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 (2008), 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? Leave a comment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Great analysis. Though the title could have had “Martyrs” in quotes so it was clearer what it was about.
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.
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 !! 😀 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 😀 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 !!
Your brain is broken. This film and most of life in general is beyond you.
And You made that conclusion based on a joke comment on a horror movie article !
Obviously your conclusion is both wrong and pathetic but it also suggests that you are too quick to judge which is a REALLY bad habit that if continues will form a very narrow perspective.
Here is an advice , next time if you want to write a comment like that then Don’t.
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.
Thnx for explaining, that is indeed the most important jihad. The inner fight. The well known jihad we know right now is a form of jihad aswell, it is actually something like the last resort. So there are many types of jihad in islam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
She has every right to disagree with anyone who watches films of this nature. I am still trying to figure WHY I saw this film and the article was well written because I NEEDED to have an answer, and it was close to what I came up with. It’s almost as if YOU are the violence that humanity tries to escape by easily using the word “cunt”. Somewhere out there we all have to run into “that guy” that has to use aggression rather than have a discussion.
Yours is the only one that degraded. I am not one to watch movies of this type, or worse, “Gore Porn” but I also question people who watch movies of the type on a regular basis, yet I have friends that do.
It IS subjective, and “violence” makes people cringe or more. I thought that was our humanity, that we are reviled by violence. But throughout the whole movie, I wanted all the Cult members to burn, much like the young woman at the beginning – she suffered through the horror, yet her torturers went on with LIFE as if they were “normal”. She (with her own demons) had to try to stop it.
Much like internet bullies, criminals and serial killers. But sometimes we can’t be a fly on the wall to see Karma come around, or plain vengeance take its turn.
I too don’t understand the fascination, and I don’t want to get used to violence or I think (in my own opinion) I become the desensitized monster as well.
. . . to each there own I guess.
Dude, you’re the one being a self-righteous cunt because her taste differed from yours. If art it subjective, it’s based on your personal tastes and opinions. And her personal taste and opinion says that she doesn’t need material of this nature to find inspiration. So would you fucking relax or are you the only one allowed to have an opinion here?
Okay. I feel like people like to watch these types of torture porn movies for the sake of them being torture porn, but since the director of this one threw in some ‘deep, pseudo-religious subtext’ people are flocking to it like it’s the second coming. It seems to me that the ‘martyr’ idea was obviously an excuse to show such ‘mind-bending’ ‘psyche-damaging’ violence while attempting to seem like they have an agenda and trying not to seem so lowbrow. And it seems like the audience is searching for meaning in this groundless and unsubstantial idea of transcendence, when all along it was the writer just trying to give these antagonist characters some sort of agenda that sounded a little more evolved than just plain moral qualms (like they do in the Saw movies). It kinda reminds me of The Cenobites in Hellraiser. The fact that they used this religious mumbo-jumbo was suppose to be apart of the horror anyway, right?
I think this is being way over-analyzed, perhaps they just used the whole “transcendance through torture” thing simply because its a more original idea for a horror movie?
They probably wanted to give the ending a bit more substance than just showing a woman being beaten, skinned and dying in a weird dungeon.
Based on your comment, I’m going to assume you haven’t seen the film. Given that likely fact, it seems you’re basing your dismissive opinion solely on it’s use of violence and gore. Are you then saying that uncomfortable portrayals of violence and its aftermath have no place in art, and/or their portrayal immediately removes any possibility of meaning in the work?
This is an odd argument, considering the history of violence in art. Is Hieronymus Bosch there not an artist? Are Grimm’s fairy tales then not the cultural touchstones so many claim them to be? Are the Bible and Koran not culturally significant texts? Your stance likewise removes from the literary canon Slaughterhouse Five, Lord of the Flies, Catch 22, Hamlet, MacBeth, Of Mice and Men, and others. Not to mention the poetry of Wilfred Owen.
Be very careful with forming such knee-jerk dismissive opinions, especially when you haven’t bothered to experience the work personally.
I watched the film but I would have to agree with Katie. If you need food for thought this film is a bad excuse. Plato is sure better. The only challenging intellectual puzzle is at the end and it’s not that good. And you know that all these justifications are only there for the shock value so the director can get a little attention.
You didn’t address the issue of whether violence necessarily precludes something being art? Plato is certainly an interesting philosopher, but what about other philosophers that deal with violence and mutilations etc. Is there no ethic questions raised in this film?
