I only recently came to Martyrs even though for some time it appeared relevant to my interests. Subject of some controversy, to some a masterwork of extreme cinema, as mature, thought provoking and poignant as it is gruesome. To others half flies high only to plummet, to still others the whole thing is a bit of a botch. I find myself most in line with this last group, though I did not outright dislike the film.
There are substantial things going for it. First is the plot and structure, blending the emotional, the visceral and the metaphysical. Over the opening credits an abused child is found, soon enough she has grown up and one morning arrives at a pleasant suburban home with intentions that are not brunch. The course of events takes in friendship, brutality, endurance and as the title suggests, transcendence, its heady stuff and the plays on expectation are fun. I'm not entirely sure that in general I like ambition in my genre films, it makes for so much farther to fall and so many do fall. But in Martyrs' case I was charmed, if only because I'm slightly cynical about these recent only just to the side of mainstream "extreme" efforts but naturally into this stuff.
The other big things are the two leads. It's incredibly difficult to summon up effective violent and psychological intensity full stop, let alone sustain it without sliding into bathos. Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi do as good a job of it as I've seen from almost any film recently. I never laughed or yawned or rolled my eyes.
Together these things are a great foundation, but the film is never great. The first block has a good driving power but is ill handled. Fast paced, with a camera fast and close, but director Pascal Laugier is competent and confident, he frames and lights everything coherently. The trouble is in the editing, barely any shots hold on long enough to build tension, atmosphere or character. There are a lot of effects and I don't demand a sequence of practically experimental long shots, but this all action approach saps any depth or feeling. It's gripping, but not especially exciting or powerful. Ultimately its just frustrating.
Then there's the second, final block, the really divisive stuff. Unlike many, I think the idea is really nice, I don't know enough about religion or its history, or Sade, Bataille and other supporting thinkers to be able to comment on how reasonable it is, but I do like it. There's just no development. Not to get too far into it, but if one follows the logic of the villains plotting, they really should be weird, or crueller, or tougher, or more dead inside. Instead they are bland, there's no indication that any of this was thought out and the explanation is brief. I don't require chunky exposition, wild left turns and weirdness, but it doesn't even throw a bone. It isn't even truly torturous, cringe making and unpleasant to watch, with the best opportunity for memorably grim nastiness bafflingly skipped over. There are crumbs at best. The atmosphere and characterisation does thicken somewhat as the direction slows down, but they still aren't sufficiently dwelt upon. The ending, neat but empty.
Now for all this, I still somewhat enjoyed Martyrs. It's pretty bloody and never dull, in fact its pretty engaging. It has a heart in the right place, and in fits and spurts is good fun. I've thought about it a fair bit after viewing, I expect I'll happily watch it again some day, and my opinions may even change. I'd even go so far as to recommend it. But I sure can't rate it more than average.