SPOILER ALERT: While I don’t give a full synopsis, I do discuss details of the film…
A martyr (Greek : μάρτυς, mártys, “witness”; stem μάρτυρ-, mártyr-) is somebody who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce …
Mysticism ( pronunciation (help·info); from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, meaning ‘an initiate’) is the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, or levels of being, or aspects of reality, beyond normal human perception, sometimes including experience of and communion with a supreme being.
Fifteen years after Lucie escapes a horrific abduction in which she is subjected to prolonged torture and deprivation, she goes on a mission of revenge on the couple who brutally held her captive. She calls upon her faithful friend from the orphanage, Anna, who was also a victim of child abuse and utterly worships Lucie, to help her clean up after the massacre at the seemingly upper-class home.
Lucie slowly devolves into madness, as she cannot exorcise the demon who has been haunting her, a nightmarish and violent phantom born out of Lucie’s guilt for having left another little girl at the mercy of their abductors. If you enter into watching Martyrs thinking that it’s a straight out of the French New Wave of Torture Porn films, you’ll miss a transformative piece of filmmaking.
From the time Colin Clive utters “It’s alive, It’s alive” in James Whale’s seminal classic Frankenstein 1931, the tone is set. Whale’s campier adaptation from Mary Shelley’s more meditative novel, is still self-possessed of science, the origin of being human, the question of ‘a’ God’s role in this existence, and ultimately, reflectively, ‘man’s’ (I loathe using normative masculine case ugh.) relationship to himself, his creator and the universe that bore him.
Frankenstein is an existential science-fiction fantasy with multiple layers and questions that can not be answered in 70 minutes on camera. But the images, the spirit of the story, and the characters can serve to evoke these primal questions and fears that have been built into our natures as human subjects.
Now, if you abstract Shelley’s allegory and invert the narrative to where the matter of science does not seek out the mysteries of life in terms of how to create it from “the electrical secrets of heaven“ and an infinity of atoms, harness it, control it, thereby becoming god-like yourself …momentarily.
The film’s antagonists are a group of clandestine, ultra-wealthy, suggestive of high up in government, perhaps even royalty, seemingly above the law and untouchable, apparently with a hierarchy of leaders of advanced age. They are consumed with Mysticism or Spiritualism, (not to be confused with spirituality) a modernized form of a movement that was pervasive around the end of the 19th century and continuing around the early 1900s, and which this cabal, assumes a very clinical, anthropologically scientific approach.
The film’s narrative uses science vs. religion (although the act of faith in their mission becomes emblematic itself of fanaticism and religious avidity) because it bares an almost anthropological approach; a modern form of ’empirical’ torture, a method of collecting data. The end result is the creation of a theoretical equation, that asserts, if you dehumanize, brutalize, and cause the body enough pain, the subject’s psyche and physical being has nowhere else to go but toward an elevated sense of euphoria, to become Transfigured, like that of Christ on the cross, or Saint Joan de Arc.
The subjects of their research also, at this point, become objects. An anonymous and beautiful little girl becomes, at first, a helpless victim, then a monstrous ‘thing’, and then is exalted to a heroic saint and visionary figure.
Their methods, while equally brutal, stand in contrast with the motivations of the Medieval scourge of inflicting pain that was for the sole purpose of punishing, eliminating your enemies, relishing in sadism, barbarism, suffering, and bloodshed, merely to bringing about death slowly.
a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state: in this light the junk undergoes a transfiguration; it shines.
• (the Transfiguration) Christ’s appearance in radiant glory to three of his disciples (Matthew 17:2, Mark 9:2–3, Luke 9:28–36).
This Cult of Transfiguration uses pain, deprivation, and ultimately a carefully constructed clinical form of torture which for them is the road in which to search for the ‘secrets of life.’ But unlike Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein who sought to create life on this earthly plane, Mademoiselle’s quest is to reach past this plane to the other side… of the veil, the borderland, that thing we call ‘life after death’, the exalted state of being, where we go after we literally ‘shed our skin.’
