A review requested by Andy Stout, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

A film like Martyrs has to exist, and I'm glad it does. That is not the same thing as being glad I've personally seen it, and it sure as bloody hell isn't the same thing as recommending it to any living human being.

Coming out a few years into the torture porn cycle of the 2000s, and a few years after the New French Extremity movement had largely run out of gas, Martyrs is a commentary on both of those trends that's also a manifestation of them at their most extreme. It is the torture movie to end all torture movies, perhaps even literally - hard to imagine where the genre could go after this other than deeper and deeper into Human Centipede-style provocations with nothing in mind other than to dare the audience into making it all the way through. Martyrs certainly has a lot more on its mind than that, though I'm not sure that it's successful at not being primarily a dare.

I'm jumping the gun a bit - one of the most notable things about Martyrs is how cleanly it breaks into three acts (and a prologue), and each act is more of a button-pushing provocation than the last. The first 40 minutes or so of the movie are actually pretty much just great horror filmmaking, a bit gorier and more nihilistic than the average, but not anything that's going to cause any sort of moral panic or grave hand-wringing. We start without any context at all, as a ten-year-old girl, Lucie (Jessie Pham), covered in blood and filth, runs through the streets of some nameless city (the Franco-Canadian co-production was shot in Québec). It is an extraordinary opening: clattering noise on the soundtrack, with barely-perceptible underlit images flying by until Lucie bursts out into the daylight, at which point bright images fly by, only slightly more perceptibly, and now we can see the freaked-out handheld camera that was only vaguely apparent at first (the film boasts the work of three cinematographers: Stéphane Martin, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, and Bruno Philip - I do not know who was responsible for what footage). It's altogether appalling, an instant series of aggressive swipes against the viewer's sense of stability and decorum. Since this will be the mood that Martyrs seeks to escalate for all of it 99 minutes, this is the ideal opening.

Lucie ends up at an orphanage, where she recovers physically but not emotionally, suffering from visions of a human figure brutally attacking her. Between the opening credits (footage taken of her by doctors and therapists), and the introduction of a new protagonist in the form of Anna (Erika Scott), the film starts to lock us out of Lucie's mind almost immediately, and that's where it leaves us for 15 years, shifting gears entirely along the way. Now we're in a neat middle-class home filled with a neat middle-class family: a husband (Robert Toupin), a wife (Patricia Tulasne), and two teenage kids (Juliette Gosselin and Xavier Dolan, just a year away from his first film as a director). They're not terribly pleasant people, but in a fairly generic way: the brother, Antoine, is unnecessarily mean to his sister, Marie; Mom pranks the family by dropping a dead mouse on the breakfast table; things of that sort. That doesn't mean they obviously deserve what comes next: the arrival of an empty-eyed adult Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), dressed in a hoodie and wielding a shotgun. After murdering the whole family, with animalistic fury, she slows down enough to check in with Anna (Morjana Alaoui), who is horrified and not entirely surprised. Apparently, Lucie has suspected for some time that the now-dead parents were responsible for kidnapping her all those years ago. Revenge has not given her any emotional freedom, though: she has a vision the dark figure attack her again, which Anna witnesses from outside as her friend apparently beating herself to death.

I am running through the plot of Martyrs much more slowly than the film does itself: all that barely gets us to the one-third mark of the film, with two major shifts to go. First, as Anna lingers around the house now filled with five dead bodies, she discovers that Lucie was entirely right: there is a secret death dungeon in the house, currently holding a badly abused young woman (Emilie Miskdjian), whose naked body is an unrecognisable pattern of cuts and scars, all topped off with some kind of monstrous steel headpiece. And once Anna has succeeded in prying it off - attended by a great deal of blood - a cluster of very officious individuals show up to clean the house and cart Anna away to a very dark industrial-looking facility where she meets a turban-wearing elderly woman (Catherine Bégin), who kicks off the actual meat of Martyrs as far as most people think about it and talk about it.

