I expected a brutal, white-knuckle endurance test. I discovered a haunting, resonant, and surprising journey.
The film opens with a tween girl named Lucie escaping a nightmarish imprisonment. Writer/director Pascal Laugier presents this sequence in a no-frills documentary style. The performance he coaxes from the young actress convinces.
Fast-forward. Lucie is in an orphanage. The emotional scars of her years-long torture leave her alienated from the other children, save another young girl named Anna. The two form an inseparable bond, with Anna functioning as Lucie’s caregiver.
Fast-forward again. We meet an upper-middle-class family. The tween daughter is a star swimmer. The college-age son contemplates a new major. They’re enjoying a nice breakfast when someone knocks at the door. It is Lucie—now a grown woman who believes the mother and father were her torturers.
I’ll say no more about the plot save that the film reinvents itself multiple times. Just when you think you know the story, it pivots, often via an act of sudden violence. Said pivots are never tonal. Laugier maintains a nihilistic bent throughout. Each narrative shift reexamines his central theme from a new perspective.
But it’s the nature of his central theme that makes Martyrs a hard watch for some. Laugier’s interest lies in the collateral effect of violence. How the violence inflicted on Lucie impacts Anna. How violence inflicted on others affects those that witness said violence. Laugier doesn’t fetishize torture or set up creative kills to torment his characters. His simple, matter-of-fact presentation forces an engagement that will prove too forthright for some to endure.
What is Laugier saying? The film’s ending invites interpretation. Days later, I’m still thinking about it. I’ve landed on a nihilistic message that begs further inquiry. Martyrs isn’t the most pleasant journey, but one I suspect I’ll take again.