Major Spoiler Alert
This post is meant to be an in-depth discussion of Pascal Laugier's Martyrs. If you have not seen this film, I urge you, nay, BEG you: do not read this post. You risk ruining one of the great horror films of our time for yourself. If you're unfamiliar with Martyrs, it is a brutal, harrowing film, not for the weak of stomach. Only watch this film if you feel you're ready. In any case, please experience the film for yourself before you read this discussion.
I call this post a defense of Martyrs, and you may well wonder why it needs defending when it is adored by so many horror bloggers. The first time I watched it, by the time the credits rolled, I was in complete, slack-jawed awe. Watching Martyrs isn't so much like watching a regular movie as it is having a profound, deeply-unsettling experience. I thought about it all night and into the next day, then I turned to the internet to see what other people were saying. To my (naive) surprise, this film is not universally loved, and those who dislike it seem to hate it with a vengeance.
One commenter suggested that Laugier should shoot himself in the head for having brought this film into the world. Another stated that not only Laugier, but anyone who actually liked Martyrs should be sterilized. It was called a worthless piece of torture-porn masquerading as an art film, a psuedo-intellectual piece of expolitation. And, on some level, I understand this reaction. Martyrs is a film designed to repulse, to provoke, and to digust. But this negative reaction was so counter to my own that I couldn't help but feel these commenters were missing something important.
If you were to characterize Martyrs in one word, what would it be? Devastating is an apt choice. Repellent? Yes, it is that. Cringe-inducing? Thought-provoking? All true, but the one term that came back to me again and again as I considered it, was Beautiful. A strange term for such an undeniably ugly film, but that is the purpose of this essay: to illustrate how at its core, Martyrs really is a work of beauty, one that uses a canvas of brutality to expose the beauty beneath.
Martyrs plays like two different films spliced together, yet doesn't seem disjointed. If nothing else, Laugier is a master of misdirection. The film begins as a straightforward horror film that along the way, morphs into an entirely different beast. When the film opens, we know that a young girl has escaped from horrible abuse, and has been taken in at an orphanage where she pushes everyone away. Everyone except for Anna, another abandoned girl whose gentle nature makes her the only one worthy of trust. We shortly find out that the abused girl, Lucie, is haunted by some sort of vicious demon-woman who inflicts bodily injury upon her when she's alone. This demon-woman reminded me of something out of a Japanese horror film, setting up expectations that Laugier exploits masterfully.
After the initial appearance of Lucie's supernatural tormentor, we flash forward 15 years into the home of a typical family with an 18-year-old on his way to college, and a high school daughter who is a star athlete. The scene is cozy and the family seems amiable, with the kids and their father verbally jousting over breakfast. A ring at the doorbell rouses the father from the table, and no sooner has he opened the door than Lucie has blown a foot-wide hole into him with a shotgun. She storms the house, gunning down the entire family. And the thing is, she barely looks at the parents to see whether they are indeed her tormentors from fifteen years ago. You get the feeling that Lucie is out of her mind, projecting her past abusers onto a perfectly innocent family. At this stage in the film, that is where the real horror comes from. Not only does Laugier explicitly show all the murders, he makes you doubt they are justified at all.
After the killing spree, Lucie rubs her hand in the mother's blood, then holds it up, saying, "I did it. Look. I did it," to appease her supernatural stalker. But she is not placated. She stages a ferocious, terrifying attack on Lucie, jumping on her back and slashing long, deep gashes into it with a straight-razor. Every scene in which this woman appears, naked, bestial, and utterly relentless, is flat-out terrifying, rivalling any scary movie I've seen.
Your first clue that Lucie might be delusional comes when Anna arrives to help her clean up the mess she's made. After fleeing into the woods, Lucie says, "She's in the house," referring to the demon-woman. Anna says, "I know," and heads straight into the house to see what's happened. She doesn't seem to even entertain the notion that the woman is real, but instead needs to witness what Lucie has done.
Even in the aftermath of this horrible scene, Anna is fully committed to protecting Lucie, dragging the bodies out to a pit in the backyard. It is revealed that Anna is actually in love with Lucie, when Lucie expresses her gratitude by repeatedly kissing Anna's face. Anna then kisses Lucie on the mouth, only to be pushed away. Lucie loves Anna, but not in that way.
