As Anna (Morjana Alaoi) walks tepidly down the uncomfortably clean, chrome hallway, the overhead lights go on, one by one, revealing something akin to a claustrophobic passageway to Hell. There are pictures, blown up, on the wall. On them are bodies, gaunt, beaten, broken down, aesthetically comparable to Mengelian victims of experimentation. Up on the wall are “real life” martyrs, women and children who have submitted their bodies completely to pain. Their eyes are open, accepting not only every ounce of cruelty made upon them, but, seemingly on humankind in general.
It doesn’t really matter if I thought or think Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is good. It is almost entirely beside the point. A part of a movement in French cinema known as New French Extremity (which also includes High Tension and Inside), Martyrs pushes it boundaries as far as it can, and then pushes some more. But the difference between this film and other films of the “torture porn” aesthetic is that, through the torture we as audiences endure, there’s an impressive emotional core.
It should be noted that the first 50 minutes of the film are, for the most part, relatively by the books as far as horror films go. It’s not really shocking and no more violent than most of its cousins in the horror genre. It’s executed with skill, but nothing is essentially new about it. Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) escapes to an orphanage after being abducted as a child and tortured endlessly. She finds trust in a fellow orphan, Anna, but lives with a monster following her. Fifteen years later, she finds the family that she thinks was responsible for her abduction and kills them. Anna is with her, the two apparently having searched for the perpetrators for years. Lucie still lives with this monster that almost recreates the pain she felt as a young girl, and Anna is skeptical of the haughty family that Lucie has taken revenge upon.
I mean, Anna has a point. It’s an immaculately furnished house, and prior to the deaths of its residents, they seemed like lovely, bourgeoisie people. Mother, father, son, daughter, all photogenic, all pleasantly squabbling over breakfast. And then Anna comes along.
The game is up on the monster thing relatively quickly. Whether or not it was Laugier’s intention to make it fairly obvious the demon digging razors into her body was a manifestation of the trauma she experienced while torture is questionable, but no less effective. So, the first 30 minutes of the film are measured with the precision of the straight edge razor box cutter that Lucie carries around for protection and then uses on herself to, basically, commit suicide. That she does this is not so much horrifying as it is sad. It’s an easy word to pick, one syllable, three words. But the connection between Lucie and Anna extended beyond mere platonic friendship and something more transcendent. They were both survivors of rough childhoods, though Lucie’s considerably more traumatic. And, fifteen years on, they seemed to be working together. The trust in that relationship is evident, regardless of Anna’s skepticism.
And that act of suicide, where Anna finally sees that the attacker Lucie has been frightened of for years is actually Lucie herself, only seems to reinforce that doubt. That, again, is drenched in melancholy, just as the rain pours down on both their bodies, with Anna holding Lucie just after the latter slits her throat, weeping.
A little later, she explores the house, its décor so well-to-do it seems suspect by its very inconspicuous nature. She finds, through a cabinet in the living room, the aforementioned passageway, leading to an extra room with what looks like a trap door. She goes down the ladder, and in a dark room, she finds a young woman chained line an animal, with steel belts constraining and obstructing her chest, pelvis, and head/eyes. Her skin is leathery and scarred. She is proof that Lucie wasn’t crazy after all.
Which leads the audience to the last half hour of the film, which feels as long as the first hour.
It’s honestly not even fun to jokingly say “the audience is treated to sadism”. That, again, would be kind of missing the point. It’s not exactly the same kind of accosting piece of torture that Michael Haneke’s brutal Funny Games is. It does not have the same kind of perverse sense of humor of Lars von Trier’s comparably tame Antichrist. It is as grueling emotionally as it is viscerally, as we watch a cult in search of a true martyr, lead by an aged woman, carry out session after session of suffering, abuse, torture. Thirty minutes of it, never ending. It’s brutal. It makes the film one of the most deeply upsetting I’ve ever seen. I have seen the aforementioned Haneke and von Trier films multiple times each, but Martyrs, for better or worse, is something completely different as far as its visceral impact goes.
In terms of its gender politics, it doesn’t strive too far from von Trier’s Antichrist, which is also where its problems are. Though there is an essential emotional core to the film, there’s a question of whether to means justify the end. There’s also a continual question of what that end ultimately is. What is this film saying exactly? The end of the film has the definition of “martyr” as a title card, reading only “witness”. There’s a quest for the meaning of life, the meaning of death, what comes after, as is explained through one of the film’s only dialogue heavy scenes.
There’s an explicit suggestion that women, of all people, are able to handle this suffering above all other beings, that they are able to see past pain and into whatever comes after. It’s no mistake that as Anna is continually humiliated and tortured, she begins to look more and more like Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, her skin turning monochromatic and pallid, her head shaved, and her being reaching a transcendental state.
Yet, the leader of this cult, Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin), makes it clear that this experiment they’ve been conducting for 17 years is an effort to prove that martyrdom isn’t a religious phenomenon. Perhaps the film basks in its ambiguity because religion, as this all-encompassing abstract concept, is inextricably connected to transcendence, to life and death, and to pain and pleasure. Maybe it’s impossible to separate these ideas from one another.
But the film in its insinuation of female pain and transcendence still rings problematic to me. I, admittedly, am a cismale, and don’t technically have any place saying what is or is not feminist or empowering to women. So, for me, as an individual, finds its ideological discussion strange, confusing, perhaps intentionally just out of reach. It sometimes reads as women being able to be the soul bearer of human suffering. Then again, is it much different from, again, the way Lars von Trier depicts women? His female characters are almost always about the transcendence of pain, such as in Breaking the Wave (also overtly religious), Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, and Melancholia. Maybe the only difference between what Laugier is doing and what von Trier is doing is based in genre and graphic depiction. However, von Trier certainly has his critics, accusing him of misogyny. Perhaps there’s no right answer.
The biggest hint suggesting that Martyrs is no piece of mere sadism is how its last half hour informs its first, and vice versa. The monster Lucie sees is a product of the trauma she endures, and its rendered with both terrifying realism and aching, raw pain. But there’s an odd strength to her character, which is used to inform the last minutes of the film. Anna can hear Lucie’s voice, telling her to push through. It is as if Lucie herself has transcended even after suicide and has become Anna’s version of God, the figure for whom she loves and is willing to sacrifice her notions of bodily pain for. Even as she is being brutalized, these scenes of voices coming from the darkness are the film’s most elegant, even beautiful moments.
It can’t be torture porn, though, because it’s asking exactly what “torture porn” is and why it is and what the implications of that terms are. Pornogrpahy suggests arousal or thrill, but Laugier’s point is to question, not thrill.
But for me, the biggest difference between Martyrs and something like Saw or Hostel is the feeling I had after. The latter two are grotesque and vulgar and disgusting in a more conventional way, in a manner that’s easy to recover from. But Martyrs goes beyond your senses; it goes for your soul. This bitterly pessimistic (or, one could argue, humanistic) piece of work left me feeling soulless, depressed, empty. Few films have ever done that to me. It’s exceedingly easy to be offended and repulsed by the film, but what it tries to do (of which I’m still not entirely sure) is powerful and affecting. Martyrs has left marks on my soul.