The extreme French horror film Martyrs came to the Midnight Madness section of the 2008 Toronto Film Festival with a reputation as the ne plus ultra of “torture porn,” an experience so intense and shocking that it could never be topped. At the risk of inspiring some sicko to try, the movie does actually live up to billing, but not just because it works to one-up the graphic intensity of movies like Hostel 2, The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, Inside, and others. What director Pascal Laugier accomplishes is more like meta-torture porn, a disturbing and eerily clinical demonstration of what the body can withstand, exploring the limits of sadism and the human survival instinct. Make no mistake, Martyrs is a nasty piece of work, but there’s a clear intelligence behind it and a genuine effect to reflect on the torture that ostensibly being offering up for our edification.
The film opens in the early ‘70s, when police rescue a young girl who’s been missing for over a year, during which time she’s been incarcerated in extreme cold and subjected to unimaginable torment. Found filthy, withered, dehydrated, and near-catatonic, she recuperates in an orphanage, where she develops a close relationship with another victim of abuse. Fifteen years later, the girl (played as an adult by Mylene Jampanoï) and her friend (Morjana Alaoui) break in on what appears to be a perfectly normal upper-middle-class family enjoying their breakfast and slaughters them. Jampanoï is convinced that the parents were players in her abuse and has come for revenge. She also contends with a creature that may or may not be a hallucination. And hey, where does that hidden staircase in the house lead anyway?
Martyrs begins as a disturbing, Ms. 45-like story of a victimized woman seeking empowerment through revenge and violence, but winds up in a place so completely unexpected that it’s hard to keep from laughing out loud at Laugier’s audaciousness. The visceral thrills in the early going are handled with grisly élan, but then the film segues into something more studied and even spiritual as it goes along. It isn’t often that a grisly piece of extreme horror actively invokes comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then there’s never been a horror movie quite like Martyrs. Enter at your own risk.
Key features: An hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary leads a supplement package that includes a Laugier introduction and trailers for the film.