It is in Anna's nature to help people. She's committed to helping Lucie get out of the horrible mess she has made, but when she discolvers the mother is still alive, she can't help but to try and help her escape. When Lucie discovers this, she goes batshit, smashing the place up and accusing Anna of never believing her. Once again Laugier's talent for misdirection shows itself. You start to think that the rest of the movie will be Anna trying to escape from this enraged, psychotic that she has befriended since childhood. But it doesn't turn out that way. Instead, the demon-woman makes another appearance, and this time Lucie seems to give in rather than fighting. The woman carves deep gashes along Lucie's arms and bashes her head into the wall. It is here that Laugier confirms what you may have suspected: that the woman is nothing more than Lucie's delusion. The film intercuts shots of what Lucie thinks is happening with what Anna actually witnesses: Lucie cutting herself, and slamming her own head into the wall. There are also flashbacks revealing who the woman is. She is the woman Lucie saw when she was escaping her torturers, but could not save. The hallucinations were borne of Lucie's own guilt. The first half of the film ends with Lucie slashing her own throat.
If Laugier had lengthened the first half of the movie to feature-length, it still would have worked. You'd get the twist that Lucie is delusional and harming herself. It would have been scary, brutal, and sure to be talked about and revered in horror circles. It also would have been pretty pointless. That's not necessarily a bad thing. If a horror movie scares the crap out of you, it's done its job, right? This is why the second half of Martyrs makes it transcend the genre and turns it into something utterly unique. It is also why so many people hate the film, and why I love it.
At this point, the audience is wondering where the film could possibly go. I had the idea that perhaps there would be a second twist and it would turn out the woman really was a vengeful spirit and she would begin attacking Anna, and Anna would have to solve the mystery of who the torturers were and stop them before the spirit would leave her alone. Misdirection. Instead, Anna finds a secret stairway to a dungeon in which the woman from Lucie's past is still alive and being tortured.
Again, Anna is compelled to help the suffering woman. She brings her upstairs, bathes her, and painfully removes the staples that have pinned a metal blinder to her skull. But the woman is not a vengeful monster. She is a victim, utterly ruined by years of torture. And unsurprisingly, she doesn't want to live. She begins cutting her arms and freaking out. All the while, Anna is trying to calm and comfort her. Suddenly, a hole explodes in the woman's head as a team of professionals with guns invades the house. Clearly, they're not the police, and have something to do with Lucie's torture. They take Anna to the basement.
This is where, for me, the movie really got interesting. An old woman in a head-wrap and shades shows up and explains to Lucie what exactly is happening. They are an organization that has been systematically torturing young women for years in hopes of discovering a martyr. The Mademoiselle explains, "Anyone can be a victim. Martyrs are exceptional beings. They survive pain, they survive total deprivation. They bear all the sins of the earth, they give themselves up, they transcend themselves." Then she makes it clear that Anna is going to be the next subject in their grand experiment.
In countless horror films, innocent victims are tortured and mutilated for the perverse enjoyment of a psychopath. But Laugier presents a group doing no less dreadful things all for the betterment of mankind. Think about it. Their goal is to create martyrs to gain insight into what lays beyond death. With that knowledge, we would no longer just be floundering about, wondering how to best be spending our time and energy. We would know what we had to do to prepare ourselves for the next world. In this way, Martyrs ceases to be a straight-up horror flick and becomes something akin to a grail quest - the quest for transcendant knowledge. The ultimate goal is truly the meaning of life. As such, we can understand their motives much better than that of your garden-variety psycho. We may despise their methods, but we want the answers just as much as they do.
What follows is 20+ minutes of isolation, cruelty, and torture, all performed as Mademoiselle says, "methodically, systematically, and coldly." Daily beatings are delivered not by maniacs, but people who don't enjoy what they're doing, yet believe in the cause. This phase of the movie is what really gets to people. Even commentors who reported liking the film admitted having to fast forward through some of this sequence. Some say that Laugier went overboard with this seemingly unending series of beatings, but I disagree. The repetition works in the film's favor, forcing the audience to vicariously experience the horror with Anna. It is also important in that you witness Anna's stages of dealing with her suffering. She begins by fighting it. Screaming. Tugging at her chains. But by the time it's over, she has resigned herself to her fate and ceases to fear anything they can dish out.
