Martyrs (2008)
July 16, 2014 1:51 PM - Subscribe

A young woman's quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity.
posted by mathowie (22 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Trigger warning: any substantial level of detail in this discussion will necessarily involve recounting pretty horrible violence. So if you're just dropping in to check out the thread I want to issue the same warning here I did on the announcement thread: if talk of violence upsets you maybe try one of the other Horror Movie Club discussions on Fanfare. None of those so far cover a movie half as violent as this one.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:09 PM on July 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I went into this movie fully prepared to hate the fuck out of it - I can't stand torture porn. I wouldn't say I was "pleasantly" surprised, but I was surprised, and I am still unpacking what the hell it is that I just watched. This is one of the very few movies I've seen where half way through I had absolutely no idea where it was going.

It is harrowing, extremely violent and graphic and I did need to take a couple of breaks from watching it. However I never got the feeling that I was expected to get off on some level to the violence I was watching. My main problem with movies like Hostel or Saw is the feeling that the director is winking at me, saying "isn't it just awesome that these horrible things are happening to these horrible people". No it's not, it's just fucking sickening and the violence in Martyrs is never presented as anything other than just that - fucked up and horrifying.

I also appreciated that the violence was very explicitly removed from any sexual context. The one vaguely sexual scene where Anna attempts to kiss Lucie, only to be rebuffed with a "WTF? We are covered in blood and I am am extremely messed up and traumatised and we are in the middle of disposing of mangled corpses, what are you doing?" cracked me up.

The genre shifts in the narrative were also well handled. It's a ghost story, no it's a violent home invasion story no wait this is just completely WTF. I never felt manipulated by it.

And holy hell that is one of the most brutally nihilistic endings to a film I have seen. Mademoiselle figuratively stripping herself bare mirroring what has just quite literally been done to Anna, before affirming that living in doubt is better than what she now knows and blowing her brains out. And that last shot of Anna that just raised more questions in my mind about her purported transcendence. I am not 100% sure that the philosophical questions the movie raises are quite deep enough to justify the 90 minutes that came before them, but at least it is asking them.

I am less sure that Martyrs can make a convincing case for why the violence is so explicitly gendered. Mademoiselle even comes out and says "this is something we only do to young women". I guess you could make a case that of the 4 or 5 male characters that get a couple of lines, two are very brutally murdered by one of the young female characters. I guess you could also make a claim that the movie is asking questions about the role of women in society as the sacrificial lambs, the ones who are meant to put up with suffering and hardship without complaint, and the role of suffering in general in the western cultural narrative. But I dunno, seems a bit thin. I'd be interested to know what other people thought about it.
posted by arha at 3:34 PM on July 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

I can finally say why I love Martyrs so much, because it's a spoiler: As arha noted, it's a movie that keeps resetting on you, that keeps changing radically, and every time it does you feel like, "Oh, this is what it's about!" and twenty minutes later, it's something else...and yet? Every one of those resets plays completely fair with the audience. It's seamless, everything in it is earned, and aspects from early in the film that in lesser hands might have been red herrings end up paying off as the film goes on.

(When I saw it back around 2009 or so, I found myself thinking of how Kubrick's films tend to be triptychs, and felt something similar going on -- think of a movie like A Clockwork Orange or Full Metal Jacket -- but on rewatch, I'm not sure Martyrs settles into that structure as neatly as I thought at first. There's certainly a lot of Kubrick in the visual style of the film, though.)

Martyrs is a different movie when you watch it the second time, and I don't know if it's quite as exciting when you know the twists/turns. I still was enthralled. That said, I had the presence of mind this time out to wonder why, for instance, Anna didn't call French 911 when she found the martyr (and just bolt if she was worried about the police), why she didn't call the police once Lucie died (and just bolt if etc.), why the hell she didn't run the fuck out of that house as soon as she found the torture chamber (yo, there could still be more of those motherfuckers down there). Anyway, I've rambled enough. What did everybody else think?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:57 PM on July 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ok, I somehow could only get my hands on a copy of this movie with a terrible english dub. I mean terrible, terrible. It was so ridiculous that I think it blunted a lot of the horrific stuff that was happening and made it seem almost comical.

However, the movie itself was also bad. I mean the wife digs a ten foot deep hole in the backyard of the house, somehow manages to open up a pressurized water main and removes an intact mouse, saying that it is the reason the water pressure in the shower was weak? Really?

