Friday, November 03, 2017

Savage Friday: Martyrs (2008)


Martyrs (2008) is a controversial and incredibly gory horror film of the New French Extremity. Upon its theatrical release almost a decade ago, the film from director Pascal Laugier fiercely divided critics.

Some reviewers felt it was gratuitous and over-the-top in its violence and cruelty. Others believed that Martyrs carried significant social value, and that there was, indeed, an artistic point to all the terrible, graphic violence.

Importantly -- at least for our purposes, today -- the savage cinema is all about pushing boundaries and breaking taboos. It’s about the very idea that the actions we deem ourselves incapable of committing, or contending with, become, in some sense, necessary in the face of extreme, unrelenting violence. 

Viewed in this way, Martyrs is a textbook example of the format. The violence in the film is absolutely staggering, but the violence is not the whole story.

Historically, Martyrs arises from the epoch of torture porn films like Hostel (2005) or Saw (2004), but in wholly unique manner, Laugier’s film actually suggests apotheosis, not degradation. The key idea underlining the movie is that some people -- when they face incredibly suffering and pain -- transcend their harsh reality.

Moving beyond pain, they see God, or cross-the-veil to another world. When they return to this mortal coil, they offer their testimony about what they saw in the Hereafter.

In short, these sufferers become more than mere “victims” of savage acts. Instead, they become “witnesses” to the divine order of the universe. And what they witness apparently provides a sense of relief, joy, or even ecstasy.

This is a controversial idea to portray in a horror film, and rightly so.

Taken abstractly, the (noble) idea is that suffering has an end, a light at the end of the tunnel; and that this end to suffering is a doorway to understanding the mysteries of the universe. When faced with extreme, pain, terror and agony, the end is not just more agony and nothingness. The end is transfiguration. Fear is left behind, replaced by knowledge.

Taken literally, however, the movie might be interpreted (by some) as a validation for abuse or violence. When you hurt somebody, perhaps they will transcend the pain you caused, and come out of the experience having grown or evolved. 

So you did them a service by hurting them, right?

Well, not exactly.

I see how some scholars and critics have read the film in that fashion, and I’m sensitive to the notion that these same interpreters see the film as a validation of violence, in particular, towards women.

Why? 

Because, as the film suggests “women are more responsive to transfiguration” than men are.

However, I would submit that this reading does not take into consideration the full picture of Martyrs. In some way, the film is about finding a way to endure, to win, when, frankly, there is no real way to win.

When facing the possibility of only further suffering in this world, some people transcend; they put fear and pain aside.  “You’re not scared anymore,” one character notes of the central martyr figure. Anna can’t escape her captivity. She can’t return to her life. She can’t stop the brutal beatings. But no longer can she be victimized, hurt, or controlled, either, at least spiritually, or emotionally. In the final act, one can rightly make the claim that she has transcended herself, and escaped, even if only in her mind.

If this is indeed the film’s point, the pro-social message is plain. Many people, including women and men, may be trapped in situations without ready escape or outlet. Life may be unbearable, physically or emotionally. Their lives may be cruel and inhumane. Unceasingly so.

But even in that state, the spirit is indomitable. It quests for -- it seeks out -- a place of peace, enlightenment and joy. 

Some people can make it there. Others can’t. The key is what is inside you.

A key facet of Martyrs is the film’s definition of the titular term. In a traditional definition, a martyr is someone who suffers persecution, and refuses to renounce a belief, even under extreme duress. The movie, however, chooses a different, less well-known definition.  It characterizes a martyr as a “witness,” someone who sees something and reports back what is seen.

What is seen? Something characterized, in some instances, as proof, or evidence.

But evidence of what? In the movie, the martyr is a witness to God’s existence, or the existence of an afterlife.

Given this definition, one can detect the complexity and symbolism of Martyrs’ discourse. Consider the witnesses in the film for a moment.

We have the primary sufferer, Anna (Morgana Alaoui), and we have the Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin).

Finally, we -- the audience -- are witnesses too. We see all the violence, cruelty, and inhumanity at point blank range and must, finally, process it in such a way that gives it meaning, or purpose. In this way, the director makes his case. In the face of violence and pain, every person attempts to bring clarity and purpose to chaotic terrain, an absurd existence that seems purposeless.

Ironically, the key to finding purpose, is encoded in the controversial violence of the film.  How do we grapple with Martyrs’ incredible, upsetting violence?  Is it pro-social commentary about human nature? Or is it sleazy, lurid violence that merely demeans us?

The answer is in the journey. Keep doubting.


“There are nothing but victims now.”

A young woman, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), bruised and beaten, escapes from brutal captivity. Refusing to tell the authorities what she endured while a hostage, she befriends another young girl, Anna, at an orphanage. 

They grow up together, learning to lean on one another, despite Lucie’s instability and stabs at self-mutilation.

Fifteen years later, an adult Lucie breaks into what seems a normal suburban family home, and murders the entire family there in cold blood, using a shotgun. She believes that somehow the parents in that house are connected to her torture more than a decade earlier.

Anna has her doubts, and Lucie, after committing the murders, kills herself.

Anna discovers, however, that Lucie was correct. Underneath the normal exterior of the home is a laboratory -- or dungeon -- where a strange cabal tortures and brutalizes an emaciated, cut-up woman. 

Anna attempts to nurse the victim back to health, but too much of the victim’s humanity is already lost.

And then the torturers return.

