Taking a break from grinding through my archive, I decided to take a recommendation from a friend that I hold in high esteem on the topic of horror movies. I am glad that he recommended this one a second time. He recommended it before, and I have yet to get back to it. If I remember, he recommended High Tension at the same time.
Like High Tension, Martyrs is an entry in the New French Extremity sub-genre of horror movies. That feels weird to say. It is kind of like going to an neo-oldschool-post-Jamaican-emo club and commenting on how much you like the neo-oldschool-post-Jamaican-emo music. The residents just stare blankly. Likewise, I suspect that the directors of these films disdain the classification.
Martyrs presents a very compelling document in support of the so-called New French Extremity movement. The film goes places the traditional horror movies refuse to go. Martyrs’ ending endures beyond the end of the film and keeps people talking long after the credits roll.
New French Extremity
To put a definition on the term, New French Extremity refers to an exceptionally visceral and visual form of art. The goal of this style wants to shake the most basic foundations of the viewer in order to shock their soul. This expression includes stark images of depraved sexuality and barbarism. It exists not so much as a pathway to gore, but rather a pathway our most basal fears.
Martyrs – It Begins With a Girl
Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier, begins with a an injured girl, running for her life. She escaped from an abandoned slaughterhouse from captors that tortured her. Nobody knows who abducted her, or why. Authorities place her in an orphanage. Predictably, the girl Lucie Jurin, played by Mylène Jampanoï, has trouble relating to others and self-harms. Throughout her life a demonic apparition of a scarred woman terroizes her. A fellow resident of the orphanage named Anna, played by Morjana Alaoui, does her best to help Lucie through the hard times.
15 Years Later
Lucie tracks down who she believes committed the crimes against her, the Belfonds. She invades their home, quickly dispatching the mother and father with a double barrel shotgun. Following a brief moment of reconsideration, she finishes the job by killing the son and the daughter. Lucie phones Anna and explains what transpired. Consequentially, Anna is horrified by what Lucie has done.
The invasion of the Bellford’s home presents an opportunity to discuss the directors style. Lucie skips all ceremony. She doesn’t yell, she enumerate her grievances. Lucie pauses only momentarily before completing her rampage. She is past the point of no return. Likewise, Lucie indiscriminatley pulls the trigger. Her mechanical execution mimics the cold blood of a mass-shooting. There no conversation. There is no warning. The gunfire erupts and people start dying. The scene really begs the question, what could one do to protect their family against an attack like this?
The Truth Behind Lucie’s Demon
The film flashes back to the slaughterhouse. Tied to a chair, a woman force feeds her a repulsive gruel. Lucie spits the food at her captor causing the her to unfetter Lucie in order to punish her. Lucie fights back, incapacitating her captor. As she tries to flee, she discovers another brutalized woman in chains. Instead of helping her, she runs.
The demon is the face of her guilt for running. Lucie hoped to appease the demon by getting revenge on the Belfords, but the demon requires one last sacrifice. Lucie slashes her wrists in a torturous visual of a slashing razor and the subtle sound of ripping flesh. Finally, she slashes her own throat and bleeds out in the rain.
The Secret Door
After cleaning and laying Lucie to rest, Anna finds a secret door behind the wall. As a result, she descends a concrete stairwell. At the bottom, she find several large photographs of people being tortured on the wall. Thereupon, she discovers a hatch in the floor, that leads into a deeper sub-chamber. Could it be that Lucie was right all along? Anna finds a woman bound, emaciated and horribly scarred. She leads her to the surface and tries to help the wretched woman. Anna removes a metal visor attached to her skull with thick staples.
The Long Preamble
Checking the clock, I realize that I am only halfway through this crazy movie. Anna hears the woman she saved moaning in pain. She runs to find the woman trying to slice her own wrist. Anna struggles in vain to stop the woman when, suddenly, a gun shot rings out and the woman falls to the ground with her brains littering the floor. A group of armed personnel in black take control of the house and immediately take Anna prisoner. Subsequently, the team cleans the house and buries the evidence. The events up until this point serve only as a setup. The real plot is revealed momentarily.
Mademoiselle and Cult of Martyrs
A woman celled only Mademoiselle sits down with Anne to explain her circumstances. She explains that she represents an organization that seeks to unlock the secrets of the afterlife. Throughout history there have been people that have been able to see the beyond, but only after reaching a level of suffering in which they acquiesce and accept the role the martyr.
By and large, most succumb to their weaknesses. The unworthy unravel into a blathering mess. Accordingly, only a rare few transcend. Consequently, now that Lucie and the former dungeon resident have been killed, Anne must undergo the ‘process’.
Predictably, the process involves sadistic brutality and torture. Those that have read my reviews understand that this type visual violence against women abrades my sensitive soul. Honestly, as hard as it was to watch, I concede that it could have been way worse. Supposedly, the trials that Anne goes through are a regimented process. Likewise, there is a clear goal in mind. In a revealing scene, one of the stewards provides solace to Anne and explains that her journey will complete soon. There is only one more step. At this point, I was not expecting the duality of sympathy from the captors.