Also, the really dumb decision to go down the stairs into the dungeon in the house, and to not call the police or run. I mean before Lucie chopped her own neck, they both should have skedaddled. Who murders a family brutally and bloodily and then decides to sleep in their beds? It makes no sense.

The martyr cult itself I actually have no problem with, but the idea that you could find someone to skin a living human being in a professional manner seems a bit far fetched. Also, why was Anna just beaten and not cut up like all the other victims? It seems very convenient.

I take a different view of the suicide at the end, though. If living in doubt is better than living with what she knows, I assume that either means the afterlife doesn't exist or that it is a horrible, horrible place. In either case, the suicide doesn't make sense. If Anna said the afterlife is full of rainbows and ponies and whatnot, then the old lady shouldn't have had a problem relaying the message prior to blowing her brains out, no?

Anyway, I thought the movie was pretty crummy overall. I actually expected it to be a lot more gruesome than it was, the only really creepy scenes were of the two chained up, scarred girls, but they looked really cheesy to me, and Anna being skinned, which also didn't really bother me that much for whatever reason.

But, the movie did make me question what exactly horror means. I sort of equated it directly to scary, but I don't think that's true. Google tells me the definition of horror is an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. This movie wasn't scary, really, but it swung for the fences on shock (moreso than disgust in my opinion) but I still think it fell short. Not the movie maker's fault, really, and I expected to be more shocked.

Really, I think that we are living in a time when you can turn on the news and watch burned bodies being pulled from rubble of the latest disaster, a bit of googling will (probably) find you the old video of Nick Berg getting his head sawed off, and the video of Bud Dwyer committing suicide is actually hosted on Youtube. So when horror film makers have to try to top such a fucked up reality, it is kind of hard to make an impression. Perry Farrell was prescient, nothing is shocking.

Still, it receives the highest scoring yet on the infallible MULPSEAPH scale, a 7.6, or just slightly less horrifying than having your necktie caught in a woodchipper.
posted by Literaryhero at 7:26 PM on July 16, 2014

I take a different view of the suicide at the end, though. If living in doubt is better than living with what she knows, I assume that either means the afterlife doesn't exist or that it is a horrible, horrible place. In either case, the suicide doesn't make sense. If Anna said the afterlife is full of rainbows and ponies and whatnot, then the old lady shouldn't have had a problem relaying the message prior to blowing her brains out, no?

This may be entirely too weird, but I interpreted it as a kind of motif of harmful sensation thing, and that the content of the secret wasn't actually important, because it's literally something Man Was Not Meant To Know. In other words, the relationship between the transcendental insight and the experience of overwhelming body-and-soul-breaking pain flows both ways, so the villain "succeeds", but that success forces her to suffer the same fate as her victims.
posted by kagredon at 8:09 PM on July 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

kagredon - that was my interpretation of the ending as well. I figure there are only 3 interpretations that make any sense of the suicide of Mademoiselle.

- The transcendence of Anna was true, the ultimate truth exists and it is just goddamn wonderful but the one sure fire way you can't achieve it is by spending your life, you know, torturing young women to death. And knowing that she was damned was enough to compel Mademoiselle to kill herself. This theory is weakly supported by the preceding movie at best.
- The transcendence of Anna was false, and the knowledge that she had caused all this suffering for no good reason was enough to drive the suicide. This is not really supported by the text at all, but I can understand an argument for it.
- The transcendence of Anna was true, but it is not knowledge that can be contained by the human mind without complete destruction of the self. Hence the bullet to the brain. Best supported by the text of the three, but still open to argument.
posted by arha at 9:23 PM on July 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

I will actually accept that, kagredon.

I'm also curious about how Lucie managed to cut her own back with the knife when she thought she was being attacked by the victim/ghost thing. Not that it is a huge deal, but I don't think I would actually be able to reach the middle of my back with that razor.

And how did they build that torture dungeon under a normal house with apparently oblivious kids living there? It would have been a massive undertaking. Plus, people going day and night with their torturing and whatnot, wouldn't any bells have been going off for the kids? Were they in on it?

I mean after the family gets killed and Anna becomes the prisoner, the second lady (who seemed indistinguishable from the first?) was just mixing up the poop gruel in the kitchen blender to take to feed Anna. This suggests they don't have a specific poop gruel kitchen in the murder dungeon, so I wonder how the kids never found it odd with all this poop gruel blending. Who knows, maybe the blender in the torture dungeon was on the fritz and I am overthinking it.