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…
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.
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.
Firstly, there is no essential necessity for either religion nor god to postulate another world beyond death. The society could have simply hypothesized a life after death, found some spurious evidence based on photos of the eyes of people before death, adopted the religious word martry as a fitting appellation [though they say something about this, which I will talk about in my next point], and off they go… no need for any religion or concepts of god.
Secondly, and I think more importantly, it is never stated in the film that the society doesn’t believe in god. There are two moments in which religion is brought up. Both are when the Mademoiselle is showing the pictures of the other ‘martrys’; first she says something like ‘she wasn’t religious’ and ‘she was an atheist’. Second was when she says ‘no one can try to tell me that the concept of martyrdom was strictly an invetion of the religious.’ This last could imply two different things, 1) she IS religious [the society IS religious] and she is pointing out that evidence supports that martrydom isn’t simply an invented concept; or 2)She/the society isn’t religious and that religion has simply appropriated certain aspects of a naturally occuring phenomenon into its doctrine, such as martrydom and life after death [or that pain and suffering brings one closer to a certain truth, or whatnot]. Both of these points conclude the same, only the question of belief in religion is different, and this difference is superficial.
In saying that ‘gaining access, etc. only makes sense [with]in a religious world view’, is putting the cart before the horse.
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.
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.
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.
This is one fantastic piece. Great job.
Excellent article. I rarely comment online. How could I not after ready this? Thank you!
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.”
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.
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).
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……”
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.
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
Martyrs& high tension , both French are very refreshing to a long time horror buff like myself. Seriously r.zombie fliks r total rip offs. Nothing new, I guess, us as horrific talented fans should voice our ideas more. (=
Excellent analysis. I just watched the film for the first time and needed something to ground all that depravity in.
This film had a huge impact on me. I’ve only been able to sit through it once. For me, it opened up a whole new interest in foreign horror and their ability to pack it with genuine content as opposed to some other mass market appeal horror I’ve been subjected to. I enjoyed this article. You’ve put into words what I could not and clarified some parts that I wasn’t clear on. Well done.
Andrew! What an extraordinary critique and/or analysis of one of the most disturbing motion pictures EVER produced! As a relatively serious fan not just of philosophically and morally challenging motion pictures, but of European motion pictures, I am embarrassed to admit that I viewed this one only shortly before finding and reading your wonderful and, at least for me, rather therapeutic article. And let me say that yours is, to my mind, the most original and reasonable interpretation I’ve read of the picture’s deeply frustrating ending. It does, in fact, stand to reason that the old lady at the helm of the abominable human experimentation being financed and conducted by this ‘secret society’ commits what E. Durkheim would have classified as an ‘altruistic suicide’. That is, she suicides immediately after offering few words as to the efforts of this secret society, profoundly obfuscating what has been their aim from the beginning, but protecting them by doing so!
Thank you, Sir! I’ll be looking for more of your work in the future! You are an elegant and sensitive writer as well as a penetrating critic!
I do not wish to critique the film, only to point out that the “torture to transcendence” theme occurred in religious practices in pre-Roman druidic cults and possibly many other cults. The object was to bring a virgin (always the poor virgins!) to the point of death and keep her hovering there for an extended period whilst the cultists obtained some sort of spiritual benefit. This practice is described in a recently published book called ‘Skin’ by the Australian author Ilka Tampke. Incidentally, flaying was also a druidic practice.
Thank you for writing this. After finishing the movie I was left unable to put into words how I viewed what I had just seen. Your article elegantly puts how I and many others felt about such an under appreciated ending.
Wholeheartedly agree with your article! I HATE, HATE gore movies — they are STUPID beyond belief. The Saw Series that got so much hype had ZERO depth and yet was extremely popular. I could predict that thing fr a mile away AND didn’t care what happened to anyone.
Admittedly, this movie was VERY, VERY DIFFICULT to finish. It literally took me & BF at least 5X bec I’d ask him to stop, wait a day or two then return to watch it. What’s absolutely remarkable about it is that I REALLY wanted to see how it was going to end even if I was so physically revolted & terrified sh!tless! The reason is bec I could tell by the way it was portrayed, the cinematics used, the editing that this was not some cheap shot, dumbed down scary movie.
When I saw the end, OMG, I was BLOWN AWAY!!! How an ending such as that could make the entire movie meaningful, beautiful, mystical, transcendental, poetic and mysterious! BRILLIANT BEYOND BELIEF!
