As part of our Christmas celebration each year on the Everyone is a Critic Movie Podcast, myself, and my co-hosts, Bob Zerull and Josh Adams engage in movie gift exchange. We each buy each other a movie, watch the movie and then talk about it in a special bonus podcast. This year, Bob’s not so Secret Santa gift for me was the bizarre and fascinating 2008 French horror movie, Martyrs.
French Director Pascal Laugier opens the DVD presentation of Martyrs with an apology. Laugier wants you to know that he’s sorry for what he has committed to film and while it’s half-hearted and self-deprecating, I appreciated it nonetheless. I actually don’t feel he has much to apologize for. Strangely, though, I tend to be a scold when it comes to movies that fall under the banner of "torture porn," I found something else in the movie beyond the simplistic and dismissive labeling.
Martyrs stars Mylene Jampanoi as Lucie, a woman we meet as she was escaping unimaginable torture. Taken to a nearby orphanage, Lucie is cared for and raised and eventually makes a friend in Anna (Morjana Alaoui). This all passes by during the credits and a brief prologue scene that shows us that Lucie suffers from delusions that push her to self-harm.
Cut to 15 years later and we have no idea where Lucie and Anna are. We find ourselves in a sunny suburban kitchen. A normal-ish family is having breakfast with the familiar bickering of teenage siblings and the loving scolding of parents all while food is served and enjoyed. A knock at the door interrupts things but not as much as the shotgun blast that follows. It’s Lucie, she’s come to kill this entire family.
Intrigued? I certainly was. The blood and guts of this sequence is remarkable but what is far more interesting and daring is that nothing is spared. Director Laugier completely upends expectations. He takes care to set up little touchstones that you assume will be part of the tete a tete about to play out in this suburban home, but no, that’s not the movie you’re going to see.
In the next section, I have to delve into spoilers so I can discuss why I have reacted so strongly and positively to Martyrs. If you don’t want to know what happens, go watch the movie and come back and we can talk some more.
The parents in this suburban abode have a secret: they were in on Lucie’s torture. These cuddly suburbanites were part of a conspiracy that kidnapped and tortured Lucie on the theory that she could be martyred to the point where she could see whether there is life beyond death. Unfortunately for Lucie, she didn’t have the stomach for martyrdom, she succumbed to guilt and her mind collapsed causing her to take her own life.
This leaves only Anna in the story and this is where things take the most fascinating turn. The people behind the massive Martyr conspiracy take Anna hostage and begin to systematically torture her toward martyrdom. Some will say that what comes next is merely brutality for the sake of brutality. They will argue, reasonably, that we’re being invited to enjoy Anna’s pain. I prefer to think I identified with it.
Laugier dedicates scene after scene to the almost mundane routine of torture that Anna suffers. She is force-fed and then beaten, cleaned, forced fed and then beaten again, day after day after day. We don’t know exactly how much time passes for Anna but as I was watching it I couldn’t help but think of it is an almost comic metaphor for self-actualization. The day to day grind of everyday life can feel like days on end of torture all building toward something that will either kill you or help you self-actualize, transfigure into the person who is no longer being punished by life.
I am not trying to say that working 40 to 50 hour work weeks where you get paid a wage and get to go home to your bed at night is akin to actual torture, this is not an apples to apples comparison.
But, just imagine the soul-sucking pain of a job you hate and how it would feel to go there day after punishing day. Now imagine that you are your own torturer and that what Anna is going through in the movie is akin to the way your own psyche works you over each day.
That is how some people feel about life in the modern world. Those who don’t have good jobs or don’t have the accouterments that make life bearable can feel like they are being tortured and I loved that Laugier creates this notion of suffering for a purpose. I am taking this portion of the film out of the context of the movie, but it’s what I grabbed onto outside of the slick filmmaking.
As Anna continues to survive her torture and battles off a few of her demons she, quite literally, sheds her skin and transcends death. She becomes something more, a fully actualized person who is beyond the pain of every day.
I am not saying we should all have our skin shorn off so that we could potentially see the face of God, but I like that Laugier is willing to push hard on this metaphor and allow us to identify with Anna in a way that goes beyond the simple demonstration of her torture.
I have worked places in the past that have felt like a torturous walk toward a meaningless empty death. I have felt that darkness and wrenching pain in my soul over the feeling I have not met my potential and while that is not the story of Anna in Martyrs, she is a perfect physical representation of that ungodly psychic pain. That her skin is cut from her body and she transcends to another plane is strangely hopeful in terms of metaphor as much as it is wholly awful in the context of Anna as a representation of a person having their skin shorn completely off.
The filmmaking style of Laugier is slick and satisfying, nothing particularly special in his execution of scenes but he’s a solid craftsman. Martyrs is a good looking movie, well edited, strong production design. The story construction is consistently surprising especially as it rises that shocking and fascinating conclusion. The sight of Anna with only her face, her musculature bare to the world, is a killer visual and a near perfect crescendo for this horror masterpiece.
That there is still one death left even after Anna’s provides an even more intriguing bit of shock and one that should make for an interesting conversation over its meaning. We will talk about Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs on the Christmas Special Edition episode of the Everyone is a Critic Movie Podcast.