Also, after the skinning, why does the 'doctor' keep touching his neck after he showers and is getting dressed? Is there something reason for that?
posted by Literaryhero at 9:25 PM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

On my second watch I still didn't like this movie. The whole first half is a tense, successful sort of revenge / ghost movie, it's well-paced and horrifying and has some twists and turns, but as soon as Anna becomes trapped everything slows to a crawl. I didn't really find the whole cult movement to be all that believable in the first place, and I agree with LiteraryHero that hosting the whole thing in the basement of a suburban home didn't seem logistically plausible.

This time through I was trying to keep a look out for some kind of meta-narrative in Martyrs about the impulse to torture young girls and watch them suffer (and hence, to make a movie like Martyrs) but I didn't really see anything coherent. I did read an interesting comment online somewhere about how the photos of the previous martyrs all have a strong resemblance to movie posters, but I don't know that the analogy goes much farther than that. Is Mademoiselle the director?

The ending also seemed like a ridiculous cop-out to me. I'm fine with an ambiguous ending, but this seemed more like an empty gesture, and I agree with arha's analysis: there aren't a lot of possibilities for what Anna could have said that don't wind up being unsatisfying to the viewer in one way or another. (Anna could also have lied to Mademoiselle about what she saw or didn't see, but I don't think that changes the analysis.)

There were definitely, like, themes in here and I appreciated that, but none of the themes seemed to be breaking new ground, exactly. Terror and suffering lurks in the heart of bland, middle-class suburbia - you don't say! Oh, and the old prey on the young? Children don't know the evils their parents get up to?

The most interesting thing I took from Martyrs was how unaffecting Anna's beatings became after a while; they became kind of boring once you knew what was going to happen, and I never really found them at all scary. I think part of the reason they didn't seem scary is that they were never delivered with any sense of malice or sadism, but instead had a sort of bland, institutional character. (This seemed like another not very subtle comment on middle-class life to me.) In fairness, this was the second time I've seen it, so I already knew what was going to happen.
posted by whir at 10:48 AM on July 17, 2014

I am at work and have a longer comment, but I had a couple quick observations:

Not a curl up with you laptop movie.

The english dub is completely awful and useless but the sound track is really good. It plays with genre expectations and follows the film's shifts in tone and sub-genre.

I also wondered why the man kept touching his neck towards the end of the film. Just a detail inserted to throw us off?
posted by kittensofthenight at 11:48 AM on July 17, 2014

Looking at it from a thematic perspective, my only take on a "solution" to the ending is that whatever Anna has seen has proven to her that human suffering has no point. It's all just pain. But really I think we're supposed to be left in the dark, as the cultists have been. What the martyrs learn is unknowable. That's a bummer to anyone who seriously expects the film to supply a real answer, but I can't begin to imagine how it could...about as close as I can get is maybe swiping the ending of The Holy Mountain, you guys.

About the house, though -- my professionally-subtitled copy of the film (evidently a collector's item!) makes it plain that Mademoiselle tells Anna that the cult took greater precautions after Lucie escaped them; since the cult is clearly quite wealthy, my guess is they built one or more safe houses in the remote exurbs (the house seems to have no neighbors), with the dungeon included. The new couple seems to move right in and pick up where the murdered family left off, so I wouldn't be surprised if this is the only such house the cult owns. This would explain how the outwardly normal family could, like, go to Disney for a week in June or whatever. Presumably, others in the cult act as martyr-sitters. Whether the kids are in on it is another question; I would think probably not, but yeah, hiding that would be hard. Although it's not clear how long a martyr typically lasts, or how long the cult goes between victims.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:41 PM on July 17, 2014

I can't really put together my overall thoughts about this film just yet, but just wanted to bring one thing up. Some of the details about the confinement and torture in the movie are so similar to the real-life story of Genie mentioned in this recent MetaFilter thread, that clearly the writer/director borrowed heavily from this story in particular--and others of the same kind, such as the Fritzl or Dugard cases--in creating his vision. But specifically Genie. Strapped to a toilet chair. The only interaction with other humans being quickly spoon-fed a mush substance and being abused when she couldn't swallow it fast enough. The regular beatings. And the Genie story stands out from so many other similar stories in that there did not appear to be any sexual element to it--just like in this movie.