That's more than understandable - the last half-hour of the film is one of those "once seen, never forgotten" deals - but the whole of Martyrs is such a marvelously well-built machine that I'd like to restore to it some of its effectiveness as an entire feature. Because without that first hour slowly and steadily tweaking the viewer, I'm not sure that the final act would hit quite as hard. The important thing to note is that it doesn't hit the ground running. I mean, it does, in the most literal possible sense. But it develops from there. First, it's just sensory overload: an awareness of sound and disordered imagery, which assaults us first with its agitation and second with the ugliness and violence it depicts. Then, for a long time, the film drops to a crawl: the family is depicted with a great deal of deliberate slowness; the process by which Lucie kills them all is drawn out; Anna's attempts to help but also stop her friend take a great deal, and so on and so forth. The film simmers on low, with mercilessly controlled by writer-director Pascal Laugier to feel even more languid than is actually the case, with a great many moments of nothing in particular separating the explosions of violence. Which are, themselves, largely presented with guttural bluntness that makes them much more horrible - especially Marie's death, presented in a flurry of feathers as her bed virtually explodes under Lucie's attack.

None of this, understand, is very pleasant to watch: this isn't a goofy slasher movie where the excessive of gore is part of the melodrama, nor even a straight horror film where we get enough of an adrenaline rush from the sense of danger that it provides a nice jolt of catharsis. This is a depiction of cruelty without any purpose or meaning. Even if we never know much about that dead family, even if the little we know about them mostly makes them seem vaguely unpleasant, it is gut-wrenching to see their bodies neatly piled up in the bathroom. Watching them die, watching them become aware that they are about to die, is extraordinarily distressing. The scene of Anna pulling steel bolts out of the other woman's skull is so visceral as to be almost impossible to watch. But for this much, at least, Martyrs still feels pretty much like a horror movie: there's a feeling of genuine terror and involvement, and the excellent score by the wonderfully-named "Seppuku Paradigm" (brothers Alex and Willie Cortés), moody and dark electronica, is heavy while also propelling the film along.

All of this changes after Anna enters the facility where Martyrs earns its reputation as one of the most intense and repulsive of all torture movies. The idea is that the turban-wearing woman and her crew are trying to torture the most innocent young women they can acquire, in the hopes that being put into a near-death state through pain and agony will trigger an ecstatic response. This will give them a sense of what the world after this one looks like. And so, for the rest of the movie, we watch as they abuse her with an almost clinical absence of narrative, escalating from petty torments like something a cruel child might do in the schoolyard, up to an act of violence that puts Martyrs among the most sickening movies I've ever watched. Twice, in fact, and I will say this about the movie: seeing it more than once is, unbelievably, a very useful thing to do. The first time, one is mostly just repulsed. The second time, it's possible to think about why Laugier is up to this particular game. Which is not, I hope, simply about the rather dopey idea that women's suffering ("martyrdom", you might say) can be spiritually transcending, nor is it about the coy non-ending ending, in which we're left unaware if the Other World is so beautiful it can't be endured, or so repulsive it can't be contemplated. Though Laugier seems awfully proud of both of these things.

What Martyrs is doing, basically, is the good old "why do you like this revolting crap?" routine, but it does it more honestly than any movie I can name. We're miles away from Funny Games, which similarly uses extremity to critique extremity; there's never a sense that Laugier is pulling that film's intellectual smug trick of insulting the audience for wanting to be entertained. Martyrs is a genuinely gripping, engaging horror movie, one that uses our empathy for all of the characters who get variously damaged and murdered to keep us in a state of suspense and emotional involvement; it's not "fun" according to any remotely healthy definition of that word, but it is astonishingly watchable, even at its most upsetting and wretched. Laugier understands the appeal of these movies, whether from humanism (watching people dying as a reminder of our own fragility) or from anti-humanism (outrageous gore is exciting and cool), and does not diminish that appeal.

But in pushing the violence so far that the only reasonable response to it is to be vaguely deadened and muted - as horrifying as the climax is, twice in two viewings I've ended up feeling numb to it by the end - Laugier deprives us of any sort of real positive reaction. And by couching it in the form of a story about torturers trying to achieve spiritual ecstasy, he invites us to think about motivations: ours, the villains, his own for making the movie. Why do we like this? Or, more to the point, why do we like it sometimes, and not others? What is the purpose of committing to watching a movie so fully offensive and obnoxious? I don't believe Martyrs has any remote interest in answering those questions: it only invites us to contemplate them. Our response to the movie is the movie, in a way, and that gives this far more value than all the Saws and Hostels put together. Does any of this actually make it worth anybody's effort to watch the film? I don't know, but my instinct is to say that it doesn't. Still, the kind of person who'd be inclined to seek Martyrs out is probably not the kind of person who'd regret that decision.