“Martyrs”, Screams, and the Dark Side of Martyrdom

Going into the viewing of Martyrs (2008), I thought I wouldn’t scream as the film went by. After all, the past few films, such as Spring and Pontypool, shown didn’t exactly elicit screams. I had a false sense of security for this week because quite frankly, this was the film that made me scream the most in class. For this entry, I shall focus on the visceral effect of the film and the plot.

Martyrs distinguishes itself from the other horror films with the fact that it is a French-language film. Ergo, this presents an opportunity for viewers to read subtitles instead of just listening to the dialogue. While normally this presents problems for film-viewing due to probable lines getting lost in translation, this does not seem to be the case for Martyrs. Instead of alienating the audience, it reinforces the universality of the horror of the film.


This universality of horror can be best explained by Alfred Hitchcock’s sweeping boast on worldwide audience response for his seminal horror film, Psycho. If one “designed a picture correctly in terms of emotional impact, the Japanese audience would scream at the same time as an Indian audience”. According to Linda Williams, Hitchcock may be overstating his audience control; if anything, he may not have anticipated the screams elicited during viewings of Psycho. In fact, screenwriter Joseph Stefano flat-out states that he had no idea that the audience would scream and gasp. However, Hitchcock’s machinations may have produced the modern visceral film. (Williams, 164-168)

Psycho has been pointed as the advent of a “visceral, kinetic” cinema, with film becoming more of an “attraction” akin to a roller coaster ride. This set the stage for future blockbusters, heralded by the arrival of Jaws, calculated at getting this visceral appeal to the tee. It can be observed from horror films (e.g. the ones we’ve seen in class) or modern superhero films (e.g. Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men franchise) place more importance on a brisk, sometimes breakneck, pace and an affinity for visual effects. Although plot is still important, it is secondary to the visceral “high” that they want their audiences to experience. (Williams, 163)

As the legend of Psycho spread during its initial release, Hitchcock eventually formulated gimmicks in order to elicit the same screams in each viewing. He made a “special policy” in which audiences cannot go inside the cinema once the film has begun. Not only did this strategy keep the visceral effect of the film (particularly for the iconic shower scene), it also gave theatres a way to schedule showtimes for future viewings. Additionally, Hitchcock also released promotional trailers that included audience reactions and a request to “keep the tiny, little horrifying secrets” from new viewers. (Williams, 163-165)

Notice the prior paragraph. It can be seen that Hitchcock’s machinations gave birth to the modern film-going culture. We watch trailers just to know what to expect from the film. We try our best to not listen to “spoilers” so as to have full enjoyment of the film; similarly, we do not tell “spoilers” to others in order to “save” others’ fun from getting ruined. In short, this “cinema as attraction” has become a trend.

So then, how would this relate back to Martyrs? Well, I watched the film unspoiled; in fact, my seatmate, Noel, and I only  saw the trailer minutes before the film was shown in class. Was there a plot in Martyrs? Sure, there was, but there were times when the film did not actually adhere to a cohesive plot. But the film was a visceral treat. And by treat, I meant it felt like a living nightmare.

The many tortures experienced by both leads, Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), were excruciating to watch. It was extremely cringe-inducing to see Lucie’s repeated stabbing by a “dead girl” but the film decided to amp up the pain. The film introduced more visceral anguish with the appearance of Marie (Juliette Gosselin), a woman kept underneath the basement. If her scar marks weren’t cringe-inducing enough, the removal of a torture contraption nailed to her skull was every bit gut-wrenching. Add Anna’s later beatings and eventual flaying and it could be said that the film essentially beats the audience’s (i.e. the class) collective viscera to submission.

To wit, watching Martyrs was not a pleasant experience at all. However, the film managed to make its audience scream. And throughout the class, there were multiple ways in which my seatmates, Nina and Noel, and I found ways to cover our eyes, look away, or scream expletives or primal shouts just to process what we were watching.

Now, moving on to the plot, it is quite a doozy to figure out a coherent narrative for the film. It starts with Lucie as the focal point but it ends with Anna as its focus. However, the film is tied together by its theme of martyrdom, specifically the circumstances that led to Lucie and Anna’s tortures. Their tortures are instigated by a mysterious cult, led by Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin), who believe that martyrdom brings understanding of the afterlife and transcendence. Some people, such as Lucie, fail to see the value of their martyrdom and are instead tortured by psychological representations of their tormentors. Only a few, like Anna, reach the end stage of transcendence and achieve an understanding of their torture (read: flaying).


What I want to focus on here is how director and writer Pascal Laugier conceptualizes martyrdom in Martyrs. Mademoiselle sees martyrdom as not an “invention of religion” but something that promises transcendence. She points to pictures of past martyrs as evidence; they were still alive, with eyes wide open, despite the excruciating pain wrought upon them. Martyrdom holds the key to “seeing beyond”, something akin to metaphysical understanding. Eventually, Mademoiselle does get the transcendental information she needed. After hearing Anna’s transcendental experience, she decides to keep the message for herself and commits suicide.