I think even the suicide at the end recalled Genie's father's suicide, also by gunshot. His suicide note included the phrase "The world will never understand."

Laugier has said that the movie was an exploration of the darkness and sickness in the world, about a world that is increasingly about "winners and losers" and the victims of that brutality doing something with their pain. I felt like Lucie and Anna were presented as alter egos; one girl whose pain was turned in to monsters, ghosts and vengeance, and the other who transcended that.
posted by freejinn at 10:08 PM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

My rather loose interpretation of the ending:

If you had to imagine what words Anna whispered to Mademoiselle, it would be something like "In the afterlife, every action unto others that you're responsible for in this life is carried out infinityfold unto you." So in the case of a martyr who selflessly shows compassion for others, there's an infinity of bliss and goodwill (note Anna not only understood Lucie's pain but also tried to save the family member that inflicted the pain on her - impartial compassion). But in the case of Mademoiselle who not only inflicted untold suffering but created this entire suffering cult around it, you can only imagine what's in store for her. And everyone else in the cult as well. Hence, keep doubting because the reality of the afterlife is horror beyond horror.

This kind of exponential karmic economy should be seen as a metaphor for horror film and gruesome horror itself. What is it we're doing here making these films, and watching them? Is it to help the world somehow and show compassion for suffering, to empathize and lift people above suffering, or is it to gaze upon suffering and wallow it in orgiastically, to selfishly wish it upon people for our entertainment and hopes of enlightenment? That's the central conflict that the movie poses, and its form is married to its content.

It's a mistake to read this as a film about religion and religious martyrs/torturers. It uses that conceit to push at the question of why we're watching films like this, and whether viewers and filmmakers are implicated in perpetuating the suffering of the world. Many of us specifically sought out this film because on some level we want to explore the limits and extremities of this genre and see if there is some transcendence or epiphany to be found within. We are members of the cult of suffering here.

Is Mademoiselle a stand-in for Pascal Laugier? Is he the one committing suicide at the end for his sins? Are we the crowd waiting expectantly downstairs?
posted by naju at 2:45 PM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm curious about the "young women" aspect too. The explanation given by Mademoiselle was nearly fourth-wall-breaking. Doesn't she say something like "Why young women? It's the only thing that works. It just has to be young women." That's literally all you get. The oblique connection to the horror industry seems more intentional there (along with the martyr pictures / glossy movie posters as mentioned above) than just about anywhere else in the film.
posted by naju at 3:39 PM on July 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's almost like a proto-Cabin in the Woods in a way.
posted by naju at 3:39 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

> It's almost like a proto-Cabin in the Woods in a way.

I wrote a few notes while watching the film, and that's the comparison that came to mind for me too. I wrote: why only young women? is this meta-textual commentary on the genre (like a much less fun cabin in the woods)? or just on gynocide in general?
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 7:57 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

> And how did they build that torture dungeon under a normal house with apparently oblivious kids living there? It would have been a massive undertaking. Plus, people going day and night with their torturing and whatnot, wouldn't any bells have been going off for the kids? Were they in on it?

I just finished watching this film for the first time, and I thought the kids were in on it. When Lucie points the gun at the son and tells him to sit down, he does so with what seems to me an expression of guilt or remorse. And when she asks him, 'Do you know what your parents did?' he shrugs very slightly in a way I took to mean 'Yes'—but the scene was played with just enough ambiguity to make you wonder (at that point in the narrative) if the family are in fact innocent.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 8:07 PM on July 18, 2014

> why, for instance, Anna didn't call French 911 when she found the martyr (and just bolt if she was worried about the police), why she didn't call the police once Lucie died (and just bolt if etc.)

Yeah, I definitely thought, as she was pulling staples out of that woman's skull in the bath: jesus christ, could you not just call a fucking ambulance? But (aside from the 'idiot plot' explanation), I suppose Anna's fraught history with authority figures (an abusive mother, presumably, and a childhood in institutions) has taught her that people in uniforms are not the solution to her problems.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 8:20 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry to be late to my own party, but I just now finally saw the entire thing. It's tough to find viewing time for something this harsh when you've got a five year-old bopping around the house and your partner is resolutely Not Interested in this level of violence. To make it even more challenging, my digital copy was weird and would not let me rewind or fast forward, so every time I restarted the film I had to see every part of it again, which is maybe ironic.


