Well, let’s start spooky movie season with a series of horrifying bangs.
All I knew about Martyrs going in was that people argued about whether it should be considered “torture porn,” and that the title ended up playing a big, religiously-inflected role. I’m glad I didn’t know anything else about it; I was totally unprepared for its genre shifts and plot twists. I got a lot out of it and am convinced that the movie does not treat torture pornographically–there’s no chop-licking, no greasy lingering, no encouragement to objectify the characters being hurt. This post is a review, though, not a recommendation. There are plenty of good reasons not to see this movie if you don’t want to; and although I did end up finding the characters and themes compelling, none of that was good enough to push me to say, “If you can make yourself watch this, you should!” If you think you might want to see it, I can tell you it has a lot to say and I think says it well (though loudly). If you think you don’t want to see it, dude, don’t.
Okay. For those still with me, an extremely spoilerous review.
Martyrs starts with a young girl, dirty and mostly naked, bleeding and battered, running away in abject terror from a desolate building. We learn that Lucie has obviously been abused for years, but won’t or can’t describe the circumstances of her torture. She grows up in an orphanage, where she befriends Anna. The scenes of them playing together and comforting one another are the first sign of this movie’s humanism and compassion.
The movie skids into ghost horror, and also is-she-crazy? horror, as we try to figure out the nature of the terrifying creature who visits Lucie in the night. But then the girls are grown up. Lucie (now played by the really phenomenal Mylène Jampanoï) hunts down her tormentors–and guns them down mercilessly, along with their children.
Apparently some audiences treated this scene as a splatterfest, cheering and hooting at the murders. I don’t understand that at all. Nothing in the direction or acting encourages that. There’s no camp, no distance. The camera angles and acting all encourage us to feel sorrow and horror for Lucie, and to identify most strongly with Anna (Morjana Alaoui, also very good), who’s shocked by the carnage. Then the girls find the hidden underground chamber where Lucie was tortured. Another wretched girl has been locked up in her place.
At this point we start to sense that there’s a larger conspiracy here; it’s no longer about just one abusive family. The plot jackknifes around a lot more, and eventually we meet the authors of this conspiracy. Their leader, a heavily made-up sort of French death mask of a woman, explains that they are trying to discover the secrets of life after death, and specifically the nature of the ecstasy which seems to appear on the faces of some victims of torture shortly before they die. So they are torturing children in order to create “martyrs”: witnesses to the afterlife and its terrible joy.CS Lewis suggests, I think in the introduction to The Problem of Pain, that what set Hebrew religion apart was its insistence that sublimity and morality were inextricably linked. God was both power itself–the overwhelming roar of the thunder, the flood–and goodness itself. Martyrs is about a cult, or let’s say an underground scientific foundation, which separates sublimity and morality once again. What if we believed in religious ecstasy and afterlife–the beatific vision, release or at least relief–without any connection to love or kindness? What if you could get Heaven without Judgment?
I said Martyrs was humanist and I meant that in good and bad senses. I think the movie, having set up the sublimity/morality dichotomy, comes down hard on the side of compassion and ordinary life, against ecstasy and mystery. The fact that we see those tender, heartbreaking home movies of Lucie and Anna playing together as children during the end credits strikes me as an unmistakable sign of where the film itself stands. It’s an atheist movie (and not a “pseudo-Catholic” apologia for child abuse, that’s just Z-to-A backwards) insofar as it sets up a choice between immortality/mystery/sublimity/capital-T Truth and the minds, hearts, and bodies of children, and says yeah, you should reject the first thing and protect the second thing. Of course Lewis would point out that there is actually a third option.
For such an episodic, zigzagging movie, Martyrs felt surprisingly tight and propulsive. And although it does spend a lot of time hacking up its characters’ bodies and depicting them in abject, degraded positions, it expects us to empathize with these helpless and humiliated characters.
I don’t, in the end, think what Martyrs was doing was so important that I’d actively encourage people to seek it out. But I did want to defend it: It’s not dumb, it’s not porn, and it actually is engaging in a weird and intriguing way with religious belief.