Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) is a film that does not hold back. If I called Deadgirl (2008) extreme, then Martyrs goes even further. For a film that ultimately revolved around the theme of transcendence, did it go beyond my expectations? Absolutely.
The film hit the ground running (literally, it opens with a scene of a young and wounded Lucie running away from a warehouse), and it never lost its momentum. In true paracinema fashion, bridging together low and high cultures (Hawkins, 2002), it offered suspense, gore, plot twists, and shocking images as the film progressed, and in the end, it presented the audience with some philosophical ideas to think about.
Martyrs definitely kept me at the edge of my seat. I noticed that it more or less split into three acts, but the three acts were not predictable at all, and I never knew exactly when the plot was going to shift. I thought the family in the beginning was going to be more relevant as characters until Lucie shoots them all up, shocking me. Then, I thought the film was mainly going to be about Lucie, focusing on the psychological manifestation of her trauma, and finding out if the Monster was real. With this assumption, the film started to remind me of Lights Out (2016), that is, until Lucie killed herself way too early in the film and I found myself confused again.
While watching the movie, I found myself constantly asking, “What are they going to do now?” or “Where is this going?” I never thought that Anna was going to find out that Lucie was right about the tortures, and that she would find a whole basement with Marie in it. The plot just thickens. I didn’t expect the third act either, the final thirty minutes or so of the film, where we finally understand why the film is titled as it is, and Anna is taken as the next subject of Mademoiselle’s philosophical society that believes martyrdom is the key to finding out what happens after death. In this way, the film was a visceral treat, making audiences feel like they were on a rollercoaster ride, with unexpected twists and turns and drops that would result in an adrenaline rush. The visceral nature of the film allowed viewers to take pleasure in “losing the kind of control that they have been trained to enjoy in classical narrative cinema.” (Williams, 2002)
With everything that was going on with the film, as well as the depth of its ideas, Martyrs was a difficult movie to digest right after seeing it. I found myself trying to process the movie for a long time afterwards, and I decided to watch it for the second time a few hours later, this time, with my sister. When it came to some of the more difficult scenes to watch – Lucie slitting her arms, Anna taking the metal headgear off Marie’s head, and Anna being tortured and flayed alive – my sister would refuse to look at the screen. This is in contrast with how I watched the film the first time – I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen no matter what happened. Normally, I would be used to our differences in reactions and I could always chalk it up to my being used to seeing gory scenes, but Brigid Cherry said something interesting in her article that left me something to think about.
When a female viewer turns away from the screen, it is because she does not find pleasure in seeing patriarchal society torturing the female. She relates with the female character and does not wish to see her suffer. (Cherry, 2002) This makes sense considering all the difficult-to-watch scenes were of the suffering, objectification, or dehumanization of women. However, this explanation didn’t make sense to me since there were also viewers like me, who do not enjoy watching the suffering of women, but who wouldn’t want to look away either – but Brigid Cherry also has an explanation for this. In her article, she wrote that refusing to refuse to look is an act of affinity with the monster and that female horror fans still found some pleasure in horror rooted in things like suspense and tension or sexual feelings. (Cherry, 2002)
While I can say that I did not find Anna’s torture sexy, I can admit that I was curious to see what Mademoiselle’s philosophical secret society was trying to draw out of Anna, how far they would go, and whether or not they would succeed. For this reason, I had to see everything. In a way, I shared some of the goals of the secret society as far as fascination goes – which now disturbs me because I also just found it troubling how they used Anna as a means to their end – but also, it was a reaction I couldn’t stop myself from having. I was already watching all this torture, and I was wondering whether something would happen in that basement, especially since the torture scenes were so drawn out. Would Anna try to escape, will she die, or will she achieve a state of transcendence? When it finally culminated in Anna seeing something, I just couldn’t help but wonder what she whispered in Mademoiselle’s ear.
Staying true to the horror genre, Martyrs makes sure that the audience never finds out. Mademoiselle tells her assistant to “keep doubting” before shooting herself in the head, and then we see the word “martyr” defined as “witness.”
For me, this open ending was a good move for this horror film, as it establishes the mystery of the transcendent, the unknown, as something that can only be experienced by those who bear witness. When Anna found her courage, that was the time she was granted sight into the unknown. While I do not condone torture, I would say that this could be likened to the experience of watching horror movies. The payoff of fascination is most rewarding when we’re kept in doubt – when we don’t have spoilers – and in order to enjoy the full pleasures of horror, one must be able to refuse to refuse to look despite being afraid. How do you stop being afraid? Let Lucie tell you. You have to let yourself go – enough so that you could lose control and experience the visceral treat that is horror.
Brigid Cherry, “Refusing to Refuse to Look: Female Viewers of the Horror Film.” Horror, The Film Reader. (Routledge, 2002)
Joan Hawkins, “Sleaze Mania, Euro-trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)
Linda Williams, “Learning to Scream.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)