This is not torture porn. The filmmakers want this to be horrible for you. They have zero interest in seeing you get off on any of this. What's more, it ends up being a sort of rumination on the nature of violence and suffering. I'm not certain it was entirely successful. (Was I meant to admire Anna's martyrdom? That's... yeah. No.) But it will probably dominate my thoughts for days.

I do think it's very telling that virtually everyone here who hated this film saw it under questionable circumstances--badly dubbed, in a party atmosphere, etc. I think the very nature of this film requires a certain acquiescence to it that has to be calibrated just right.

So what did Mademoiselle hear? I tend to go with the theory that she heard the glorious truth about the afterlife but that it was too much for her mind to bear. I'd like to believe the idea that she got proof of some kind that she'd be damned for what she'd done, but positively nothing else in the movie gave me the impression that would be the end/point.

As for minor plot details, I felt positive when watching the scenes with the abuser guy rubbing his neck at the end that he was finding stray bits of blood and that it was an "Out! Out damned spot!"/his hands can never truly be clean kind of deal.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:53 AM on July 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Good interview here with the director.

I like this bit when he was asked to explain the ending:
Oh, I can't answer the question because the film refuses to answer the question.

I'm very comfortable in having an open ending - like a good old Twilight Zone episode. When you'd finished watching a good Twilight Zone episode you thought about the moral and the philosophy of that episode, and that's something I love in the fantasy horror genre. It's a genre that's supposed to give you the key of very essential questions like the secret of death, supernatural stuff - it's supposed to answer you, but it never does of course because it's a metaphysical question. We can't answer the metaphysics.

That's also why you go to see another horror film, that could give you the answer, and another one and another one. It probably creates the addiction to the genre. That's one of the reasons the genre creates so much addiction amongst the fans.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:01 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I had the feeling that a lot of the directors were doing horror films just to show the audience that they shared the same collection of DVDs.

posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:51 PM on July 22, 2014

I wish I had seen this thread back when the discussion was still happening, because I haven't been able to get Martyrs out of my mind since I saw it a few years ago. I'll add some thoughts anyway, for the heck of it.

My take on the ending is that what Anna tells Mademoiselle is so deeply and emotionally profound that it sort of destroys her world.

This is a group that goes to some length to separate their mission from religion. They make a point of the fact that the martyrs in their gallery of photos were for the most part atheists or non-spiritual. They're not interested in that stuff -- they see themselves as scientists, not zealots.

But what this means is that the knowledge they're looking for is knowledge that can be processed intellectually. They are, necessarily, closed off to their emotions. They have to be, because who could do what these people have been doing for who knows how many years, without severing their connection to their humanity?

The key moment of the film, for me, is when Anna hallucinates Lucie's voice, near the end. It's a beautiful, gentle moment, filled with a warmth and love that is pretty much absent from the rest of the film. To me that suggests that the transcendence Anna is about to experience is only understandable from an emotional, humane perspective.

That's not what the group is after, though. They want cold, hard knowledge. They want information, not feelings.

Mademoiselle speaks with Anna, and it's her direct contact with a martyr -- a "witness" -- that enables Mademoiselle to be able to comprehend the ineffable truth that only a martyr can convey. There's no way she could communicate that to the rest of the group -- they wouldn't be able to understand what Mademoiselle had experienced.

For her own part, Mademoiselle cannot go on living with this new awareness, in light of the horrific things she has done and condoned in her lifetime. Instead, she chooses to embrace transcendence as Anna has done -- by "letting go," as Lucie tells Anna to do, to release her grasp on this world.

She tells her cohort to "keep doubting" because ultimately that's all they can do. If they are to understand the truth that Mademoiselle has learned, the only way they can do so is to keep doing what they've been doing, so that others can experience what she has.

What's the alternative? To give up? Impossible, because all they're left with is disappointment and the prospect of living the rest of their lives in the shadow of all the atrocities they've committed. And to merely reveal to the group what she has learned would be pointless -- without the transformational experience Mademoiselle has had, there's no way any of it would mean anything to these people.

So all Mademoiselle can do is release herself to the truth she's sought for so long, and to leave the group to "keep doubting" as their only acceptable path forward.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 4:04 PM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Currently streaming on Shudder.
posted by miss-lapin at 11:28 PM on March 2

« Older Arrested Development: My Mothe...   |  Masters of Sex: Fallout... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments