A young woman's quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity.


MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Given the shocking reputation that has followed Martyrs since its 2008 Cannes screening, 'A soulful, profound meditation on the human condition’ is not the conclusion I was expecting to draw after viewing it, wide-eyed and mouth agape, at the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival.

Conservative critics called for writer/director Pascal Laugier to be imprisoned after the infamous screening on the Croisette last year, citing the film as little more than the ultimate example of the insidious genre, 'torture-porn’; the work of a brutal mysoginist, a woman hater, a fascist.

The sequence most often cited by opponents is a 12-minute passage late in the film, in which the manacled heroine is subjected to brutal acts of torture and degradation. It sounds horrible, and is – one of this film's virtues is that it is a true 'horror’ film in every sense of the word – but for supporters of the film, the age-old 'ends-justifies-the-means’ comeback is a card well-played in the Martyrs debate.

Laugier’s film opens in flashback – a frail, frightened, bloody teenage girl flees an abandoned slaughterhouse, her darting eyes reflecting daylight that her opaque skin suggests she has not seen in months. Under the credits, news footage reveals the girl’s abusers were not sexual deviants; police are unsure exactly what their purpose was.

The film moves ahead 15 years, to a family home nestled in a beautiful French woodland setting. A nuclear family – mother, father, teenage boy and girl – are laughing over breakfast, when the doorbell chimes. Answering the door, the father stares into the barrel of a shotgun, and a bloodbath ensues.

The killer is a young woman, Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi), who is soon joined by her accomplice, Anna (Morjana Alaoui). As they survey the carnage, Laugier introduces a crucial third element to the already-electrifying energy of the film – a bloody, screeching, twisted form that may be supernatural in origin and that pounces on Lucie at the most inopportune and terrifying moments.

The film descends further into a Dante-esque nightmare when Anna discovers a subterranean laboratory and a barely-human, living-skeleton of a girl that she tries to set free.

At this point, the machinations of the plot develop briskly and deeply; the auteur’s message – the themes that will ultimately give the scenes of sickening violence a profundity rarely scene in a horror film – begins to take on an emotional and spiritual clarity that swept over the audience in attendance. Anna’s plight and the revelation of the true villainy at work in Laugier’s bold and beautiful film drew gasps of disbelief and sad tears from a broad cross-section of festival goers. It seems unlikely that many would have endured the brutality were the characters of Anna and Lucie and the unfolding spirituality of the script not defined so precisely.

For Laugier, his female leads are not tools to manipulate, as his detractors would have you believe. A character called 'Mademoiselle’, played with shattering malevolence by Catherine Begin, reveals as much in a monologue of pure evil, explaining exactly why young girls are the focus of the hideous acts being perpetrated. Laugier deeply respects his characters and the salvation they offer us; the message that the film sends remains so heart-breakingly potent for that very reason.

Martyrs is a groundbreaking work – it challenges the audience to endure heinous acts yet to emerge spiritually cleansed; to witness man’s willingness to abuse, degrade and manipulate, yet leave the theatre more enamoured with humanity than ever. Pascal Laugier has achieved a work of dark brilliance and vile beauty; Martyrs deserves a place alongside Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) as a genre-redefining classic.