(WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS DISCUSSION)
Where do I even begin?
Maybe with the fact that this movie scared me out of my wits.
I have only seen Martyrs (2008) recently (for the first time ever) and I do not plan on watching it again anytime soon. But I think that it is one of the best horror movies I have seen to this day.
It is so well-written in terms of its narrative flow and pace. Its revelations are so well-orchestrated. I believe that the mark of good horror story-telling is in the balancing act of revealing what is scary and allotting the appropriate amount of suspense, mystery, and even confusion. The revel cannot stand alone. Its build-up and its aftermath are just as important, if not more important. Having said that, I think Martyrs is good in that respect because for most of the film, the audience is held in confusion. When I was watching it, every time I would think that I got it figured out, I will be immediately shot down. It reveals something but then it withholds a deeper truth that. Whereas the big picture is actually simpler than the narrative makes it out to be: “An organization is experimenting on “martyrs” by torturing people (inducing pain and suffering). One of the subjects (a child named Lucie) got away 15 years before she decided to get revenge on those who tortured her. Lucie died but her accomplice (Anna) was captured by the same organization and was forced to undergo the same experiment.” In contrast, the movie tells it in a rather convoluted manner with different layers of revelations. The audience was made to take Anna’s point of view. It was quite the rollercoaster ride.
As a consequence of this, the monster of the movie is not clear. The audience was fooled to thinking that the supernatural entity that attacks Lucie was the monster, however it was revealed that it was only a delusion – a consequence of the torture that she had undergone. The monster role was then placed upon the organization that was revealed later on in the movie. It was an appropriate assumption since they also terrorized and victimized Anna. However when Anna reached “martyrdom”, the “monster organization” was portrayed to be amoral (or at least to be moral in their own standard). The torturers were depicted as a normal couple (much like the family that Lucie assaulted), and the rest of the organization members seem to be working for a higher goal – which seemed to be normal in that context. While it can be argued that the organization is indeed the monster, it can also be argued that there might actually be no monster.
The “monster” should be the entity that subverts the “normal” or the “good” or the “natural”. However, the problem with this movie (which I think is deliberately placed), is that the context in which the events happened is not well-elucidated. The most normal scenario was the Sunday morning breakfast scene with the happy family. However, the movie then revealed that the happy family is not actually a normal family. The parents work for the organization that is arguably (but questionably) evil. The goal of the organization is also not clearly deemed as good nor evil by the context of the film. If we are basing it on the tension between the natural vs supernatural, then perhaps Anna is actually the monster. Perhaps this is how the movie gave me the feeling of “What the hell did I just watch?”
Despite that, it still does not make sense to argue that this is not a horror movie. It definitely is. Even if one argues that there is no monster, they can still not deny that there are victims. The most obvious victim is Anna, whom we can read using When the Woman Looks by Linda Williams. Borrowing from Williams, Anna’s desire to help Lucie was punished by the narrative when she was made to deal with the murder scene by Lucie. It was exemplified by the scene where Lucie only watches Anna clean up after Lucie’s mess, so to speak. I thought it was such a weird scene. Lucie came off as such a bitch for letting that happen, because she just expects her friend, who helped her and took care of her, to not only get involved in her crime, but also to clean after it alone. Another part where Anna was punished for her active gaze was when she was captured for discovering the truth about the underground organization.
Perhaps the same can be said with Lucie as a victim. She was also punished for looking at the other victim and not helping her. The other victim is somewhat similar as the dead girl/monster in Lucie’s delusions. As for everyone else, maybe there is not much to say, but “What the hell?!”
Linda Williams,“When the Woman Looks.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)
Jancovich, M, “General Introduction.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)