The Philosophy of ‘Martyrs’: Transcendence in Torture

Martyrs 2008

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.

What do you think? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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Article covers: Film

Article by: Andrew Couzens

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Andrew Couzens
An independent filmmaker currently developing a television series and feature film.

34 Comments

  1. The imagery in this film has haunted me for years now. How did I feel by the time the credits had rolled? Drained, shocked, vaguely depressed and very sad. From the opening scene of Lucie running bloodied and bruised down a deserted street, to the melancholy end theme music.

    This was a fantastic read Andrew.

  2. I was surprised to find an article featured about Martyrs until I read it. Wow! My take on this… I think a big clue is in the original Greek meaning of martyr, literally witness which is flashed up in the movie, could it be that Anna tells mademoiselle that the after life is exactly that? That we “Witness” our own deeds for eternity? And realising that she had led an entirely meaningless and evil existence and that any more time spent on earth would just result in more torture in the afterlife she ended it all?… She realized that the cult would never accept such an explanation hence the silence.

    • Andrew Couzens

      The Greek etymology certainly plays a role. I’m unsure whether the film really tries to point us toward any one particular interpretation of afterlife, and felt that it was emphasising how important it is that such knowledge is not revealed. By ending it ambiguously, I suppose we are invited to speculate, though, and your interpretation would certainly fit.

  3. Kahlia Sankey

    First of all, Great article! Martyrs is one of those films that really stays with you. It is physically affecting, watching the creatures painfully move around and Anna withstanding her torture. Unlike Hostel or A Serbian film though the torture is not for anybody else’s pleasure but for Anna’s own transcendence into martyrdom.

  4. Taylor Ramsey

    Strong stuff! I have never found a place in my film interest for movies of this genre. Once upon a time I could, but now it is just more than I want. I enjoyed reading such a well thought out article though!

  5. Kathryn Talbot

    Torture porn has never been something I have understood. I don’t watch most horror films, but I understand the appeal of The Ring, for example. For things such as Saw and Hostel, I am stumped. It’s not that I believe they have NO appeal to ANYONE, I just simply do not understand. I feel a little more situated in the topic after reading you article though, and your perception of who is taking why type of visual pleasure is really encompassing.

  6. I don’t know if I should thank you of slap you for talking me back to this movie. But you did do it VERY elegantly so I forgive you. Not “everyone else” commits suicide because of a worthless past, grim future or a bad life. Mademoiselle is CLEARLY eager to hurry up and die. No time for explaining, no need for sharing. Mademoiselle didn’t greet anybody, she ran straight to Anne, anxious to find out. Her selfish nature is revealed by the first shot of her – exiting the car not by herself, but after the valet opens the door.

  7. Dale Barham

    You paint such a harrowing picture of this film and this is my second experience with French Extremity, Irreversible I found to be truly disturbing if you can class it in the same genre.

  8. Nice post!

  9. J. Bryan Jones

    Great analysis. Though the title could have had “Martyrs” in quotes so it was clearer what it was about.

  10. Rosanne

    Very interesting dissection of Martyrs! I’ve seen a smattering of New French Extremity, but this film I’ve struggled with for a while. I love the first half, the comfortable familiar narrative, as you described; I assumed that Lucie was unhinged on my first viewing and didn’t want her to be correct in her assumption about the family she killed being her torturers.

    But when Anna discovers it all to be true and the uncertain element is gone, the story always feels broken to me. In my mind the premise becomes infinitely more hard to swallow. When you break it into the juxtaposition of the differences in violence, however, the story does present a different sort of cohesiveness.

  11. Thanks for the article 11 :) when that old fat woman asked the tortured girl ” did you see anything ” !! i thought the girl answered : go put it in yourself !! :D but seriously did tht girl really saw the after life !! or she was paranoied because of all the beating she got ?? because during the movie i really felt that i should give that bald guy a really good beating :D but if she had really seen the after life so the organization was right !! and that makes me mad because they had tortured many pretty women !!

  12. Ok! I think it kind of explains the true meaning of Islamic Jihad, the way you have ended your article with the statement “The victim, the sufferer, is no longer disempowered, but may be the most spiritually powerful being possible.”.

    The prime form of Jihad is Jihad bil nafs, Which means to resist against Immoral pleasures and the wrongs you wish to do.

    We choose to rape or have sex out of marriage instead of getting into a legal relation, we choose to kill others instead of forgiving, we choose to get rich by any means even illegal instead of being grateful for what we have, this is the point where you are a martyr if you become patient and suffer unless you get things rightly and indeed become martyr after suffering for the reward you were expecting in result for all the suffering is the real JIHAD.
    Unfortunately every common Muslim have misinterpreted the meaning of Martyr as a suicide bomber but that’s another chapter, another link to the chain of political scamming and conspiracy against muslims.

