There is no middle ground with Martyrs. Surely if you know anything about the film at all, it is its divisive nature. I will tell you now that I thought the movie was absolutely despicable but it also comes with my emphatic recommendation. If you've got the nerve, see it, because taking in others' opinions about it has been absolutely fascinating to me. I will attempt to keep this review free of spoilers, because as the director says, it is at its most effective as a virgin experience. I will be discussing the ending, but with as little plot detail as possible. I was tempted to just completely spoil it without remorse but maturity soon took hold of me and I decided not to deprive any potential viewers of what will surely be a great deal of complex thought.
I am giving it one star only to put it ahead of Funny Games. This film is about the greatest "fuck you" that anyone could ever give to Funny Games. Pascal Laugier effortlessly upstages Michael Haneke's attempts at shocking, contemptuous violence and does it without the self-congratulation, or the winking, or the breaking of the fourth wall. As a condemnation of violence, it is infinitely more effective, but the fact that the movie even exists in the first place renders it self-defeating. Laugier's preface to his own film is necessary watching - to see him speak with candid excoriation of both himself and the monstrous work he has created is oddly cathartic. It let me know, at least, that this exists for more of a reason than the brutalization of pretty young French women.
At the same time, though, this is a through-and-through horror movie, and this genre is simply the wrong place to attempt a narrative like this. Horror inherently fetishizes assault and deformation of the human condition, physically, mentally and emotionally. For all its sanctimony and reverence of Anna, there still exists a harrowing ten minute scene where a woman mercilessly executes a family. We still watch a fleshy apparition ripped straight from J-horror scuttle through a house, bumping and jolting in whatever ways would most scare a lulled audience. The violence is not obscured or metaphorized, but instead lingered on, taken in. This may be justifiable in the final half hour, where this incessant brutality and torture are ascribed an arguable purpose, but everything preceding is there simply to cash in on shock and cheap scares. Where Martyrs would attempt to transcend its genre, it instead falls exceptionally hard into nearly every one of its pitfalls. Especially telling is a spot of gratuitous lesbianism that dismantles the film's "chivalrous" intentions and shows much of its true colors: a flick for the gorehounds to bask in.
That last half hour, meant to buoy the rest of the film, amounts to little more than an apologist cop-out, suddenly offering viewers something to mull over while still beating the hell out of Anna in the most exhibitionist manner possible. Martyrs ultimately amounts to the movie cashing in your hour and a half of misery and disgust for one very simple question: "what happens after we die?" Someone here learns (or does she?) and it drives her to act very oddly. Past that, we don't know anything. This one universal question is the movie's sole currency, its crutch for presenting this macabre, exploitative gallery. Perhaps Laugier was feeling awfully guilty writing this screenplay and tried to sneak in a little purpose. Two minutes of sophomoric twaddle about martyrdom and vision, however, do absolutely nothing to assuage my guilt and overall sense of dirtiness after watching this movie.
A film is generally successful in my eyes if it makes me feel something about the characters. Martyrs did, but what overwhelmed this was how I felt about the people responsible for making the film. As a movie viewer, I have a fairly steely aesthetic line, but so much of this movie shows wanton disrespect for anything even resembling thoughtful use of violence. For all its probing questions about the afterlife, and for all the tail-chasing masturbatory discussion of the nebulous ending, Martyrs is not brilliant. It is not above its genre; it is one of its worst examples. It is an overworked, garish fetishization of violence. There is far less thematic depth than it wants to believe. It's not even well-shot past the gripping first five minutes and the music, a half-assed call back to mid-70s Argento, is embarrassing. But maybe I'm wrong. I hate the movie, but I'm not upset that I watched it, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't compelled completely against my own cognitive volition. I wanted to see it through, primarily wondering if it could redeem itself for atrocity after atrocity. I don't think so. Perhaps in the hands of a director with a grasp of brevity and restraint, this project could have been saved, and worked that thoughtful speck of quality into a truly great movie. The real talent here lies not with the director, though, but with the makeup artist (who as I understand recently committed suicide), and that is where Martyrs falters.
You should watch it, though. Consider this a recommendation.