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Martyrs is perhaps the prime example of the pretentiously titled New French Extremity embracing (or exploiting, or subverting, or utilising) the horror genre, with heavy reference to its philosophical darling Georges Bataille. But is this really Art House, or simply body horror with delusions of grandeur? And what the hell does it all mean?
A young girl – Lucie – escapes from an abandoned factory, where she has been kept imprisoned, tortured and starved by unknown captors. She is rescued and taken into care, where she forms a bond with another abused girl – Anna. Lucie is exceptionally disturbed, believing she is tormented by a horrifically disfigured woman, whose emaciated body is riddled wounds and whom Lucie believes attacks and cuts her.
The film proper begins as Lucie invades the home of a family and murders all four members with a shotgun. After a phone call, Anna arrives and, though horrified by her friend’s actions, starts to dispose of the bodies. We learn that Lucie had hoped to appease her pitiful tormentor by murdering the family – she believes that they were responsible for imprisoning and torturing them both. This demonic apparition was, we discover, another woman that Lucie saw imprisoned in the factory but was unable to help escape.
Anna meanwhile has discovered that the mother of the murdered family is still alive, she tries to help her escape but Lucie catches her and smashed the woman’s head against the floor. Now that she has finally killed all the family members Lucie sees another vision of the disfigured woman; Lucie embraces her thinking that she is finally set free but the woman attacks her again. We see the scene through Anna’s eyes as she watches her friend mutilating herself, confirming beyond doubt that the woman exists only in Lucie’s mind.
Totally broken by her friend’s betrayal and doubt, and unable to escape from her demon – Lucie runs into the garden and slits her own throat. As Anna mourns her friend, she discovers a hidden hatch in the house. In the basement she finds a laboratory style prison, with pictures of horribly mutilated people on the walls. Finally she discovers a woman, starved, mutilated and effectively blinded by a mental visor attached to her skull with metal pins.
Realising that Lucie was right about everything – Anna is devastated. She tries to help the woman but she is too disturbed. She begins trying to cut through her arm and hysterically runs around the house – until she is shot in the head.
A group of black-clad individuals arrive, clearly associated with the dead family. Having murdered the mutilated woman, they take Anna down to the basement where she meets le Mademoiselle, who appears to be the leader of this shady organisation. She explains that the pictures on the walls are relevant – these individuals suffered horrific deaths but somehow managed to achieve a state of transcendence and died peacefully even as their bodies were burned, mutilated or subjected to some other horror. The woman describes them as martyrs. She indicates that her groups, through kidnapping and torturing young women, is trying to find another such individual. She says that Anna and the dead prisoner were unable to achieve this. They were tormented by demons from their own minds because they were left in the cold and darkness and pushed past endurance.
Anna is then subjected to imprisonment and torture – though initially nothing as horrific as that suffered by the women who were cut and mutilated. In time Anna reaches a state of acceptance where she no longer struggles against her captors but accepts each new torture. At this point, as the final stage of the process, they flay her alive. After this she achieves the transcendence that the group refer to as ‘Martyrdom.’ Skinless, except for her face, and elevated in a crucified pose, Anna is still alive but composed, calm – and her captors believe at an elevated state of consciousness. Indeed, we see through her eyes and she moves down a tunnel of swirling light. Anna then recounts her experience to Mademoiselle. Other members of the organisation gather to hear Anna’s testimony. Mademoiselle prepares to deliver it, removing her makeup and head scarf. Another group member goes to fetch her. She tells him that what Anna told her was clear and precise. She asks him if he could imagine what comes after death. He replies “no.” Mademoiselle then tells him to “keep doubting” before shooting herself in the mouth. A closing title announces that “martyr” comes from the Greek word meaning “witness.”
Let’s reduce this further. Lucie, an abused and deeply disturbed girl murders her abusers and their children, then kills herself. It turns out that her captors were part of a larger organisation who want to discover more about life after death. They kidnap and torture her friend Anna. They push her past human boundaries of endurance to a point where she no longer appears to experience pain. They then flay her alive. The group believe that she is now a ‘martyr’which means that she can experience life after death while still being alive. They have done this to many women, of these only 4 successfully became martyrs and only Anna is able to recount her experience to the leader of the organisation – who shortly after shoots herself.
