In the golden days, the French could be counted on for handsomely mounting pictures in which simple sheepherders sat around a weather-beaten picnic table enjoying the simpler things in life—bread, cheese, copious red wine. Nowadays, they seem more content with having young women in viscera-soiled tank tops running around in the muck being oppressed by all and sundry. The latest entry in the “Gallic torture porn” genre is Martyrs, a film of two distinct and dispiritingly unequal halves. Part one is your standard (if nasty) revenge chic with Lucie (Mylhne Jampanoo) tracking down and eliminating the clan that imprisoned and tortured her some 15 years previous, somewhat reluctantly aided and abetted by her partner-in-grime Anna (Morjana Alaoui). This part of Pascal Laugier’s film is brutally well-conceived, although it’s pretty much over and done with in 40 scant minutes. Part two then arrives with Anna now imprisoned, ironically, in a murky dungeon and subjected to bizarre scientific experimentation (young women, apparently, are the best known demographic for determining, uhm, “martyrdom”). It’s dull and repetitive and doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere until, after several short, black-faded scenes of slapping and skinning and spoon-feeding, a puzzling denouement proves it isn’t.
(c) 2011 David N. Butterworth