Maybe it’s bec I’m more of a mental & spiritual viewer hence this resonated for me so deeply and wonderfully. And maybe, it’s also why it’s not as popular. This is one helluva of an unforgettable and deep movie.
No Maire A, the movie is no more mystical and deep than you are but certainly a lot more poetic and literate. It’s horror, pure and simple with a bit of a plot to keep it going. And being French gives it a little class. If you would like some of that, leave out the BOLD type and exclamation marks! and read a few books.
i watched ‘martyrs’ last night and found myself at loose ends …
mr. couzens, your excellent, ahem, dissection of the film’s plotting and theme gives great insight.
also appreciate alexey’s thoughts on the inherent contradiction at the heart of the “secret society”.
I just watched Martyrs.
Contributing to the ongoing discussion, I found myself between four scenarios, falling into two categories for interpretation based on the possible character of Mademoiselle.
So let’s look at the image Anne sees when she is having a moment of transcendence: Light.
Putting light into two categories, “Literal” and “Figurative,” we can look at two generalized endings for the movie in each:
“Literal Light, Mademoiselle Positive:” Mademoiselle possibly hears Anne say “Light,” meaning that all that really follows death is the bright light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing this, she’s achieved the knowledge she wants, though through horrific acts. “Keep doubting” then is an almost comment made in jest, saying find it for yourself. She takes off all of her make-up and false eyelashes as way to finally break the facade she has been carrying as a woman who is powerful and capable of such extreme levels of torture. She is no longer in charge and surrendering to death. This is the most positive ending for the audience partly because the cycle of violence ends and Mademoiselle finds a level of peace. Yet, we can’t say any of these are truly positive for the audience.
“Literal Light, Mademoiselle Negative:” Mademoiselle hears “Light” this time, but is unimpressed. We see her taking her make-up off as an act of cynicism and defeat, the “Keep doubting” comment as a way to basically say, “Good luck, we’re hosed.” The gun in her mouth as a way out, rather than a way to finally end the struggle. As the one who perpetuated the idea of original Martyr, nearly crucifying Anne, Mademoiselle calls it quits. This isn’t the most negative ending for the audience, but it certainly gives the movie an aura of nihilism and chaos.
“Figurative Light, Mademoiselle Positive:” Mademoiselle hears “Light” as knowledge, some sort of power, the “other side,” or any interpretation beyond this life, seeking the truth herself that only those who die can find. “Keep doubting” is a way to say “Keep living,” due to a degree of selfishness. As the one who perpetuated the cycle, she wants Etienne to continue. In a way, this reestablishes her position as complete psychotic sadist and proves in a way to be the most evil and selfish ending the four, proving to be the hardest to stomach for the audience. She takes off her make-up as a way to show her true face and hair, which is in some ways way more disturbing than seeing her in make-up. As a woman who tortures, knowing what Anne might have seen, she doesn’t want to have to feel torture herself. In this ending, we’re also dealing with a sociopathy in Mademoiselle which perpetuates the real intent for the movie: watching others in pain.
“Figurative Light, Mademoiselle Negative:” Mademoiselle hears “Light” as some sort of cop-out to a real answer and decides to call it quits. She, tired of the struggle and with resignation, removes her outer appearance to match that of Anne’s, though Anne survived the worst of conditions. Mademoiselle chooses to shoot herself here as a way to end a meaningless cycle of violence, hoping in some ways Etienne will find something better, though they’ve literally tortured someone in the most drawn-out way they could think of: over the course of 15 years. I would say this is a semi-positive ending for the audience because we’re given a sense of relief that this violence is over, thought Mademoiselle as a character is still a terrible individual and the violence has still occurred.
What we learn most from these four interpretations is that violence probably isn’t the answer. Or maybe I’m saying that as a pacifist. As someone who really hates to harm others and watch anyone in pain (and gets squeamish during stories involving cuts or needles), this movie was extremely hard for me to watch. I’m glad to have seen it if only for the cultural significance and meta-fiction elements brought in where other horror movies have failed. It reminded me a great deal of Suicide Club for reasons I can’t digest yet.
There really was only one possible ending for the film and that’s the one we were given, regardless of how unsatisfying. If madam. had lived to relate Anna’s experience, the film maker would have had to speculate on the nature of the afterlife of which he clearly has no better idea than we do. Any imagination he might exert would bring the film into the genre of fantasy or pseudo-mystical rather than horror.