So, what are we to make of all this? The central concept of the film is confusing. ‘Martyr’ clearly has a religious association for most of us. Most analyses of this film will insist that the organisation is not religious – ignoring its saturation with many negative religious motifs. The organisation is happy to sacrifice individuals in its quest to discover a truth about the afterlife. It forces martyrdom upon those it brainwashes with violence and deprivation. Its members have a reverence for their cause and a clear hierarchy. While they profess no belief in god, they have a belief in another level of existence. They revere those individuals who have achieved transcendence through pain and suffering. Their belief goes beyond fanaticism.
From a religious perspective martyrdom cannot be enforced upon anyone. It is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice for truth. In the Christian tradition martyrs are: “those who after his example have proved the strength and genuineness of their faith in Christ by undergoing a violent death.”
We have the notion of martyrs as those who sacrifice themselves for a belief. It can be difficult for a non-believer to distinguish between a martyr and a victim. Is Anna a martyr in the traditional sense of the word – does she martyr herself to her love for Lucie? Does she martyr herself through her desire to help those who are suffering? She tries again to help the captive woman at the house, eventually leading to her own capture, despite having told the woman “I cannot help you.”
Both the women Anna tries to help are simply too damaged, too wounded for her to be able to save them. She becomes, in a way, a Christ like figure, sacrificing herself to mankind for love. Symbolically she tries to bathe the woman’s wounds but is overwhelmed by their number – she does not know where to begin. She then places her into a bath tub of water – submerging her in a gesture like baptism. She then removes the metal plate which has been nailed to her skull – allowing the woman to see but the light is too much for her. She attempts to clear up Lucie’s murders, she does not run from her friend, she tries to help the mother at the house – she takes on a responsibility, carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Ultimately she is tortured, skinned and held up in a pose similar to crucifixion with her arms spread. All of this is blatant Christian symbolism.
You cannot force someone to be a martyr to a cause – so Lucie and the other women are victims, sacrifices. Anna already has something of the martyr about her, giving over her life to those who have suffered. So we could see this film on some level as a criticism of religious martyrdom. Who is to blame for the suffering these individuals undergo? Is it those who inflict pain, the martyrs themselves or the religion for tying them to a belief for which they are willing to undergo inhuman suffering before they will renounce? Yet the organisation presents us with the inversion of martyrdom – human sacrifice – so are we being invited to question the traditional notion of martyrdom?
Our notion of martyrdom is subverted by the closing caption which informs us that the word comes from the Greek “witness.” This is one of the ways I feel the film fails in a big way. They have interpreted this meaning of ‘to witness’ in a seemingly superficial way – meaning simply, “to see.” So Anna sees the afterlife, she witnesses it in order to pass the information back. The Greek root of this word more accurately means “to bear witness” in the sense that someone will stand in defence of something, in much the same way that a traditional martyr bears witness to their faith. It does not mean simply “to observe.” Is this an accident or deliberate? Honestly, I think the film-makers just got it wrong.
Another way that this film is confusing is with its insistence that to transcend the body through pain allows a person to see into the afterlife. Where did this peculiar notion come from? It’s almost like a misunderstanding and over simplification of Nirvana mixed up with a confusion of Christian and Buddhist ideology. The people we see in the photographs are all suffering agonising deaths, yet have achieved peace. Where in this transcendence of pain, does the notion that they are witnessing the afterlife spring from? Where is the testimony or even the rationale that leads them to this conclusion? I know these images are discussed by Bataille in The Tears of Eros – I only hope more coherently.
On two counts, this film is a mess. It does not define its central concept nor understand the notions it explores.
So to the final scene, which is meant to elevate this from torture porn to art house. Why does the old woman shoot herself? What does Anna say to her?
The first, and least satisfying option is that Anna is seeking revenge. She tells Mademoiselle something that will make her kill herself – perhaps something regarding hell or the absence of an afterlife. This is nonsense, it makes no sense. If Anna has transcended to a higher state of existence, then all traditional notions of this experience would indicate that it can only be reached by shedding the self. Could someone really reach a level of higher consciousness through pain, through acceptance, through dissolving the self – and still be left with a desire to seek revenge? And what could she tell the Mademoiselle that would have her speed to her death? That she is going to hell? Then why the look of such indifference – who would hurry to meet this fate? That there is nothing? Again, why would she end her life? This is a totally unsatisfactory explanation.
