Martyrs ★★★½

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Keep doubting.”

Roger Ebert, the patron saint of many a film lover, was well known for being fundamentally inclined against a certain stripe of horror film. Not against horror of the classical or psychological variety—The Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho, and Rosemary’s Baby were not objects of his disdain. Not even, necessarily, against modern or graphic horror—his Great Movies series included films such as Se7en, Alien, and The Shining. But many horror films faced an uphill battle with Ebert, who called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre “an effective production in the service of an unnecessary movie.” One can only imagine what he might have said about Martyrs, Pascal Laugier’s 2008 deposit at farthest end of the New French Extremity movement.

Martyrs quickly became infamous for its brutality and nihilism—as much a filmed dare as a horror movie, an endurance test through which only a brave few could sit. It is a fairly earned reputation. Martyrs is as graphic and grueling a watch as you have heard. That reputation also tends to distract from talk about the film itself: what happens, and how, and to what end. It is reminiscent of the protests surrounding Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and its sex scene involving Jesus (Willem Dafoe). It is impossible to critique the scene—its presentation and its purpose—without watching the film, but its very existence leads many to refuse any encounter while decreeing it reprehensible sight unseen (a sad fact in the case of Scorsese’s film and that scene in particular, which does more to explore the complicated notion of Christ as simultaneously human and divine than any number of Cecil B. DeMille epics could hope to accomplish). To return to Ebert, it is not just important what a film is about, but also how it is about it. Martyrs is a horrifying viewing experience, to be sure, but what really matters is that it is a horrifying viewing experience in service of...what, exactly?

Opening in gripping fashion, Laugier’s film begins in 1971 as 10-year-old Lucie (Jessie Pham) escapes from an abandoned warehouse, badly beaten and clearly distraught. Cared for at a Catholic orphanage/hospital, Lucie is found to be malnourished and dehydrated and—unsurprisingly—deeply mentally disturbed. (Curiously, Lucie has suffered no sexual abuse, making her tormentors’ aims difficult to imagine.) She manages to befriend only one girl, 10-year-old Anna (Erika Scott), who tries to care for Lucie amid the latter’s nightmares and bouts of self-harm.

Fast-forwarding fifteen years (to a time that looks suspiciously like the mid-2000s rather than the mid-to-late-1980s), Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï)—brandishing a shotgun—bursts into the sleek, ultramodern exurban home of an upper-middle-class family and brutally slaughters them. Convinced that the parents were involved in her torture, Lucie calls Anna (Morjana Alaoui) for help in cleaning up the bloodbath’s aftermath. A horrified Anna, who thought Lucie was only conducting reconnaissance, not engaging in vigilante justice, assists her friend but questions whether Lucie has actually found her captors. Lucie’s memory is hazy and her stability is nonexistent—not to mention the horribly disfigured, scarred, shrieking woman (Isabelle Chasse) whom Lucie claims is repeatedly attacking her in the family’s house (attacks whose lacerations Lucie clearly bears). As Anna attempts to cleanse the carnage and deal with Lucie’s erratic mental state, her doubts about the guilt of Lucie’s targets becomes apparent, much to Lucie’s dismay.

The first two-thirds of Martyrs proceed along these lines, combining elements of the home invasion thriller, the Ms. 45-style (metaphorical) rape-revenge tale, and the unreliable narrator’s ghost story. Laugier carefully doles out information, giving us flashbacks to Lucie’s childhood captivity—the force-feeding of vomit-colored gruel, the beatings, the escape, and Lucie’s wholly justified split-second decision to save herself and leave behind another detainee (leading to a lifetime of guilt and paranoia). Laugier stages all of this for maximum brutality and shock—to borrow Hitchcock’s famous metaphor, he is almost entirely uninterested in the agony of waiting for the bomb to go off, instead focusing on the explosion itself, over and over and over again. It is graphic and draining, but it is also elegantly captured and expertly produced.