Very detailed article on an astonishing horror film. A friend asked if I would recommend it, and I gave him a resounding yes. Excellent work here.
The most amusing thing about the wide variance in interpreting the very deliberately open-ended conclusion to this motion picture is the degree to which these interpretations are rooted in each respondent’s grounding in traditional western narrative models that encourage– at times REQUIRE — if not the “happy ending” at least closure of some sort, and preferably that Evil meets a just end, even indirectly. So the filmmakers deliver that, and do so by the midway point of the picture, before pulling the rug out from under us more than once. Many viewers want to see Madamoiselle scalped or dusemboweled, if not have her head crushed by the gigantic thumb of a vengeful God. Many of these same viewers hope Anne musters the strength to throttle one of her tormentors with her chains. Instead, we veer headlong into allegory, or at least willful obtuseness, and while some viewers applaud the filmmakers attempt to embrace transcendence, the perverts want more brutality, and the standard-issue viewers seek that closure the filmmakers choose to deliberately deny.
It never ceases to amaze me the effort put by some to try to argue that it “transcends torture porn”, only to justify a feature length torture porn of teenage women. “Oh, but it’s French, therefore it’s artsy! You don’t understand all the transcendence stuff and artsiness!!!”
At best it’s a 20-40 minute episode of “tales from the crypt” needlessly stretched to feature length movie. That’s the best one can honestly say about the interesting plot parts. Namely that there’s a secret society who who engages in all that torture of a poor soul to try to make her have some sort of near-death experience and come back to say something about it, heaven and hell and stuff. And then the tortured girl whispers in the ears of the boss of this organization, and she commits suicide right after, we never hear what was said. That’s all the “brilliance” and “transcendence” it has. Just that.
Had it been just some episode of tales from the crypt or a comicbook story on the same magazine, doesn’t matter how masterfully produced, it wouldn’t ever, EVER, gather the same amount of attention, cult, and hype it has.
“Oh, but it’s because the torture scenes need to be longer so we can suffer more with the victim”. Yeah, right. And “cast away” would then be the artsiest and more transcendental film ever if it was a TV series that accompanied the character in real time, “24” style.
I watched this last night. I spent the first 40 minutes feeling a bit irritated as to why after the initial killings you would hang around in the house. After several opportunities to leave they didnt, and then the friend dies and she still stays – for hours. 6 hours to be exact. But you just have to go with that!
I also struggled with the rescue of the imprisoned woman- very ridiculous. Pulling off the mask?!?. As if a hot bath could have fixed that mess!
I was then annoyed by the ending. So the review above at least has helped with that . I just couldnt figure out why she killed herself and thought that the film didnt resolve properly. But that makes sense now. The secret was too great. But also means that loads of people have died for no reason.
I found this to be barbaric and full of shut. I understand the concept of overcoming an obstacle rather than whining but to put ppl through this for your OWN STUDY IS FOR ONES SELF, PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS TESTING SH** BOTHERING OR FORCING THINGS OF RARITY TO EXIST. LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE DF. ANNOYED ME. DON’T THINK ITS ARY JUST SICKENING AND PSYCHO ARE ENJOYING IT.
Excuse my typos… I was angrily writing, with little regard for grammar.
Is martyrs worth watching for the philosophy or do the brutal torture scenes overpower the viewer?
Yes I do agree it’s a “hugely” graphic film but after watching “Earthling” the gore/torture(s) of “Martyrs” is nothing because you know it’s not true & just acting. “Earthling” has scarred me and will for ever be traumatized.
The Madam says people can be pushed into seeing things. Lucy saw the dead girl and the woman with the helmet saw bugs on her. they say anna is the first one to reach this stage and be able to talk about it. these people have been pushed so far they’re not just seeing hallucinations in the real world, their entire world around them has become a complete hallucination. they do not see the afterlife. upon realizing all her life work was for nothing and all the people she put through such pain and misery was for nothing the Madam blew her brains out. she told that guy to keep doubting because he was right to be skeptical. She was wrong.
Your reading of the movie totally ignores history.
This is not a philosophical society but extreme right-wing, neonazi group, reviving Nazi medicine and the medical experiments of the Holocaust:
These are exactly the pseudo-research objectives they had and this is exactly what insane monsters like Josef Mengele were doing:
The photographs in the corrdor look like this:
And the ending, where Madmoiselle shoots herself, is just as pointless and really without deeper meaning as the atrocities she was responsible for.