The second option is very unsatisfactory for an audience that feels Mademoiselle deserves to be punished for her actions, who cling to their delusion that justice could exist in such a world. Anna, imparts her knowledge and Mademoiselle, not wishing to share it with others, rushes to embrace the afterlife, free of fear because she knows what awaits her. It’s interesting that the important members of this organisation are, for the most part, older people. Closer to their death – but still desiring their answers, eager to sacrifice the young for certainty regarding the inevitable. What can they hope to achieve in knowing what will happen at such a late stage of their lives? They cannot live differently, they will simply die. Does Mademoiselle simply realise that to share this knowledge will see all people rush to end their lives – no longer afraid? What are the consequences of everyone facing death in this way? Is Madam herself Martyred by hearing Anna’s account, she shows no fear and displays no pride. Is this why she symbolically strips her makeup, has she too shed the self? Is she rushing to meet the inevitable to get it over with – does death perhaps cleanse us all with such self-stripping agony before we can move on?
Third – what Anna tells the woman cannot be known by the living or those who have not earnt it through suffering, it overwhelms Mademoiselle and she kills herself. Again, this explanation is unsatisfactory. Simply, the woman looks composed – not overwhelmed. She makes a conscious decision not to pass on the knowledge that she has. Knowledge has to be earnt, it cannot be stolen? Then why does Anna tell her? If Anna has achieved this higher state, then why does she speak at all? Again, this suggests an act of revenge – and Anna should be beyond such earthly concerns.
My interpretation of this ending, and the one that offers the best explanation for me is this: Anna transcends because she lived her life as a martyr to her love for others, she was always willing to sacrifice herself to help others escape suffering. Why Anna and not the others? Because they were unable to escape from their need to stop the pain. Anna carries the world on her shoulders, she takes the pain of othes and absorbs it into herself.
It is Lucie’s voice, not a monster, that leads her to transcend. All that she has witnessed and all that she bears witness to, makes her a martyr. Each person has an individual path to this state – think of the pictures, these so called martyrs are not unified by a religion or cause. Yet they have found something that helps them rise above the pain and glimpse some higher existence separate from the body. Martyrdom cannot be enforced upon others by a cause. Anna is released, she exists somewhere else, free of her physical body. Why then does she relate her experiences?
I would suggest it is because she does not want others to suffer as she has. She tells Mademoiselle what she sees – knowing that the old woman will rush to her death with resignation but she does not, cannot, do this out of revenge. She does it because she does not want the organisation to continue with its quest – because she knows that the old woman will tell them that it is better to live in doubt and then kills herself. For a group who are so obsessed with answers, who are so quick to sacrifice others as they obsess over their own fate – knowing that the knowledge they seek will drive them to their deaths is the only thing that can make them stop looking for answers. They have done these things through fear, fear of the inevitable.
And what is the inevitable? I can guess, and while the answer feels satisfactory it is only supposition: death itself is pain. The pain that strips away the individual and leaves them free. In life this can be achieved, allowing a glimpse into the afterlife, but this burning away by white light will be faced by all. Mademoiselle sees the pointlessness of her quest, sees the pain she will have to embrace and knowing what she has inflicted upon others only makes it worse – imagining what awaits her would be terrible. So she submits, rushes to meet it because life with this knowledge could be only suffering and misery. To truly achieve transcendence for a living being is death of the individual – something that a woman like mademoiselle, a pragmatist but an egotist, could not realistically endure. She does not tell the others because she now sees the futility of their endeavour – they were seeking an answer they already knew and did not want to know. Death is pain. Death is inevitable. The release of suffering is the release of self.
Having said all that, I still think this film is truly awful. It is extremely well acted, the effects are mesmerising and the cinematography at times so unsettlingly perfect in its nerve jangling way that it is almost painful to watch. But the central concept is badly realised, mishandled by philosophical amateurs, an attempt at subverting the most subversive of all genres – which is like trying to pervert a Pervert. I haven’t read The Tears of Eros, but if this really is indicative of Bataille’s philosophy I’m going to find it a struggle.
Is it Art House? Yea, sure. In the sense that 98% of Art House is pretentious bullshit, toying with concepts it doesn’t understand in a childish and superficial way and defending itself purely with the accusation that others simply don’t GET IT. Maybe I get this – maybe I don’t but I’ve taken from it as much as I can.
I also think Martyrs is conceited, pretentious and over ambitious. It’s not existential, it’s not challenging – it has some visually and emotionally engaging moments early on but as it progresses its like being stabbed in the eye with a severed leg. It ends up being the typical, religiously obsessed pseudo-philosophy – with naked women in metal pants and nails hammered into their skulls. Yes, there were some good ideas in here – somewhere – but they got lost along the way. They devolved into nonsense, a mishmash of poorly developed concepts masquerading as deep insight. They aren’t – they are confusing and deliberately vague because the film maker’s didn’t really know what they were saying.