The precise aim of the production, however, remains unclear. The repeated references to captivity and torture bring to mind the political horrors of the day, and Martyrs’ casting certainly seems to have this in mind—Lucie and Anna’s ethnic heritage is never discussed, but they are of notably darker complexion than the lily-white family Lucie has killed or the abusers of her memory. It is hard to believe that Laugier intends this accidentally. (More perplexing by far is the fact that the actresses playing the girls as children seem to have been cast in deliberate opposition to their appearance as adults—10-year-old Anna very closely resembles 25-year-old Lucie and vice versa. Indeed, the cross-role resemblance is so striking that for much of the movie a twist explaining this bizarre fact seems assured, but an explanation for this casting oddity never arrives.)

A metaphor for the war on terror and the destructive nature of revenge could be a fascinating approach to take with the material, but Laugier never fully follows through with this—Lucie has not been consumed by her desire for vengeance so much as by her systematic childhood torture, a tragedy in its own right, but not one that Laugier mines for heartbreak as much as for joyless-but-dynamic shocks. Curiously, this portion of the film is seldom discussed by those who have seen it, abandoned in favor of a focus on the harrowing final third. While understandable—the places to which the film eventually travels are, if nothing else, memorably audacious—it is interesting that such a ferocious, metaphorically loaded, merciless piece of filmmaking should go so largely unremarked. (I include myself in this—I had forgotten nearly all the details of the first two acts from my initial viewing, with only the final act remaining in my memory.) One is tempted to speculate on what this says about the audience’s jadedness toward ruthless cycles of violence and abuse, but Laugier’s gear-shifting makes such speculation difficult. Unlike the famous transitions of Psycho or Audition, which deepen and enhance what went before them, Martyrs’ move into new territory seems largely divorced from what went before except to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” It is not so much that the viewer is callously unmoved by Martyrs’ vengeance thread as that Laugier deliberately wipes it away in favor of something entirely different.

Or does he? The shock and dismay surrounding Martyrs endgame are partly the result of how outré it is—one might be tempted to laugh at its outrageousness were one not choking on the overwhelming bleakness. It is in many ways thoroughly ludicrous—so ludicrous that any comments it might have on political torture or religious extremism seem almost beside the point, traded away in favor of an examination of bottomless depravity and mankind’s limitless capacity for deliberate cruelty. The combination of outlandishness and hopelessness can be off-putting.

Yet the furor attending the finale is also an interesting examination of the way in which we like our horror served. Martyrs’ first two-thirds are violent and gut-wrenching and grim, but in a familiar way—extremity only by matter of degree. For his ending, Laugier shifts styles from something visceral to something clinical, abandoning the propulsive action of Lucie’s revenge and its aftermath to something closer to an instructional video for intellectual sadists. Abuse, fade to black. Abuse, fade to black. As the pattern repeats, time becomes meaningless and all sense of hope is extinguished. The viewer becomes as numb as the protagonist—there will be no Final Girl to let the audience off the hook. The reaction is similar to that greeting Michael Haneke’s work, which offends by offering up sadistic cruelty in a way that seems mortifying rather than exhilarating. Whether it is what Laugier intends, his maneuver offers up a primer in what sort of violence is palatable (the gruesome but relatively conventional bloodbath of the beginning) and what is unacceptable (the much less gory but coolly torturous degradation of the ending). It is a disturbing but instructive dichotomy.

But is it intentional? An artist’s motives are not usually a useful point of inquiry—once released into the world, art has whatever meaning the audience reasonably brings to it, regardless of the artist's objectives. Martyrs’ denouement, however, offers an uncomfortable sort of approval of the tormentors’ work—one way or another, their abuse has succeeded in producing the answer they sought. It is a queasy resolution, and one cannot help but ponder Laugier’s goals, especially after having so cleverly juxtaposed differing modes of screen violence to differing reactions. Perhaps Laugier cannot bring himself to dismiss the cultists as the heinous individuals they clearly are without risking branding himself similarly. Or perhaps Laugier is suggesting that his film’s closing is intended to be every bit as entertaining (or at least as unobjectionable) as its beginning—that transcendence through agony is possible. Or perhaps he has realized that his finale has the opposite effect—that the insight achieved by the agony is enervating and defeating rather than glorious—and so he must simply end it all with a blast. Burn the whole thing down. Die willingly, a dubious martyr for a doubtful cause.

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