Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs has a reputation for being brutal, devastating and just about unbearable to watch—and it’s well earned. From the very beginning it hits hard and doesn’t stop until it’s time for the credits. Throughout the film, the audience is challenged not only with the brutal imagery of torture, but also painful confrontations with and representations of global exploitation and the natures of evil.

On first viewing, you’ll never guess what’s coming next. It starts with Lucie’s escape from the dungeon. Though it doesn’t show us what she’d experienced, as she’s running through the industrial park, screaming without words, her trauma is clear. The subsequent montage of her childhood after her escape shows us that she’s never truly left—her experiences have stayed with her, haunted and tortured her.

Lucie tracks down and murders the people she believes were her captors. She kills them swiftly and without hesitation, even killing their children. Anna joins her at the family’s house and attempts to help her clean up and move on. But her trauma from captivity manifests, and she is haunted and tortured by the dead girl she’s been seeing for years. Mentally, her trauma will always be with her. Killing the people who did this to her did not free her from the trauma, she still sees the dead girl; there is no way out for her. She kills herself.

In the wake of Lucie’s death, Anna explores the house, finds a subterranean lab and prison, as well as another victim of the family—Sarah. Until this point, the scenes in the house had been fast-paced, leaving the audience little time to piece it all together. But with Anna’s discoveries in the basement, the tone shifts and the film slows down.

Anna is deeply empathetic, truly a caretaker at heart. Just as she loved and cared for Lucie, but ultimately was unable to help her, so too is she unable to help Sarah, whose experiences are worn thoroughly on her—the scars, the metal torture devices, the chains. Her mind and body are forever ruined; she is nearly dead. And soon she will be. As she stands and frantically rubs her face against the walls to Anna’s confusion, she’s shot in the head. A pair of forceful armed people come in and demand to know what Anna is doing here.

Lucie was right. We come to find out a cult, concerned with death and determined to learn what lies beyond, abducts young women, keeps them in captivity and tortures them. Physical torture, they believe, will cause these women to transcend. They will begin to perceive things that are not present, they will leave their physical reality and, under the right conditions, will be able to communicate what they’re seeing. 

Anna, bound to a chair in the basement lab, meets Mademoiselle—the leader of the cult. She shows Anna a gruesome photo album, stressing the look in the eyes of the tortured. Much of the prior two acts come together during this conversation—the creature Lucie was haunted by; Sarah’s eye covering and reaction to having it removed; the family’s role in torturing these women; the people who burst in, killed Sarah, and dragged Anna downstairs. As Mademoiselle tells Anna, “it turns out that women are more responsive to transfiguration. Young women.” Anna will be their next attempt.

Stacie Ponder, of Gaylords of Darkness and the Final Girl blog, commented on the seemingly rich and powerful Mademoiselle’s choice to sacrifice women of color. This is an incredible thread to pull. 

These young women (Lucie is Chinese-French and Anna Morrocan-French) are “doing the work,” being tortured, but are expected to give whatever transcendental knowledge they gain over to the Mademoiselle. This structure is so familiar, it’s the essence of western culture: the destruction, genocide and exploitation of BIPoC for the benefit of white people.

Everyone involved with this transfiguration cult is white—Mademoiselle, her entourage, the torturers, the people who gather at the end. Let’s take the family in the beginning—a mother, father, daughter, brother—as the cult’s representatives. They are a white, upper class, heteronormative nuclear family, living above a torture chamber. A literal representation of the history of white supremacy and white privilege. 

The children probably don’t know what their parents do or how the true cost of their lifestyle, which makes sense: the people who commit and support these agendas tend to hide, ignore and avoid discussing them as much as possible. See for example the current american moral panic, critical race theory.

all the secrets of life and death

The final sequence: the cult gathers at the house, an older man informs the crowd that Anna has transcended and communicated what she now knows to the Mademoiselle. Anna’s transcendence seems a result of how good a person she was. As with many of the martyrs in the catholic tradition, she is a saintly caretaker. 

We never find out what Anna has shared with Mademoiselle, and it will not reach the crowd. “Keep doubting,” she commands, just before killing herself. This ambiguity, lack of closure, abrupt ending, whatever you want to call it, reflects our own experiences with death. We don’t know, and we can’t know. 

The critical response to this scene has considered just about every possible answer: she said something so good the Mlle couldn’t wait for it, she said something so devastating that the Mlle ended her life, she said there is nothing and the Mlle ended her life believing her efforts to be in vain. This too is a reflection of humanity’s relationship to death. What death brings remains incomprehensible and wholly unknowable.

Martyrs is a devastatingly brutal film. But it’s less about what we’re seeing and more about what these things mean, or the feelings they evoke. The actual visual could be fairly tame, but what’s happening can be so hard to watch. For example, seeing Anna flayed doesn’t hurt as much as seeing her punched repeatedly. He’s so much bigger than her, he’s so much more physically powerful, and seeing him so nonchalantly attack feels wrong—Anna cries, tries to fight back, is made to stand upright by him while he continues to pummel her. By the time of the flaying, on the other hand, Anna’s begun transcending, so she doesn’t react. Maybe it’s this lack of response that makes it feel less immediate or painful to watch.

The banality of evil is truly on display: between the family in the beginning, and those who torture Anna in the third act. The actions and attitude these people take in service of their beliefs are so clearly horrific, but to them Anna means nothing compared to their goals. These people aren’t shaken or reflecting on their actions. Given what we see, to them torturing Anna is no different than showering or making food or whatever other normal daily task. 

Unlike many other films that heavily feature torture, Martyrs is challenging the audience. We aren’t meant to cheer, or laugh, or find any levity whatsoever in it; we are meant to witness, reflect and consider what it means.

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