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martyrs

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Let me be perfectly clear: ultra-violence in modern horror movies is not a stain on the collective conscience of society. Enjoying the on-screen display of hyper-realistic (but emphatically not real) blood and gore does not make you a sick person.  One of the great subversive pleasures of narrative cinema is how it turns us all into voyeurs, deriving real pleasure and pain from the actions and conflicts of imagined or exaggerated characters.  With that in mind, how is watching someone young and attractive get decapitated any more or less exploitative than watching someone young and attractive take out the trash?  Fake is fake.

So no, Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French horror film Martyrs, released on Region 1 DVD two weeks ago, is not an affront to morality.  Unfortunately, it’s also not very good.

Martyrs

This is disappointing, for Martyrs has been the recipient of a fair amount of blogosphere hype since its theatrical release in France last fall.  The hype is not entirely unfounded.  The bare-bones plot line is really quite good: surprising, nervy, appropriately disturbing.  On paper, especially considering the quality drought in modern American horror, it sounds like a refreshingly brutal godsend.  But in practice, it doesn’t pan out, and here’s why: when you make your movie an endurance test, which the first half of Martyrs most assuredly is, you forfeit the emotional investment necessary to make anything loftier than visceral terror work.  The closing act of Martyrs wants to blow our minds.  Mine, personally, had been switched off somewhere around the ninth or tenth close-up of tearing flesh.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with close-ups of tearing flesh.  Separated from the rest of the film, the first 50 or so minutes of Martyrs are brisk, bloody, and effective.  After a creepy prologue detailing a young girl’s escape from several weeks of extreme physical abuse and confinement at the hands of anonymous captors, Martyrs lets loose with 4 or 5 abruptly graphic shotgun blasts and hardly lets up from there.  It’s hard to summarize the plot without giving away most of the film’s limited pleasures, but suffice it to say that the first half of Martyrs revolves around thorny issues of vengeance and survivor’s guilt, tied together by a fascinating question: what if a perfect suburban couple was responsible for unspeakable acts of unprovoked torture?  Why would they do such a thing?

It’s in the answer to the second question that Martyrs trips up, miscalculating its audience’s tolerance for murky philosophy immediately following such hardcore suspense.  Not helping matters is the fact that, on a stylistic level, Martyrs is never especially inspired or dynamic.  It’s competent, to be sure, and not as obviously lazy as most contemporary American horror, but once the genuinely disturbing violence of its opening acts has been taken away, the picture’s flaws become magnified.  Worse than that, the film assumes a strange kind of hubris and draws attention to its own weaknesses: the heavy-handed dialogue multiplies, the perfunctory editing is treated with an unearned reverence, the already struggling actors are thrown into the deep end without a lifeguard.  By the end of its 100 minutes, Martyrs has become so unexpectedly and inappropriately heavy that you begin to realize the first half wasn’t really that great either; it was just scarier.

Dissecting what makes something scary is only a little less pointless than dissecting what makes something funny, so I’ll keep this brief, but it seems to me that the most frightening moments in Martyrs are less the result of solid technique than of pure psychic obligation.  Or, dropping the SAT word bullshit: fast-moving, feral zombie-women that chase after you with kitchen knives are going to be really fucking scary regardless of how well-crafted a movie is.  That’s a pretty reliable stimulus.  Martyrs uses the extreme nature of its images as a cover for its own relatively mediocre film-making.  It’s scary, but not the good kind of scary.  It doesn’t stick.  This ephemeral scariness wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the aforementioned closing act, which slows the pace down to a crawl and asks us to reflect on all we’ve just seen.  As a result, viewers aren’t even allowed to finish the damn movie before feeling retrospectively underwhelmed.

All great horror movies do the same dance.  They invite us in, comfort us, and then scare the living shit out of us, ideally more than once.  Martyrs doesn’t dance.  It doesn’t seduce.  It just bombards.

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Written by Tim

May 11, 2009 at 5:25 am

Posted in Movies

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