Anna meets the Mademoiselle, the leader of this strange organization that believes suffering and pain -- in some extraordinary individuals -- will lead to martyrdom, to the witnessing of the afterlife, and perhaps even God’s existence. 

Anna now undergoes that process, enduring days and weeks of grueling pain and suffering.

Finally, Anna becomes a witness, and reveals to the Mademoiselle what she saw on “the other side.”


“How do you stop being scared?”

Director Pascal Laugier takes the audience on a harrowing journey of pain and suffering in Martyrs, making the audience wonder, or doubt, if there is a purpose to it at all.  We see innocent children shot down in cold-blood by the movie’s ostensible protagonist, Lucie, in the first act. We witness a human being so cut-up, so starved, so brutalized, that we barely recognize her as a human being. We see our other protagonist, Anna, undergo surgery in which her skin is removed from her body.

It’s all savage and utterly disgusting, and I argue, purposeful.  What is that purpose?

This isn’t a hedge, but I can’t answer that for you.  At least not entirely. Or in the way you might prefer.  We are left, as individual movie-goers, to determine purpose for ourselves. Rather than spoon-feeds us the answers, the director of Martyrs reveals to us a parade of ultra-realistic horrors, intimates a purpose behind the surface, and then tells us, with a final gunshot exclamation point, to “keep doubting” if there is a purpose to it all.

This is a perfect mirror for human existence, is it not?

We countenance the loss of loved ones to disease, accidents, war, or old age. We endure our own physical and emotional pain too, and wonder what could be the reason for it all. We seek certainty in religion, in spirituality, in human connection, but we never know if our reward for this journey is merely oblivion -- a winking out at the time of death -- or some form of transcendence to another form of life.

If there is an afterlife, or a God, or reincarnation, or anything like that, we will have our certainty that our life is worth the agony we sometimes endure.

But what if we were to acquire that certainty in life, without the pain, without the struggle?

Would we still strive to overcome the daily bombardment of tragedy and seemingly arbitrary suffering? 

I think not, and that’s the motivation for Mademoiselle’s final edict to her second in command. She instructs him to keep doubting, because doubt -- not certainty -- is the very quality that gives meaning to human life.

In her last moments of life, Mademoiselle gets her certainty, from Anna. She is the witness, or martyr, in other words, to Anna’s testimony about the next world.

We can’t know if what she hears from Anna is good, or bad. We can’t know if Anna’s revelation/testimony damns the Mademoiselle, or saves her. What we can know, definitively, is that Anna’s testimony ends the Mademoiselle’s quest. And without that quest, Mademoiselle kills herself, apparently having nothing left to live for. 


She has gone her whole life brutalizing others in search of certainty, which I believe is a metaphor for fundamentalist religious dogma, and found that knowing the answer is not as satisfying, perhaps, as asking the question.

Her advice to her second-in-command, I believe, is neither cruel, vindictive, nor sadistic. It is genuine. If he wants to discover the path to self-knowledge, he must keep doubting.

And by that, I mean doubting religion, belief, and every decision he makes in life.  It is only through the process of doubting, which in archaic terms meaning “having fear” that his existence here, on this plane of existence, is rendered meaningful.

The beauty of the film’s denouement is that the director lands us in the shoes of the second command. Like him, we are denied Anna’s testimony, and left wondering if the destination was worth the journey. The parade of horrors we have witnessed leads us to no good answer.  Was it just to debauch us? Or was the brutality used to keep us guessing, and seeing that -- whether or not there is an afterlife, or God -- we must make sense of our world for ourselves.

Consider Anna’s journey. She is estranged from her mother. She was abused as a child. She is alone, with no direction in life, which explains her co-dependent friendship with Lucie. Her reward for all of her suffering seems to be more suffering. But perhaps it is her life of suffering that makes her able to “bear all the sins of the Earth” and see what lays beyond. You can’t separate her martyrdom from her life experiences.

And, I admit, this is where my doubt comes in.

I wonder, does Anna actually see another world?

Or is she, in the end, merely delusional? Is she simply dying, and her brain chemistry providing hallucinations or perceptions that are mistaken as “objective” visions of the afterlife, or God?

There’s a part of me that believes the whole film is about a fool’s errand, the delusion of belief of faith.  Why take Anna’s word for what she sees, when it may be entirely a product of her mind, and her individual journey?  The testimony she gives may be the testimony of delusional, dying woman.

Doubt, you see, has me in its grips. From a certain perspective, the entire film is a messy, shaggy dog story that demonstrates the foolhardiness of seeking objective evidence for religious belief. I don’t believe such evidence is available to be gotten, at least at our current stage of development. The religious mindset is about professing certainty, or having certainty (faith), and the fact is, none of us actually has that certainty. Those who profess it are liars. Extremely confident (or misguided?) liars.

In that regard, I don’t have certainty about Martyrs, I have my viewpoint and perception of the film. 


And my perception is that it is a great, savage horror film -- perhaps one of the ten greatest of its decade -- because it opens the door way to so many interpretations.

This is a movie that starts as a direct, pandering appeal to the gut. The film is stomach turning, and literally sickening. But Martyrs then ends with an appeal to the brain, a fiercely thoughtful meditation on the human condition, and the necessity to “keep doubting,” so that life continues to carry meaning for those of us left on this mortal coil to experience it.

I don’t know how you will feel about being a “witness” to this particularly savage journey, but for me, the journey is unforgettable.

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