I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Martyrs
Pascal Laugier has secured a reputation for himself as being a filmmaker who’s looking to make an impression and start a conversation. His movies often go to extremes in order to say something about the topic he’s exploring, even when that point is occasionally left ambiguous. Other times, it stands on the side of an unpopular opinion, as was the case in The Tall Man (2012), which some viewers referred to as being “pro kidnapping.” In his 2008 film Martyrs, the charges ranged from misogyny, to torture porn, to support for getting what you want by any means necessary. It’s an unsettling and rightfully polarizing film, but I'd like to take a closer look at what exactly it is saying, and how many (if any) of these claims have validity.
The overall premise of Martyrs is easier to explain than the narrative might have you believe: a young girl named Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi as adult, Jessie Pham as child), who escaped from being held hostage and tortured for over a year, meets and befriends Anna (Mojarna Alaoui as adult, Erika Scott as child) at the orphanage where they’re both kept. Lucie discusses the hell that she went through before she arrived there, and Anna becomes a comforting presence for her as the pair grow up.
Fifteen years after her arrival at the orphanage, Lucie returns to the house she claims to have escaped from and slaughters the whole family. Anna arrives at the behest of Lucie, but she's convinced her friend actually murdered innocent people and is pretty far gone in the process of losing her mind. Lucie commits suicide, leaving Anna alone at grisly crime scene. Anna then discovers a secret underground room where an emaciated, tortured young woman Sarah (Emilie Miskdjian) is being held captive. Before Anna can help her, a group of cult members arrive at the house. They shoot Sarah and then explain that they are in search of transcendence, which they’re attempting to find by torturing young women. Anna becomes their next victim, and she does seem to reach a higher level after enduring horrific acts. She whispers something to the cult leader that is allegedly the secrets of the after life. The cult leader then tells her followers to “keep doubting” and shoots herself.
Nobody’s saying this is the feel-good movie of the year.
One of the first criticisms directed at the film is that it’s convoluted and hard to follow. What starts as a revenge movie takes more than a few unusual turns and winds up firmly in the “New French Extremism” camp. The narrative switches rapidly in the first act from initially following Lucie, to focusing on Anna, to the doomed family about to be wiped out. This does make the setup feel frenetic and unable to concentrate on one thread at a time, which is most likely an intentional decision. Within all these rapidfire switches, the actual story being told slows to a crawl with Lucie going through frightening episodes of hallucinating a disfigured attacker and Anna calming her traumatized friend. The various threads are poised to be tied up while the audience gets to know and sympathize with the two girls who have now become young women. The movie does hit a stride following Lucie’s rampage, and the narrative draws in on Anna as she deals with the fallout.
Here’s where the second charge gets levied against Martyrs: torture porn colored with misogyny. As the cult leader Mademoiselle explains the nature of their “experiments” it can be hard to dismiss either part of that criticism. In search of transcendence, she explains, they inflict immense pain on young women specifically because they are supposedly better at dealing with pain. Those who cannot handle the torture are referred to as victims; those who “accept” the torture and take the chance to transcend are the martyrs they’ve been searching for. Not only does the movie focus on women being tortured, a central character places the blame on them for not being able to handle it. It’s not hard to see why so many people found this to be distasteful, and in the wake of abuse survivors finally be listened to, the sentiment sounds woefully behind the times.
The argument could be made that Mademoiselle is a villian and therefore we as the audience are supposed to find the things she says repugnant, just as we’re supposed to find the scenes of torture grotesque. The problem with this argument is that when the movie was released in 2008 the status quo in regards to violence against women and other marginalized groups was in many ways still to turn a blind eye. Until recently, people were told to buck up and endure, or asked point blank how they brought these actions upon themselves. All this begs the question, has time made Martyrs more or less problematic?
For the record, I don’t think it was Languier’s intention to make the film misogynistic. I think that everyone is steeped in a similar culture and what is created often reflects that without directly meaning to. I do think that, ten years after its release, Martyrs strikes the chords it sets out to, while also not rising above its problems. The version I saw had an introduction where Languier apologized for the film and claimed that he made it with no purpose in mind aside from dealing with his own depression. Much like Terry Gilliam’s odd introduction to his childhood-based movie Tideland, Languier appears to be asking for our approval while trying to shrug off the weight of what he’s made. Unlike Tideland, which Gilliam asks us to approach as a child sussing out the world, Martyrs is a movie that does better when no explanations are offered. My guess is that Languier felt people were misreading his film as one that condoned horrific violence against women, and he wanted to cut that kind of thinking off at the pass.