  13. I’m very interesting in the discussion above regarding ‘witnessing’ – how does Martyrs encourage us to question our participatory role in the film experience? Are we trespassing on the witnessing of martyrdom? Is this a scene that belongs to our eyes? It seems to raise questions about how easily we comply with the ‘film eye’ or ‘film body’.

    Ethics is an area I am very interested in within Film Studies. You have encouraged me to re-watch this film with the above questions in thought. Martyrs has always intrigued me. Wonderful article.

  14. And absolutely preposterous and tasteless flick which needs the “flick” in my opinion. It’s sickening how far the human mind and imagination has ventured into violence and darkness.. If you really want to know what happens in the afterlife Islam will explain in precise detail. after The moment of your death the two angels munkar and nakir will decend to you ask you three questions this will determine your final abode. Want to know more? Than seek the truth Islam has all the answers. But be careful when researching about Islam online the net has too many bogus sites and info made to defame the religion. There is more to what actually happens from the moment you die but I urge you to seek it for yourselves.

    • I understand that you are religious, But please, listening to a book that was meant to be interpreted thousands of years ago will not give you the same meaning now.

  15. Was searching for articles on the so called ‘New French Extremity’ (I always find exterior labels to be of little more than a conversational short hand, however in this case,it was a helpful search aid)and happened across this article. I have yet to see the film but given the title I’m surprised no has mentioned Bataille; the perverse extremities of his literature explored the intersection between violence, sex & death. Curious to see if this film has traces of his notion of transgression in it.

  16. While your post was well thought-out, I still find it fascinating that people will try to find some redeeming quality in what appears to be another sick vision realized and shared with the rest of humanity. I wish I could appreciate the suppossed “art,” but there just simply isn’t any to be had. For stimulating philosophical discussion, I’ll stick to Plato. I don’t need glorified brutality to help me ponder *anything* except my questionable tastes in entertainment.

    • Art is subjective. Dont be a self righteous cunt because your taste differs from others.

  17. I watched the film and saw myself in annas place, without the violence but with mental torture ive been/i’m being put through. I’m not there yet, I still feel something inside i have to let go of so most probably in for more pain and suffering till that goes. I guess i need to be pulled away from the materialism of this world into another…I compare this to anna being stripped of everything and left with nothing…maybe the way to true contentment???

    • To add to what i said…not just being pulled away from materialism but being stripped of any moral beliefs, anything that we do just because we’re told to or feel we have to…letting go…

  18. Martyrs was an overrated piece of shit that’s first half started out pretty good, but who’s second half turned into pretentious pseudo-intellectualism for the sake of watching some bland substanceless character get tortured. French New Extremity has essentially destroyed the merit of modern French horror for me. The last great horror movie made in France was Cache and that was directed by an Austrian.

  19. There is a contradiction that inheres in the disjunction of religious transcendence and martyrdom, as envisioned by the secret society. Martyrdom as an epistemic possibility is predicated upon the existence of a non spatio-temporal world, a world to which ineffable pain would give us access. Thus, the objective of the secret society–to gain knowledge of the other world through torture-induced transcendence–makes sense only in a religious world view, and any such query must begin with a religious postulate of another world. The society, however, does not acknowledge God. Therefore, there is no reason for them to believe that what these victims of torture experience as the apotheosis of pain is anything other than a hallucinatory function of the brain, a material function. The above article correctly notes this, but does not explore it.

  20. It’s a sick movie and utterly meaningless. The mystery of life and death was figured out some 2500 years ago by Buddha when he achieved Nirvana.

  21. I personally believe the girl was just staring straight into that bright light as that was all it showed really when the camera went into her mind. Maybe she interpreted that vision as witnessing the “other side”. When in fact maybe she was staring into that light that the bald guy switched on as a form of comfort and focus after spending so long in darkness and experiencing such horrific pain.
    I believe the story was showing us how a group of people can seriously believe in something like these guys were obviously some sort of cult that they would be prepared to do absolutely anything that is required of them. I believe this group of people had got it all wrong and these girls had suffered for nothing. I believe Anna and the girls in the pictures were just staring into bright lights and the cult members had interpreted it into something else.
    I think this film was very cleverly made even down to the little detail of the guy being concerned about a tiny scratch on his neck I guess from shaving when he had just skinned that poor girl alive.
    I also found it creepy that this clinical dungeon had been constructed for this one purpose and would have cost an absolute fortune, even down to the contraption to restrain her to be skinned.
    It was even disturbing with the first family in that haouse appearing relatively normal with 2 children talking around the breakfast table about the son’s collage knowing that girl was underneath them.
    Quite sickening to think that something similar to this could happen!!!

