Words by Darren TYNAN
For those brave enough to delve into the unremitting terror of Pascal Laugier’s 2008 horror film, Martyrs, the audacious directing and morbid expedition into the outer limits of human depravity makes the film’s content simply unforgettable.
Martyrs begins with a scene showing a young girl named Lucie, who is fleeing from her torturous captors after escaping a disused abattoir where she was held. Bloodied, lacerated and frenetic, Lucie has been subject to extended periods of torture from members of a surreptitious community, who we later discover have their own ideologies and motives, asserting that their actions are for greater philosophical purpose and spiritual insight.
Once I discovered that the tone of the film was bleak, dark and malevolent, I got a sense that the torturous experiences Lucie had endured were not simply physically painful, but psychologically scarring and irreversible. As the film cuts to a scene showing an older Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), the viewer follows her perspective and walks with her, hand in hand, down a bloodied, traumatic and revengeful path.
We observe Lucie on her murderous rampage, as she wreaks merciless havoc on the entire family of her captors. This is where the daunting presence of ambiguity seeps into plot, as the audience participates in identifying the antagonists and protagonists in the narrative.
From the perspective of the antagonists in Martyrs, there is an ideology involving martyrdom as a means for spiritual enlightenment, which is driven by the classical conditioning method of learned helplessness. Despite the numerous variations of the definition of the word “martyr”, the film offers the original Greek translation as a “witness”, in an inter-title prior to the closing credits.
According to the torture community in the film, as their victims are deprived of their humanity and ‘transcend’ into new states of being, or perhaps into states of ‘not being’, they supposedly become a witness to the afterlife. This is an interesting notion, but the boldness and the vulgarity of the imagery in Martyrs obliterates the effectiveness of this idea.
If this was intended to be one of the primary ideologies represented in the film, the comically tiny explanation into the motivation of the torturers and the overall execution of this idea is practically redundant. Even the character of Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin), the charismatic leader of the cultist torture organisation, commits suicide after hearing Anna whisper the secrets of the ‘afterlife’ in her mutilated state. Rather than adding a layer of intrigue to the story line, this just comes across as nihilistic and infuriatingly nonsensical.
Despite some of the negative aspects of the film in terms of plot feasibility, there is a question left hanging in the air after the viewing experience. Through all the hideously confronting depictions of hyper-violence – the gut-wrenching bludgeoning, throat slicing and skinning, it forces the viewer to ask the question: “Why am I watching this?”, and really, what is it that is so attractive about viewing horror films in the first place?
For some horror fanatics, the element of suspense and the protagonist’s journey through terror is a drawcard, but in the case of Laugier’s work, there is a focus more so on brutality and cruelty – a focus on direct horror with no real resolve.
Aside from progressing the genre and setting a new benchmark for extreme horror directors to aspire to, Martyrs also operates as a nihilistic representation of how depraved and sadistic human beings are capable of being. Through experiencing the cruelty and suffering of the film’s characters, the viewer can subsequently reflect on and evaluate his or her own values toward humanity.
I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend Martyrs because it has its flaws. If you do see it, whatever meaning you extract from this film, I guarantee you won’t forget it overnight.