The Transcendence of Martyrs
Suddenly, a man grabs Anne and walks her to a makeshift surgical center in the dungeon. They place her face down and the procedure begins. Anne’s grimace is visible, but it remains unclear what is occurring. After the procedure, they shroud Anne and lead her to another chamber. Here the affix her in chains and pull back the shroud. Her skin has been removed with exception of her face. Anne begins the final process. She enters a trance-like state and sees into the beyond.
Eventually, one of the stewards alerts the other that Anne has transcended. They inform Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle arrives at the chamber and takes a seat next to Anne. Anne whispers in her ear what she experienced. Martyrs come and go, but only Anne communicated what she saw beyond death.
The Gathering, A Prelude to the End
Étienne, the second in command, arranges a gathering of the followers. At the gathering it is announced that for the first time, they have an account of the beyond. Étienne reveals that after 17 years of research only 4 martyrs have been found and only Anne spoke. Mademoiselle will present the revelation momentarily. Étienne, one of the leaders beckons Mademoiselle. Through the door, Mademoiselle asks, “Have you ever tried to imagine the otherworld?”. As Étienne responds, Mademoiselle pulls a revolver from her purse, says “Keep doubting, Étienne” and swiftly blows her head off.
Martyrs – Analysis
Obviously, this film is a lot to take in. From a purely cinematic perspective, Martyrs goes through serious ups and downs. Pascal Laugier effectively creates two completely separate films and awkwardly stitches them together. In their own right, the two halves are incredibly impactful. When forced together, the result feels a bit confused. For example, in the first half, the demon follower is exceedingly shocking and totally compelling. But, when considered against the whole film, it feels a bit like an unrelated aside.
Likewise, in the second half Laugier presents a very profound narrative. However, sandwiched withing the confines of 96 minutes it feels rushed. It misses many opportunities to expand the mythology of its massive premise. The second that the director commits to the idea of an underground Illuminati of Suffering, he also commits to artfully uncovering the whole of the conspiracy. Laugier, punts on the second half of that commitment. I can’t help thinking of the clownish Illuminati reveal in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Please don’t run too far with that metaphor as Martyrs offers much more than that debacle ever will.
New French Extremity, A Slight Return
Prior to watching this film, I remained blissfully unaware of the sub-genre in which this resides. Now aware, I had a duty to explore the subtleties while watching this film. Accordingly, I learned a lot on this journey. First, the brutality that defines New French Extremity disturbs me greatly. I presume that is the intention. Regardless, I find myself repeatedly looking away. Also, I found myself with a lack of words to defend this movie against the displeasure of my wife. I do agree that the suffering does lead to a more profound destination, but I question my fortitude to complete the journey.
Second, I compared this film to others in the classification of ‘torture porn’. This classification includes the likes of the Saw, The Human Centipede and Hostel franchises. In doing that, I could not have been more surprised to find the distinction. The films that I consider ‘torture porn’ feel exactly like the name implies. The intended affect is a visceral reaction to the spectacle of the brutality. It is a 3rd person perspective from the sidelines of a circus of suffering.
New French Extremity is is different in an absolutely critical way. The viewpoint comes from within the subject. It is an empathetic journey through the one that actually suffer the brutality. The brutality serves only as a vehicle for experiencing the horror, fear and the pain of the subjects. This key details may make all of the difference between wanton exhibition and artful misery. Quite honestly, I do not enjoy the art. All the same, I respect it.
Martyrs’ Ending – What Does It All Mean
Martyrs’ ending is not intended to be entirely understood. Laugier cleverly architects the film in order to create conversation through open-ended ambiguity. While there are no right answers, I found constructed an explanation for Martyr’s ending that satisfies me intellectually.
At the moment of transcendence, Anne sees the truth of the otherworld. She learns two things. First, the world beyond death is place of incalculable peace and beauty. Second, she learns that there exists only one path to salvation. That path leads through blind faith in the unknown. On her horrible journey, Anne’s faith in the peace of the unknown allowed her to transcend her pain and reach the other world. She endured unfathomable suffering and never lost hope in salvation. In that she was rewarded with a preview of the gifts to come.
Blind faith of this magnitude can only occur when the rewards are uncertain. Certainty makes it all to easy to endure the pain in order to enjoy the rewards. The will to handle immense suffering in the face of doubt opens the path to heaven. When Mademoiselle learns the truth about the afterlife, she understands that her path to heaven immediately collapses. She understands that the immeasurable suffering that she sowed served only to destroy any chance at salvation. Consequently, revealing the secret only dooms her followers to the same fate. Instead, she takes her own life. “Keep doubting, Étienne!”
If only she would have also mentioned that future torture of martyrs is a waste of good suffering.
Martyrs – The Score
To be frank, this film presents a challenge to score appropriately. I would normally crush a film of lesser impact for the glaring problems. Usually, these problems betray a lost cause. Martyrs is certainly not a lost cause. Also, Martyrs must be judged within the context of people that can stomach the cruelty it bestows on them. I truly believe that given 100 random people to screen this film, 90 of them would shut it off in 30 minutes. Regardless, Martyrs’ ending profoundly impacts anyone able to tolerate the journey. That makes it a film of great weight.
Martyrs (2008) - An Epic Tale of Two Tortures - Malevolent Dark
Director: Pascal Laugier
Date Created: 2008-01-01 00:00