In The Power of Myth, Jospeh Campbell explains that the only way for God to become lovable was to take on human form, because as a human, he is capable of suffering. And it's true. It is precisely those times of suffering and loss that we really feel our compassion for others. Many Christians report seeing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as one of the most moving religious experiences of their lives. Basically, that movie is a biblical torture-porn, showing every stroke of the lash and every harrowing moment of the crucifixion in graphic detail. It is easily as brutal as Martyrs, and was a huge hit among ultra-conservatives. I'm not a Christian, but I've always dug Jesus and was very much moved by Gibson's (admittedly anti-Semitic) film. Why? Because here was the gentlest man who ever lived, who preached a doctrine of "love thy neighbor as you love thyself," and he was made to suffer the most horrible death imaginable. It was the first time I ever felt I understood the notion of "He died for our sins." His sacrifice should have made all true believers shun the very idea of violence and stirred the most compassionate part of themselves, leading to an unwavering commitment to peace (of course, we all know how that worked out).
The point I'm trying to make here is that when I say Martyrs is a beautiful film, what I mean is that by creating this saintly figure, then putting her through the most atrocious torture imaginable, Laugier has made it possible for us to really feel her suffering. When Lucie commits her murders, we feel it is justified by what they did to her. We feel sympathy for their children, but it only goes so far. By contrast, when the hero of the movie becomes the victim, we feel compassion for her character, a compassion we can only feel fully when witnessing her destruction. This is what makes the film a beautiful, if painful, experience.
Some people have accused Laugier of tacking on a cop-out ending to Martyrs. After Anna is skinned alive, thus bringing about her martyrdom, she passes her transcendant knowledge on to the Mademoiselle. On the eve of passing the message on to her followers, the Mademoiselle tells her assistant, Etienne to "keep doubting" the existence of the afterlife, and shoots herself. After my first viewing, I defended the scene as the only possible way it could have ended, since Laugier clearly doesn't know the meaning of life. But since then, I've come to realize that what the Mademoiselle was really doing was sending a message to her followers, in the most certain of terms, that we are not meant to know the answers.
She makes it clear that she has received the message, it is clear, it is precise, and "it admitted of no interpretation," and then refuses to pass it on. She is telling her followers to abandon this quest for answers. There are many ways to interpret her final remarks. It could be that Anna told her there is no afterlife, and that knowledge was so disappointing that her life lost all meaning. Or perhaps Anna told her God is real and that her blindly ambitious and ruthless pursuit of power would lead to her eternal damnation. Considering her love for Lucie, and her kindness toward everyone, it is possible the meaning of life is love and kindness, qualities that the Mademoiselle clearly does not possess. But Laugier doesn't supply the answers, instead leaving the ending ambiguous and letting the questions linger in the audience's minds. I know that I couldn't stop thinking about this movie for weeks, a sure sign that Laugier did something right.
Ultimately, Martyrs asks the question: How far would you go to have all the answers? How far is too far? Clearly, the Mademoiselle's methods are too far. The knowledge kills her, which is a roundabout victory for Anna. If Mademoiselle's followers heed her message and abandon their pursuit of martyrs, then Anna's sacrifice is the salvation of countless young women who might have shared her fate. At the closing credits, we see images of Lucie and Anna as children and are reminded of their love for each other. For Anna, love is the meaning of life, and no one needed die for her to know it.
Perhaps Laugier's message is that the meaning of life is not knowing. The uncertainty we feel is what leads us to construct our own answers and meaning. Or perhaps I'm projecting my own views onto the film. So be it. The message is only half of communication-meaning only comes about from the receiver's interpretation of the message. The only certain thing about Martyrs is that it will make you think. It's easy to dismiss Martyrs as pseudo-intellectual torture porn, but what other horror film makes you think about the meaning of life itself?