There’s a saying in the world of literature and film “trust the tale, not the teller.” Basically, if the piece of work is being read in a certain way by most people then that’s what it is, no matter what the creator says. Think of Tolkien swearing that Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the spread of Nazism over Europe. In the artistic world, there’s always room to speculate on unconscious composition, something that the creator themselves may not be aware of. Martyrs is misogynistic but also puts the ugliness of that on display without fetishing or eroticising it. Lucie and Anna as characters are well-developed, and their friendship remains important through the movie up to the very end. The scenes of torture are starkly shot and grueling to watch. One of the most intense scenes is Anna prying a medieval-looking metal contraption off of Sara’s head, something I found more painful to watch than any of the torture. Even though it’s hard to watch a character removing screws from someone’s skull, it reads as straight-up terrifying and nasty; there’s no “fun” in any of the viscera we see.
I have no doubt that there’s some awful person who gets off to these images due to enjoying attractive women in pain but the vast majority (male and female alike) have responded with repulsion. In the interest of full disclosure, this movie was distributed in part by The Weinstein Company. Make of that what you will.
Which brings us to what everyone is waiting for: the infamous flaying scene. The torture that finally pushes Anna into a transcendent state is in her being skinned alive. Literally her entire body has the flesh removed, leaving only her face intact. It is a difficult scene to watch for sure but much like Psycho’s shower scene, it has an elliptical quality that implies more than it shows. For the most part, we the knife being pushed in then we see Anna reacting then we see a piece of skin being tossed away. (Author’s note: I saw this movie a few years back, and this is my recollection on the skinning scene. I intended to rewatch these scenes in order to make sure this was an accurate assessment but was unable to bring myself to do it. If this is inaccurate, I apologize but damn, you guys, this movie is rough.) There are a few moments of full-on skinning but not nearly as much as a viewer remembers. The torture scenes preceding it where Anna is beaten and force-fed are more graphic in regards to how much is shown and for how long it goes on. That isn’t to say that the flaying scene isn’t incredibly hard to watch; it’s just that it’s created in a clever way that makes you imagine more than you see. The reveal of the final result is indeed stomach-churning, and Anna’s face being relatively unchanged while her body is now raw is more upsetting than the act itself.
Before she is flayed, Anna hallucinates a conversation with Lucie who tells her she’s arrived at the final stage, therefore getting further than any “subject” before her. Using other people as a means to an end is a common theme in entertainment as well as plain ol’ real life. There are continuous debates about the use of torture to get information and where we all stand on the idea of autonomy versus the greater good. Watching Martyrs with this in mind helps give it a perspective that extends beyond “torture porn.” Some people have said that the ending basically validates everything the cult was doing, as Anna does appear to reach a state of transcendence. Of course, we don’t actually know what’s going on in Anna’s head or what she whispers to Mademoiselle. It’s entirely possible that she hasn’t reached some higher state of being but rather is just in extreme shock. It’s entirely possible that all she says to Mademoiselle is some gibberish that Mademoiselle desperately wants to interpret as a look behind the veil. What you take from the ending is up to you, whether you want to see it as a justification for torture or that the ends never justify the means when the means are beyond distasteful.
My appreciation for Martyrs comes from not being spoon-fed a moral. Like Languier’s The Tall Man, a complex question is presented with a bang followed by a shrug, and we’re left to sort out where we and the film stands. I can’t really defend against the charges of misogyny and torture porn because I can absolutely see why people have that reaction. In fact, that was my feeling during the beginning on Anna’s torture, though by the end I changed my mind. There’s something clinical about the whole thing that makes it more chilling, making this all into a job or a duty that these people are undertaking. To me, that’s frightening because it’s not even the sick compulsion of a serial killer but an act people are consciously accepting. Whichever side of the fence you land on with this film, it’s one that sticks with you long afterwards; one that you find yourself bringing up but not really recommending.