If you see this movie under this light, everything becomes so clear.
Unfortunately, groups like that exist today.
This the logline of the movie:
Young girl fights Neonazi group reviving Nazi medicine and medical experiments of the Holocaust.
I watched it with my wife yesterday. My wife even though couldn’t stand the torture scenes appreciated the suspense elements. For me being a big fan of horror genre, it is one among the top 5 horror movies I watched. There was indeed a confusion as of why should the chief shoot herself which brought me here ! What we concluded from our last nights discussion is that the martyr philosophy was proved wrong and the she had to kill herself. Another point is that the torture methods were inspired from the pre-crucifixion torture of Jesus, even bolting the metal shield around the head came from the crown of thorns ???
The ending is open for interpretation? Here is mine: Notice that just at the end of the movie, when the credits appear, we see innocent, charming images of young Anna and Lucie playing outdoors, just like free and happy children. In fact, the loyal friendship of these two girls is the core of the film and one of the things that makes it far more attractive than a regular exploitation/gore tape. The sweet memory of her dead friend is also what keeps Anna going through her journey into hell, and maybe what finally makes her ´special´ among the other victims: she did not arrive there by accident but guided by love. Let´s go back to the final scenes: that footage in B/W has the hazy feeling that old memories and dreams have. It could be a flashback of their past, an ethereal existence out of time, or both. At the gates of death, beyond physical exhaustion, Anna is experiencing a lapse of grace (or call it relief after extreme pain). Whether an “after-life” or just a brief inner vision (after all, who knows what “eternity” actually means? 😉 ), her mind is flying to the place she would best like to be: outside in the fields, free, unmolested… playing again with her best friend. This is heaven for her. And this is the scene that she describes to the Mademoiselle, “without room for interpretation”. The message was so pure and sincere, so innocent and human, so immanent and simple, that it could only destroy that wicked, spiritually crippled bitch (and later cause the dissolution of her league of wealthy psychopaths, we assume). Anna and Lucie have won. And probably saved many other girls from following the same fate. They are in fact martyrs. But not in the pseudo-scientific, heartless and artificial way that Madamme understands martyrdom. Madamme was caught in her own trap, the quest of her life is over after confronting Anna, she found what she was looking for: an ultimate truth and lesson… but not the one or not in the way she expected it… she has miserably failed about everything for ignoring the most important clue: love and compassion. Martyrs is much more than gore or entertainment. It is a word of warning against sick “transcendence-seeking” and how easily it can dissociate you from your heart.
Another tip: Notice that the “Mademoiselle” does not call Anna by her name: she actually calls her… “mademoiselle”! (at least in the French original version). This is the typical sadistic relationship between butcher and victim : the former is, in some sick way, looking for himself, torturing (virtually) himself in search of clues, answers, satisfactions he cannot achieve.. because the real answer the butcher is hiding to himself is: “how did I became so filthy and heartless?”
Martyrs is a film that has never left me, that I was unsure if I was enjoying or not until indeed my mouth was open for the entirety of the second half. It certainly separates itself from other films within the Torture Porn sub-genre, as it attempts to justify the heavy visual elements of its plot – and I believe does so extraordinarily well. I’d agree with your observations of the film and its place within French Extremism, but I think at times the creators weren’t seeking to make as much meaning as we can derive. There are some parts of the film there for shock and gore, left suitably unsubstantiated.
Hi, I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis of Martyrs and included a link to your review in a list of Martyr-related websites on my subreddit called Cinematic Trauma.
The link is:
Open endings are an act of cowardice by the story teller.
Few artists have the ability to create masterpieces, in which case it is better to cop out to a mystery that will endure, when the story will not.
This movie’s ending banks upon the rich imagination of those who seek to know “the truth” but are ill equipped to handle the reality.
We are Mademoiselle, we are the witnesses to the inanity that is this movie, on the same path as Mademoiselle to satisfy our curiosity about the ending. What was said? Why did she kill herself? Does it matter? If one follows in the same nihilistic vein that the movie takes, there is simply no point. You will not be satisfied because whatever you believe will not be validated.
0/10 pseudointellectual garbage. Director needs to commit to an ending because he’s like one of those people who sit on the fence for fear of offending others, except that his motivation is the fear of others mocking his shitty movie.