The head of this Cult of Transfiguration, Mademoiselle, is archetypal of Nazi experimenters. As a French filmmaker, Pascal understands the deeply scarred history of WWII and the profound ramifications that the Nazi’s presence left. She is like the embodiment of the Nazi doctors who often used human subjects for ‘medical research.’
The cult finds that young girls are the most inherently geared to becoming Martyrs, so they set out abducting their ‘specimens’, subjecting them to the most brutal, yet very clinical, torture in order to bring their human subjects to the state of grace and transformation. Then, right before their deaths, they can communicate what they see in the ‘ether world.’
I use the word clinical to describe the conditions, the beatings, and the gruesome and ultra ‘extreme’ pain they subject the girls too. This clinical torture diverges from the grittier serial killer film, where the interaction is often personal, self-satisfying, and subjective, sublimating the victim’s pain, and devouring it like a cannibal to feed their blood lust.
This cult shows no sign of emotion at all. They do not become aroused or responsive. They do, however, possess an eerily quiet fixation on their victims, as they start to enter Martyrdom. It is then they become, revered much again like a Saint, an icon, an object. But that is only when the experiment has been perceived to have worked. None of their subjects, except for Anna, utters a word before death. At the end of the film, we are left not knowing what Anna whispers to Mademoiselle.
Right after receiving the cryptic message from Anna, Mademoiselle locks herself in her room. She, too, strips away all her superficial layers, her amber-colored lenses, her head scarf, and almost all her earthly signifiers, Like Anna’s flayed body, Mademoiselle prepares herself for the other world. She only tells the man in black awaiting the news of what Anna has shared, “keep doubting” and then puts the revolver in her mouth and blows her brains out.
Viewers are left to conjecture what Anna has shared. Was it that she met Lucie on the other side and found such peace everlasting? Did she meet ‘god’? Did she experience an ecstasy beyond description? It is better not to know because that would disallow Laugier’s point. That WE cannot ever know. And if we spend our days here on this earth using other people to gain that knowledge, we’ll have not only missed the point, but we’ll become monsters ourselves. Seeking out figures to crucify on behalf of a manufactured faith, damned to uncertainty and taking victims along with us…
As Mademoiselle tells Anna “We’ve created more victims than Martyrs.”
I fear that’s how it’s been in history with human subjects and animals alike in such cases where science becomes a monstrous mechanism for knowledge, or when religion sacrifices innocent blood in the name of an ambiguous morality relying on its faith.
It’s the clinical brutality that makes the film all the more disturbing. But when I say disturbing, I do not imply that this is a film that wants to disturb you in only a visceral way. As the protagonist, Anna suffers and ultimately does become transformed, but I found myself becoming altered by the film’s end. And still days after, I have been feeling and processing what I saw on screen.
A good horror film can take an utterly monstrous, abjectly frightening, nightmarish, and at times grotesque situation, and transform itself into a thing of beauty. I truly believe that Martyrs is a horrifically beautiful film.
When a film can be so horrific that it taps into our primal fears and what Kristeva calls abjection (a hell of a read if you’re interested), anything that makes us feel something plucking at the core of our senses, perhaps not quite know what it is, but truly alters us somehow. Then when it manages to transcend the horrifying aspects of its story the visceral reactions we experience and goes on to cause an odd symbiosis with the images and the story.. .then to me… it becomes a work of art.
I’ve had that experience with Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Serrador’s The House That Screamed (1969), Rosemary’s Baby (1969), Night of The Living Dead (1968) Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and Play Misty For Me (1971) and in recent years, with Clive Barker’s Candyman 1992, Lucky Mckee’s May (2002), Ty West’s House of The Devil (2009) and Dante Tomaselli’s Horror (2002).
Martyrs evoke themes and images from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, (1987) the hellish underworld society of Cenobites, that seek out and cause pain to acquire the ultimate exquisite pleasure.
But in Martyrs the exquisite release is that of the knowing… what is on the other side of this world. And it is THIS world that is HELL…