Cult Cinema: The Folly of Blind Faith: Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs are exceptional people. They survive pain, they survive total deprivation. They bear all the sins of the earth. They give themselves up. They transcend themselves...they are transfigured.

Pascal Laugier's 2008 film Martyrs elicits the gamut of reactions from viewers ranging from complete horror and disgust to admiration. This comes as no surprise considering its association with New French Extremity, a sub-genre of horror films that deal with extremely transgressive ideas and visuals. Martyrs has a lot going on under the surface thematically which elevates it above a simple shock value piece.

The film opens with a harrowing sequence: a young girl escapes from imprisonment running wildly through the streets covered in blood and wailing. Why was she being held? What was done to her? The film flashes forward to an orphanage. The young girl (who is named Lucie) has problems adjusting to normal life. She is withdrawn, she hallucinates a grotesque twisted woman stalking her, her PTSD controls her actions. It is during this time she befriends Anna, another girl who has also been abused. They form a bond, brought together by their shared trauma. 

Fifteen years pass and the girls have become women. Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) still hasn't acclimated to society and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) is her tenuous connection to reality. The point-of-view of the narrative shifts to a seemingly idyllic family. A mother and father chat with their two children over breakfast. A knock at the door. It is Lucie wielding a shotgun and she forces her way in and brutally murders every single person in the house. Lucie is hysterical and calls Anna to come over and help her. After this point the film becoming a living nightmare.

It turns out that Lucie was right, there are literal monsters and her fears are reality. There is a secret society that kidnaps young girls and women and systematically tortures them in order to make them martyrs and find out the secret of what lies beyond death. Anna is captured by these people and the entire last third of the film is focused on her horrifying experience. She is dehumanized first, stripped of her clothing and her head shaved. Then she is severely beaten everyday. Finally she is flayed alive and displayed as some sort of sick art piece. All of this is done under the guise of religious transfiguration, and her pain and suffering is a means to an end for a rich cult to find enlightenment.

Martyrs is an "anti-transcendental" film in which the very idea of of the romanticism of "suffering for a higher power" is subverted and critiqued. How many times in history have women borne the brunt of suffering for religion? They have been subjugated time and again--then after they have died are hailed as martyrs for their trouble? It means nothing and always has. Anna reaches a sort of nirvana at the end of the film, and whispers something inaudible in the ear of the cult leader (known as Mademoiselle). Whatever it is she says makes the Mademoiselle commit suicide. Her final words are "Keep doubting". This is the most important phrase in the film. Keep doubting that these religions have your best interest in mind. Question everything. Martyrs is a savage critique of organized religion and class structure.

What makes this film especially hard to watch is the intimate nature of being witness to Anna's abuse. It's hard to distance oneself from the horror and not empathize with her. Women in horror films are often portrayed as victims and Martyrs takes this idea to another level entirely, making one question themselves for even watching it. What is the point of all that violence? What exactly makes this harder to bear than a generic slasher movie? Is it merely shock value? Is transgressive material just for the sake of it wrong? Many people decry this film for just existing, but I think that making people feel negative emotions with art is just as viable and important as making people feel positive ones. I have yet to see anyone who doesn't feel anything but despair at Anna's character arc and this usually leads to self-evaluation.

While the label of New French Extremity was meant to be negative, these films explore the outer reaches of acceptability. Where does art begin and end? Who determines these boundaries? As controversial as these movies are, the conversation they generate is valuable. Keep on doubting.

--Michelle Kisner