Martyrs (2008): Disturbing Surprises

Warning: This entry contains spoilers.

Martyrs is a French-Canadian horror film that follows the events that transpire after Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), a young woman who was kidnapped and abused as a child, seeks revenge against her captors. As she tries coping with the trauma that she experiences, she is helped by her childhood friend, Anna (Morjana Alaoui). What is unknown to both women is that there is a bigger reason behind Lucie’s kidnapping.

Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film opens up with a badly beaten-up, bloody, and bruised woman running in the bare minimum of clothing, who we later find out is the protagonist of the movie, Lucie, who has just escaped from her place of captivity. One of the next scenes that follow is a shot of a family happily enjoying their breakfast over pleasant conversation, but this peace doesn’t last for more than five minutes. Lucie suddenly shows up at their doorstep with a shotgun and kills the parents and the kids off one by one. The sudden shift in the atmosphere was jarring and took me by surprise. Little did I know that this would set the pace and tone for the rest of the movie.

This first scene was only the first out of many that would shock me. Another prime example of an unexpected twist of events was the scene that happened after Lucie called Anna to tell her that she had killed her original captors. Lucie starts getting attacked by a faceless monster who begins stabbing her repeatedly. Before viewers even get a chance to rest from the homicide scene that had occurred only minutes before, the dynamics of power quickly shifts, and it is Lucie who now becomes the victim.

One of my initial expectations was to see the movie center wholly around Lucie as she is being chased and hunted by this monster. But through Anna’s reactions and actions, I learn that this monster is something only Lucie herself can see. I then thought that this would be a horror movie that touched a bit on mental disorders, similar to Triangle, where the protagonist battles her inner demons, as she tries to come to terms with her past. But before I could even let this theory of mine sink in, Lucie, our main character decides to kill herself. I was beyond shocked at this point.

The movie then switches viewpoints from Lucie to Anna. And following this switch in the protagonist role, we simultaneously also have a switch in who the antagonists are played by. With Lucie now dead, Anna becomes the focus of the story, and it is now she who starts getting tormented by a new monster. Only, it isn’t an incorporeal one, such as the monster who had followed Lucie. The new monsters are other human beings, who seem to be followers of a certain cult-like organization. These people believe that by torturing young women, it will allow for the women, or the “martyrs,” to reach a state of transcendence that will allow them to see beyond what is readily captured by our senses now.

The events that followed, where Anna was held captive, starved, subjected to humiliation, and tortured daily, were hard to watch. It was saddening, sickening, and I just kept waiting for that moment to come where she too would be able to escape like how her friend did in the past, but it never came. Eventually, Anna was able to undergo the transcendence that was much coveted by the organization members. But once Anna imparted what she had seen to the organization’s leader, the leader decided to commit suicide. Fade to black.

From start to finish, the movie was definitely full of shocking twists and turns. It was disturbing to watch, especially when you come to the realization that human nature is a scary thing. Although I hope nothing like what happened in Martyrs ever happens in real life, it is fact that there are some people who would go to unbelievable lengths just to try and satisfy their curiosity about things that they do not know and questions that they cannot answer, even if it means impeding on another person’s life.

Even though the movie scared me, I also found that I enjoyed watching it (or most of it) because the events that transpired continued to keep me on my toes. There were so many things that happened that I wasn’t expecting. I don’t think I was alone in my experience, as well. This could be because viewers take pleasure in “losing the kind of control that they [have] been trained to enjoy in classical narrative cinema.”1 The unexpected events that happened were akin to feeling “the effect of [being on] a rollercoaster ride” rather than just watching the usual cinematic narrative unfold.2 Williams talks about how these kinds of films welcome reactions such as cringing, screaming, and covering their eyes and ears because it shows that the viewer was open to the whole experience and was able to find pleasure in the performance.3

The fact that this was a film in another language required viewers who don’t speak the language to have their eyes glued to the screen at all times so as not to miss out on any crucial information heard in the conversations. By doing this, it disallows viewers from cowering behind a barrier, and instead pushes them to witness all the gore and violence that is occurring on-screen.

Prior to watching the film, I had already heard some things about it, mostly from friends or upperclassmen who had taken COM 115.9 in the past. Some warned me saying that it was a frightening movie that would mess me up, and as someone who has watched next to no horror movies before enrolling in this class, I was already apprehensive hearing these things, but I figured that, since I managed to get through Evil Dead, I should be able to get through this one, as well. And I did. But not without shouting and trying to cover my eyes too many times to count.


1 Linda Williams, “Learning to Scream.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002), 163.
2 Ibid, 163.
3 Ibid, 167.

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