The Philosophy of ‘Martyrs': Transcendence in Torture
Mindless, insidious brutality and slaughter are the key tropes of a genre rather offputtingly named Torture Porn. In these films, which include the Saw and Hostel franchises, audiences are invited to enjoy a smorgasbord of helpless victims, purposeless violence and unsympathetic perpetrators. New French Extremity, a movement of European films that revel in transgressive depictions of violence and sex (or both at the same time), takes the superficial aesthetic traits of Torture Porn and moulds the on-screen horror into something… new. One of the best-known films from this movement is Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2009), a film that brings the question of these superficial depictions of violence into a stunning light.
Martyrs begins in a comforting manner, inasmuch as watching a family get brutally slaughtered by a shotgun-wielding psychopath can be called comforting. Lucie, a tormented young woman who was locked in an abandoned factory and brutalized by unknown assailants as a child, enters a house with a shotgun and murders the family – parents, son and daughter alike. The sequence frames the action subjectively from Lucie’s point of view, making the audience complicit in the slaughter. Why is this comforting? Because it falls well within the bounds of our understanding and expectations – a tortured girl committing a morally ambiguous act of revenge – and we are invited to assume that the film will simply play with the question of whether the murdered parents did indeed commit the crime of which they are accused by Lucie.
Regardless, the audience does not hold Lucie accountable for her actions. We are given a window into Lucie’s mind with the appearance of an imagined monster – a tortured, desiccated female form that forces her into acts of self-harm. This monster is the memory of a woman Lucie left behind when she escaped her torturers as a child. A woman who was never saved. Lucie’s guilt causes her to commit the atrocious mass killing, and guilt is a motivation that we can understand, if not excuse.
But Martyrs has no intention of remaining simple.
Lucie’s friend Anna acts as the audience surrogate throughout the film’s first act. She questions the certainty with which Lucie acted and wonders if they have murdered an innocent family, but her love and friendship hold her loyal to Lucie. That is, until Lucie loses her battle with her inner demons and kills herself. From here, Anna will go on a transcendent journey, discovering how deep the spiral of cruelty can go.
This opening sequence, making up just under half the total length of the film, plays out similarly to a revenge thriller. Has Anna allowed Lucie to go too far? The motivations are clear, unambiguous and tragic. After Lucie’s death, Anna discovers a secret basement under the house holding a tortured woman – referred to in the credits as ‘The Creature’. The following sequence approximates the motivations and aesthetics of Torture Porn, though it focuses on the aftermath.
This is the most gruesome, visceral segment. The Creature has bolts pierced into her skull, removed in gut-wrenching close-up, and moment where she removes the headgear to reveal the gooey, seeping remains of her scalp is vomit-inducing. It shares the body horror aspect of Torture Porn, where audiences are subjected to horrific imagery and subversion of the human body, but it is the aftermath that we are viewing, not the torture itself. Unlike Torture Porn, we are not participating in the violence, but are seeing its horrific impact.
This is not the most important similarity this middle act has with Torture Porn. Films such as Hostel and Saw offer antagonists with opaque or downright repellent motivations. In the Hostel films, the perpetrators are businessmen experiencing ennui and using torture to enact a sick fantasy. Audiences are able to take part in the fantasy primarily because, in the first half of the film, the protagonist victims are represented as unlikeable, almost deserving of this punishment. A similar technique is used in Saw, with Jigsaw’s quest to help others to personal betterment a thinly veiled excuse to display buckets of gore.
In this second act of Martyrs, the motivations are similarly ambiguous, and the victim is an unknown, neither deserving nor undeserving of the torture she is subjected to. The only hints we have at this stage as to the ‘why?’ are a few bizarre pictures on the walls of the basement depicting people on the verge of a horrific death. One is forced to conclude that the perpetrators are extremely disturbed individuals who get some kind of satisfaction from their clinical torture. Lucie’s actions are vindicated; her victims were monsters.
The film takes you through a journey, first depicting shocking violence with an understandable but morally questionable motive, moving to the visceral, torturous aftermath of violence with no motive, though committed against a figure that is slightly removed from the audience. It is only in the final third of the film that its raison d’être is revealed.
Anna is captured by an organization and submitted to confinement and regular brutal beatings in a hazy, unaesthetic sequence of repetitive pastiches. A woman – Mademoiselle in the credits – tells her the motivation behind this. Anna is being turned into a martyr. The pictures on the basement walls do not just depict people on the verge of death – they are experiencing transcendence. The organization attempts to create martyrs through torture. Over the course of the film, the audience has seen violence against those who deserve it. They have seen the impact of violence against an inhuman, pitiable creature. Now they are forced to endure violence against a character – a human being – that they have come to like despite her flaws. Anna’s beatings are certainly nowhere near as physically repulsive or gruesome as the previous acts of violence depicted, but they are now happening to the young woman we have been invested in for the past hour.
Eventually Anna stops fighting her tormentors, accepting her fate. Once she does this, they skin her alive and hold her in a crucifixion pose, where she undergoes the transcendent change from the victims in the pictures. It is revealed that the organization was seeking a glimpse of the afterlife, though when Mademoiselle is told this forbidden knowledge she kills herself rather than share it.
What relevance does this revelation have to the rest of the film? And how is it that Anna transcends where so many have failed (it is implied that the organization has committed atrocities against a huge number of people)?
In its closing moments, Martyrs offers a brief definition for its namesake – “witness”. One might assume that it suggests that those tortured witness the afterlife. However, there is another meaning of witness – that of bringing testimony for a belief or cause. The organization believes that the essential ingredient is pain and suffering, and that martyrdom is completely divorced from religion. While they are correct that it is not solely a religious experience, they fail to recognize the importance of having a cause – having something worth dying for. Over the course of the film it is revealed that those tortured see visions that eventually lead them to their own death – Lucie saw the woman she had left behind, The Creature in the basement sees insects. Anna’s hallucinations are auditory – she hears Lucie. Lucie is the cause she has that allows her to accept the suffering she is put under. While the others had antagonistic visions, Anna’s is of someone she loves and accepts. One would assume that a pious, religious martyr would have visions of their deity. By accepting rather than fighting the vision, the victim becomes a martyr.
The knowledge obtained through transcendence must be earned, however. It is something that only true suffering and acceptance of that suffering can prepare you for. Anna has undergone that suffering, but Mademoiselle has not. The knowledge is too great for those unwilling or unable to suffer for it, and Mademoiselle kills herself to prevent it being passed on.
The reveal of this final motive is unsettling for the audience. The film has depicted meaningful, righteous violence, meaningless, amoral torture, and now it depicts torture and violence that has a completely intangible, ethereal motive. We have gone from the unknown to the unknowable, a realm outside of morality or other expected themes. And without this certainty, we, too suffer.
Perhaps this is the point. We, like Anna, must earn the revelation the film offers us. The film hasn’t offered us cheap visceral thrills, but a contemplative treatise on how we think of violence. The victim, the sufferer, is no longer disempowered, but may be the most spiritually powerful being possible. As an audience we are invited to suffer rather than enjoy the cheap, visceral thrills of another torture porn film.
And it is through this invitation that we, too, may be martyrs.
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