Martyrs (2008), directed by Pascal Laugier, is infamous for its reputation as one of the most violent and upsetting films in recent history. Released amongst an influx of French torture-porn, art-house films in the first decade of the 2000s, Martyrs stands out as being especially effective in its portrayal of the most debased violence, which apparently isn’t just there for the sake of it. In her essay Beyond the Guillotine: Theorizing the New Extremism in Contemporary French Cinema, Caroline Verner notes that:
“New French Extremism lends itself to readings that trade on both the popular and counter-aesthetic theories of horror. In doing so, it correlates not only with our distinct experience of fear consistent with twenty-first century themes (e.g. cultural fragmentation, alienation, the abject/religious/racial “Other”), but it also provides evidence for the increasing interchangeability of high and low culture codes.”
In other words, just because a film boasts tropes which are central to the sub-genre of horror – widely known for its pointless violent exploitation – it shouldn’t always be dismissed as mindless drivel. When applying this mode of thought to Martyrs then, it is easy to see the difference between it and films such as Eli Roth’s Hostel. Martyrs has a purpose; its violence is far from meaningless and is central to the plot (although some may find this interpretation, or the idea that it is anything more than exploitation, debateable), rather than simply a means of shock value and titillation.
The film tells the story of two young girls, Anna and Lucie, who grew up together in what seems to be a youth home for abused children. Lucie has suffered the most horrendous forms of abuse, being locked up in an abandoned slaughterhouse, restrained and tortured for the duration of a year, before finding an opportunity to escape. This doesn’t leave Lucie in the most lucid of states; she is continuously haunted by a woman whom she failed to save in the slaughterhouse, resulting in a tendency to self-harm and subsequently, suicide. Anna helps her in her quest for revenge, and it is clear that she has feelings for her troubled friend who will never be in the right frame of mind to return them. Following Lucie’s bloody slaughter of the family who were responsible for her torture and her eventual death, Anna finds herself in the exact same position that Lucie was in years before.
There is a lot that can be said about the film, especially with regards to fundamentalism and extreme religious cults. However, what struck me most about the film was a monologue uttered by Mademoiselle to Anna before the beginning of her torture –a process which is intended to lull her into a state of transcendence:
“Lucie was only a victim. Like all the others. It’s so easy to create a victim, young lady, so easy. You lock someone in a dark room. They begin to suffer. You feed that suffering. Methodically, systematically and coldly. And make it last. Your subject goes through a number of states. After a while, their trauma; that small, easily opened crack, makes them see things that don’t exist.”
“Martyrs are exceptional people. They survive pain, they survive total deprivation. They bear all the sins of the earth. They give themselves up. They transcend themselves… they are transfigured.”
Furthermore, it is women, apparently, who make especially effective martyrs, being “much more responsive to transfiguration”. This can be linked back to the historical role of woman as nurturer in society.
Typically speaking, women are expected to give up their lives for the good of the institution of the family. One submits herself to a life of domesticity and child rearing – a situation in which she is always putting her own needs on the backburner. Women in most societies are conditioned to sacrifice for the good of society and civility. Martyrs utilises this viewpoint, taking it to extreme lengths. By the time Anna meets Mademoiselle it can be argued that she has already reached her limit, and after being abused and ostracised by her own family, Lucie has become her family. After Lucie manages to succeed in her bloody vengeance, she literally can no longer fight her demons and dies. This leaves Anna with nothing to sacrifice herself for, to look after or to nurture – save for the previous failed martyr who is quickly removed from her caring grasp.
However, when it comes down to it, Anna’s eventual “success” as this creepy cult’s martyr is down to Lucie and the love that Anna feels for her friend. She is encouraged to withstand the most brutal of torture by memories of her most loved friend. However, her success is not a cause for celebration – although the viewer isn’t informed as to why in any discernible way. At the film’s climax, we see Mademoiselle approach Anna in her “transcended”, nearly dead state, asking her to divulge her pain induced visions. We see Anna whisper something in her ear, however, we, the audience, are not given the opportunity to take part in the revelation. Following the exposition, Mademoiselle locks herself in the bathroom, removes her gaudy make up and jewellery, and kills herself.
Ultimately, what I take to be the overarching message of the film is that, although women are culturally expected and accustomed to assume the role of “martyr” – whether that term is meant loosely or in the literal sense – what it boils down to is that it isn’t right. THAT SHIT AIN’T COOL. We can speculate over what Anna said to Mademoiselle until the cows come home, but what exactly it was isn’t important. What is important is the reaction it incited in her. What Anna tells her has led her to the realisation that her organisation of a cult, and that years of victimising and torturing countless people has all been in vain. Her embracing and use of society’s “passive woman” has been fruitless and, in the end, pointless. The exploitation of certain cultural norms and expectations illustrated in the film are conveyed as fundamentally flawed. This underlying message could also be applied to the genre of the film itself – which leads to ALL KINDS of whacky connotations that could perhaps be discussed another day. In another blog post. On another planet.