are real or imagined. The film jumps forward in time, introducing us to a seemingly normal, upscale family at breakfast. Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) is now a young woman set on revenge. Dressed in black and toting a shotgun, she coldly executes mother, father, sister and brother, then calls Anna (Morjana Alaoui), telling her she found the people who tortured her. Both Anna and the audience are apt to believe that Lucie has lost her mind and killed four innocent people, but as the plot careens forward we find that there’s more to the house, its former occupants and the seemingly safe middle-class world than we dare believe. For Anna, this revelation may have come too late.
With the exception of its Grand Guignol climax, the violence in Martyrs is simple and stark. From its shotgun massacre to its extended scenes of systematic beatings in a steel dungeon, the emphasis is not on building suspense but on traumatizing the viewer with jolts of brutality and then lingering on the pain and confusion of their aftermath. The denouement culminates in tantalizing, unheard dying words that make the viewer complicit in the film’s horrors. In wanting to know the whispered answer, the audience is placed in the role of chief-torturer Mademoiselle, straining to hear, willing to justify the depths of human depravity for the promise of ultimate revelation.
Martyrs deemphasizes horror tricks and tropes and focuses on characters and the ideas that compel them. Lucie, Anna and Mademoiselle are each seeking a revelation, and each finds a truth that’s too horrible to bear. Every aspect of production, from writing to direction, acting to photography, are efficient and effective without drawing attention away from the character-driven narrative. The film is expertly crafted to make the viewer feel every savage blow and gasp at each unexpected plot point, leading to a finale that combines body horror and metaphysics, provoking plenty of after-film discussion.
Laugier created a masterful film that grabs the viewer by the gut and the brain simultaneously, wringing out both gory scares and existential dread in equal measure. It may underwhelm the casual viewer looking for formulaic diversion, but it’s a revelation for those seeking more.