    • “I believe the story was showing us how a group of people can seriously believe in something like these guys were obviously some sort of cult that they would be prepared to do absolutely anything that is required of them. I believe this group of people had got it all wrong and these girls had suffered for nothing. I believe Anna and the girls in the pictures were just staring into bright lights and the cult members had interpreted it into something else.”

      i agree. thats was part of the real story of the movie.

  22. Helen Parshall

    Great article! I’m not sure if I have the stomach to seek out the film, but your words will definitely stick with me for a while after reading your piece, much like it seems the film has stuck with you. Something to think about certainly – the glorification of violence.

  23. This is one fantastic piece. Great job.

  24. Excellent article. I rarely comment online. How could I not after ready this? Thank you!

  25. Nobody has mentioned that the title of the film is “Martyrs,” as in plural. All of the other people that had been tortured would have been classed as victims. Both the Anna and the old lady are Martyrs, albeit of a different type. I think that informs the “keep on doubting” response.

    • When I said, “would have been classified as victims” I meant to include “by the movie’s logic and definition of martyr and victims.”

  26. Hi there, i saw Martyrs a few weeks ago, and i wasn’t sure about te ending at all. first. i read in the internet, so many different opinios. then, the more i did think about it, the more i was sure about the reason behind it. i posted it at some other forums but did’t get any answers yet, i guess, the movie is already too old. anywayws, if this is ok, i copy/paste my explanation about the ending here.
    _____________________________________________________________________

    there reason fro the ending: the experiment failed.

    what the martyr told the old lady was “clear like crystal, and precise”, and she “can see no other interpretation……”

    but, that does not mean, the martyr told her from an afterlife.

    that is, what the old lady and all others were hoping to hear.

    what the martyr told her, was a n y t h i n g e l s e, but an afterlife experience. without any doubt (no other interpretation…clear like crystal).

    but what did the martyr tell her? actually, it doesn’t matter. it could have been spoken words like an insane person speaks, sentences which make no sense. any monologue. or, (to make my point clear) for example, it could have been spoken lyrics from a song or a poem, spoken in a loop. (something everyone knows, something well known. this would explain: – there is no other interpretation – it was clear – precise)
    the pain and torture made the martyr insane.

    so the experiment did neither prove nor disprove the existance of an afterlife.

    all the pain and torture (and “work”) was useless. the old lady failed. the “work” of her life failed. she kills herself.
    *
    *
    *

    an additional explanation for the very last words of the old lady (which fits my theory):

    old lady: “Etienne, have you ever tried to imagine the other world?”
    Etienne:: “I am afraid – not”

    old Lady: “keep doubting Etienne..”
    and she kills herself.

    which means:
    we still have no answers, Etienne. you can keep doubting… but I am going to find it out myself. right now! (and she kills herself).
    ______________________________
    end copy+paste

    i think, many people who watched this movie, (me included) felt in that wide open trap, the movie has opened: a martyr witnesses an afterlife experience from the other world. and who dosn’t want to know, what that is? everyone wants to know that answer and tends to think: what i want to happen, will happen. but the story of the movie goes a different way, an unsatisfying way which the viewer doesn’t want. all the torture can’t have been “useless”. the real story of the movie is: this “organisation” did a horrible crime, words can’t describe, for many years, and it wasn’t succesful. the pain and torture the victims went through, was for “nothing”. a sad story.
    *
    *
    *
    *
    i read an interview with the dirctor Pascal Laugier. there was once remark, wich confirms my explanation as well. he said:

    “…..the real point of everything is revealed only in the final seconds of the movie. For me, that was the exciting part of the project……”

  27. i want to add: what leaded me to this explanation, is: the minutes right before she kills herself, the mademouseille does not look “confirmed”, she looks abortive (? i hope this is the right word – i am not a native english speaker – apologize if this is funny). she looks like she has failed big time. and she does not look like a person who just has received THE message/answer of her life, for what she was hoping and working for, her entire life. she pretty much looks like 100% the opposite of it. –> that leaded me to this explanantion. and it made sense, the more i thought about it.

  28. I love hearing the theories people think up when they don’t realize Anna lied in her revelation. :)

    This is what happened in Martyrs – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1029234/board/inline/188235766

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