To add to Laugier’s concept of martyr, the film ends with showing a definition for martyr: A witness. Indeed, this definition holds true for Christian and Muslim texts. According to those, a martyr is “someone who gives testimony to something they believe to be true, or something they’ve seen themselves.” In this definition, Christians and Muslims believe that martyrs die for the truth. (“The meaning of martyrdom: Ways to bear witness”, 2013)

However, the film manages to twist this definition into something different. Martyrs do not testify to a truth before their death, but rather, they testify to a truth seen BEYOND death. The understanding of transcendence, or God, is not due to the martyrs’ faith in the Infinite. Rather, such an understanding can be accomplished by being toe-to-toe with the Infinite. Going back to Mademoiselle, her suicide may mean that Anna’s understanding of transcendence construes an afterlife. It may mean that Mademoiselle’s search for true meaning has ended, with Anna providing the answer.

Now, Martyrs, unlike Mademoiselle, does not function as if it glorifies martyrdom. If anything, it makes martyrdom look sadistic. True, there may be a fetishisation of martyrdom in the film; all the targets in the film are women whose bodies get violated and brutalized throughout the film. However, the aims of Mademoiselle’s cult show that martyrdom is not as noble as it sounds.

This film makes me remember the tale of St. Jean de Brebeuf’s martyrdom. In 1649, he was captured with fellow Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel Lalemont, by an Iroquois tribe in Canada. The Iroquois viewed the colonizing French as a threat and that included Brebeuf, who converted some of the Iroquois to Christianity.

With that, I shall leave the gruesome details of their martyrdom right here:

“Both priests were tied to stakes. Mocking baptism, the Iroquois poured boiling water over their heads to scald them. They then cut off the nose, ears, lips, and other body parts of de Brebeuf, smashed his teeth with a club, put red hot hatchet blades on his shoulders, put hot coals on top of his head, and then smashed his skull with a tomahawk. They pulled out the eyes of Lalemont and forced hot coals into the sockets, they sliced open his thighs in the form of a cross and then burned him at the stake. Both priests prayed as long as they could and proclaimed their love and forgiveness for their torturers. (The account of their martyrdom was made public by some of the Indians who had witnessed it and later were converted to the Catholic Faith.) Because de Brebeuf died so stoically without crying out, something the Indians greatly admired, they cut out his heart and liver after his death and ate them raw, so they could, in their belief, obtain his kind of courage and ability to endure pain.” (Wheeler, 2006)

As can be seen, Brebeuf suffered a fate similar, or even worse, than Anna’s in Martyrs. The passage even stated that Brebeuf stoically accepted his death without crying out.

To Christians and the religious, this tale may be construed as noble and even courageous. However, what happened with Brebeuf and Anna can be seen on a much different lens. Their passive acceptance of their fate have elements of masochism in them. It is not exactly a normal human response to just accept pain and torture. Normally, people will react the way Lucie did: to grind, to fight, and to survive. How can anyone even accept that much pain and suffering?

Maybe this goes back to Mademoiselle’s incessant search for transcendence. Martyrs achieve this pain and suffering for an abstract more. That more may be a God, an ideology (in the case of those who died for country or ideals), or transcendence. Martyrs may be a witness, sure, but they are witnesses to an abstract. For all we know, they may be sacrificing their lives, giving in to a masochistic inclination, for nothing. Their faith may be strong, but their faith may be misplaced. What Anna experienced may be considered an act of bravery. However, she persevered due to hearing Lucie’s consoling voice, an abstraction in itself. We know that by this point in Martyrs, Lucie has died. In effect, Anna is persevering for a memory and for something that has gone by. To put it epistemologically, Anna is fighting for something unseen.

Effectively, the film places this question about martyrs: What do martyrs fight for if they are fighting what they cannot see? Do martyrs actually die for NOTHING? Of course, the film side-steps by showing Anna achieving transcendence, but the questions posed can be raised for real-life martyrs. Their tortures and deaths to “bear witness”, protect, or spread the Good News of their ideologies and religions just do not seem to be a sane choice. If anything, such acts of martyrdom may make as much sense to people as viewing a horror film may be: they do not seem rational. Martyrs may want to be martyrs the way horror film aficionados stay as horror film aficionados: There may be a visceral appeal to it. And much more so for the martyrs, too. It may be controversial to view martyrdom this way. However, such an “against the grain” reading can help critically engage us to the necessity, and even the banality, of the act.


In summation, Martyrs captures the visceral appeal of horror ingrained to modern-day culture by Alfred Hitchcock. The tortures seen in the film show not only an adherence to this Hitchcockian innovation, but also a commentary on how the noble, courageous ideal of martyrdom has a twisted, dark, and fanatical side to it. And what a great way to end Horror Film class for this semester, too!


“Martyrs (2008).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1029234/&gt;

“The meaning of martyrdom: Ways to bear witness.” The Economist, 4 Oct. 2013. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017. <http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2013/10/meaning-martyrdom&gt;

Wheeler, Timothy. “The Martyrdom of St. Jean de Brebeuf. ” Catholic Exchange, 8 Nov. 2006. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017. <http://catholicexchange.com/the-martyrdom-of-st-john-de-brebeuf&gt;

Williams, Linda (1995). “Learning to Scream.” Ed. Jancovich, M. Horror, the film reader. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.


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