This is a great article. I just finished the film, and decided to look up info on it. I feel emotionally drained, and tired from the roller coaster of emotions physical reactions. I think what you’ve written is right on point. Thank you for putting into words what I felt!
Anna didnt trust Lousie not because she was wrong or deluded, she simply loved her, she didnt trust Lousie to not hurt herself Anna couldn’t bear it. she even couldn’t bury her. She almost made her a temple after watching her kill a family and commit suicide. To that point she didnt even know her righteousness. That isnt just love. Thats a belief beyond any morality or logic. Faith. I was so high watching Martyrs I almost went through the plot experience, its easily my favorite psychological horror movie
Anna goes to Heaven, the cult goes to Hell.
It’s so simple I don’t know why everyone trips over themselves about it, people love to overanalyze things.
Here is a different take (more of a marxist feminist take) on ‘Martyrs’ in a piece by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster entitled, “Subverting Capitalism and Blind Faith: Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs,” which you can read at
This film is incredible. The element of the unknowable alluded to above left the film with immense rewatch potential. Also as I have watched it several times now, and subjected several friends to its horrors, I have still been left pondering the drastic depiction of guilt through the demon which follows Lucie into her revenge and tortures throughout; the pangs of conscience which turn her life into a living nightmare make the psychological manifest in the first act in a way that surpasses the supernatural of most horror movies.
I love this film like many here in the comments do, but I’ve never understood the whole “It’s a hard film to get through” I never once felt depressed or exhausted sitting thorough Martyrs. Is it because its not generally the type of film people tend to watch a lot. But it is hilarious that those that praise this, disregard films such as Hostel or the Saw franchise like it’s beneath them. Again, Martyrs is a treat and highly recommend it.
I saw this two days ago, is it not a story of a true ‘empath’ in Anna? The only child seen to offer love to Lucie, her love which even she cannot fully understand as it grows into more than platonic? She offers compassion to each suffering individual she meets in the film. I think this film sheds light into the lives of empaths who in the end always suffer as they feel too much. Yet they are the ones deserved of martyr status- they feel so deeply for the humans around them and their sufferings and sacrifice themselves in taking it on. It’s a physical presentation of the psychological no? And the organisation, they are people who choose not to feel, not to show compassion and they ultimately crumble from the top down as they’re self righteousness is misguided and void of humane notions.
This is the exact help that I have been looking for, for years, to understand this film better.
Whatashittymovie. There is no way the director could commit to a satisfactory ending. He would have to assume the role of a metaphysicist to pronounce to our satisfaction what the afterlife entails. That would be a very arrogant speculation.
I’ve read a few interpretations of the ending, and I feel yours is the most sensible. One thing people don’t mention is Anna’s ability to love. She accepted and loved Lucie. She cared for the girl who was kept in the secret holding in the house. It was this character quality in Anna that enabled her to transcend. Perhaps it was what allowed her to cross to the other side.
The first line of dialogue is Anna saying that when she first met Lucie and learned her story, she knew that one day she (Anna) would find Lucie’s torturers and punish them.
In her extreme state at the end she finds the worst thing to say to the cult, perhaps lying deliberately about having seen Heaven, knowing that the cult have to believe whatever she says.
When the viewer sees into her pupil the first time there is only blackness. No Heaven. The second time leads into the closing credits, Anna’s happy place, the orphanage with Lucie when they were children, the thing that Anna wanted to think about with her last minutes.
Excellent perspective. I’ve been wondering for year since I fist saw this movie, the meaning of the ending… what she said, why mademoiselle killed herself so briefly afterwards… very interesting… loved the read!
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie because it presented a storyline that was intriguing and thought provoking. Sure it wasn’t the most pleasant viewing experience but I feel it had a lot more depth than your average “torture porn” film. I appreciated your thoughtful analysis as well.
Awesome read! I thoroughly enjoyed your breakdown of this disturbing, but at the same time, enticing film. This movie kept me waiting and guessing until the very end. The visceral imagery will haunt me for a very long time, I can assure you. Watching that man beat the snot out of Anna and watching that disgusting liquified food being shoveled into Anna’s mouth was revolting and oddly surreal. It’s like you just kept hoping for a Savior to appear or to have Anna seek revenge somehow…but alas…nothing. “They” won and the victims lost. Case closed. I loved your detailed, well thought out take on this film, as well. Well done!