Directed by Pascal Laugier [Other horror films: Bonne Nuit (1999), Saint Ange (2004), The Tall Man (2012), Ghostland (2018)]
I’m not one of those who believes that a movie has to be enjoyable to be good, but I do maintain that if a movie is not a particularly enjoyable viewing experience, then those who dislike it have every right to do so. That’s clearly relevant to me here, because while Martyrs is a well-done movie in plenty of aspects, it’s a movie that I have a hard time with, and definitely don’t find that enjoyable.
Whereas other French horror films from the same time period share the same bleak feel this film possesses (such as Frontière(s) and Haute tension), they still have a bit more of a, shall we say, cinematic background, and by that, I mean that while they can be dark, I still find myself entertained, and that’s not something I can truthfully say about Martyrs.
No doubt the film is well-acted, though. Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui make for a believable pair of friends, and Alaoui especially does well toward the second half of the film. Though a character of miserable intent, Catherine Bégin does a pretty good job, which might be helped by the fact she really only appears a handful of times.
There’s also no doubt that the special effects are amazing. Honestly, the movie isn’t quite a gory as people might think, but there are plenty of brutal scenes, and especially in the second half of the film, some hard-to-stomach sequences, so though it’s not a gorefest by any means (aside from perhaps the shotgun slaughter toward the beginning), there are some things here that probably won’t easily be forgotten.
Like I said, though, despite some positive and well-done elements, I just don’t enjoy the movie. It’s entirely possible that I liked this a little bit more than when I first saw it years back, but even then, it’s just a smidge. Part of it is the grueling scenes of torture that a character endears (and seems to last at least 15 solid minutes), and part of it is the story and the pseudo-philosophical ideas about the afterlife and forced martyrdom.
I did find myself enjoying the end (though I do quite want to know what was whispered in Bégin’s ear – not enough to go out, capture young women, and torture them into ectasy, of course – but I am definitely curious), but I don’t think it was entirely satisfying, which may well be the point, given the bleak feel that this movie has. The fact the finale is somewhat inconclusive makes the film darker still.
Martyrs is often rated quite highly, and I don’t want to take that perception away from people. I can only say that I personally didn’t love it, and though I can admit that there are elements that I could conceivably enjoy, it’s not a movie that I think I’ll go back to near as often as I would films like Haute tension. Take that how you will.