Martyrs (2008)

They did not finish to be alive...
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Martyrs - They did not finish to be alive...

One of the most acclaimed horrors of recent years, Martyrs (2008) both pushes boundaries in terms of on-screen physical and psychological torture, and in the justification it provides for that torture. On my first viewing, my reaction to this was largely negative: I felt, and continue at least in part to feel, that the film pulls in different directions, layering the chained-to-chair cruelty with an unsatisfactory existentialist rationale to the extent that the centre cannot hold. However, having just revisited the film for the first time since I watched it some years ago, I'm happy to revise my original verdict to an extent. The flaws from which Martyrs suffers are offset by the film's many strengths and the talented direction of Pascal Laughier, whose vision here is a stark, ambitious one.

It's been recounted by bloggers and film fans ad infinitum, but the basic plot of Martyrs is this: the story begins in 1971 with a bloodied, terrified child escaping from captivity in a disused factory building. This child is Lucie (Jessie Pham); understandably traumatised by her experiences, she spends the rest of her childhood in an institution, repelling all other children who attempt to befriend her - except for Anna (Erika Scott). Anna becomes Lucie's only friend into adulthood, and fifteen years pass by. Although Lucie's captors were never caught, a chance glimpse of two familiar faces in a newspaper article gives the still-disturbed Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) a potential opportunity to free herself of her demons. Anna (Morjana Alaoui) accompanies her to the family's home, but the pressure of the interceding fifteen years has turned Lucie into a killer and, in trying to help her, Anna is thrown into her own version of her friend's hell. Lucie's torturers weren't acting alone: they were part of a now tightly-organised network of investigative cruelty, systematically torturing captives to explore the limits of human consciousness.

One thing which struck me, on revisiting the film, is how well it handles its ambiguities: this is evident from very early on in the film. We are given very few unequivocal facts here, and this renders the motivation for even the most graphically-violent scenes doubtful. Is Lucie mistaken about the (functional, happy-seeming) family? Who, in fact, is Lucie? We know where she lived post-ordeal, but nothing about where she was before that, or indeed really why Anna was in the institute, either. Both girls seem united by having partial histories, and this creates explosive pause for thought when Anna feels torn between her alternately domineering-then-vulnerable friend and discovering Lucie's still-living victim. Everyone is in a state of partial information, from the audience to Anna and Lucie, right up to the people behind the sinister martyrdom operation. The need to know and to understand drives our characters in Martyrs, but every gain in knowledge, no matter how small, is harmful to them - physically and psychologically.

As for the friendship between the two women, this is riddled with uncertainties too. Lucie might have suffered, but she makes her friend suffer in turn, expecting tremendous fortitude and support from her as she veers from needy to nasty. In effect, Anna is a martyr to her friendship long before she is more literally martyred - but she needs Lucie. Having lost her, she almost immediately replaces her with another abuse victim who needs nurturing, and when she is removed by her captors from all possibility of moral support, she fantasises about Lucie, deriving strength from her memory. Lucie's role in Anna's life is without end and, for good or ill, it underpins the whole film.

An interesting relationship between our key characters means that we're engaged by what happens to them, but for me where Martyrs eventually begins to unravel is as it moves forward with Anna alone. Here we are given the reason for her torment, and the torment of the others which came before - quite simply, what we have is the punishment of the body to elevate the mind (and although the head of operations 'Mademoiselle' doth protest too much that many of the martyrs she has discovered are atheists, her dogged belief in the nobility of suffering and in 'the next world' have all the hallmarks of French Catholicism, although the mortification of the flesh is done here with manacles and fists, rather than self-harm by use of the crop). As a justification for such long, gruelling scenes of beating, force-feeding and humiliation - a process which we're told, of course, works best on young, vulnerable women - what we get is actually rather crude and even simple, for all the intimations of lofty eternal themes: all of that systematic abuse via a secretive cabal of operations leads to a momentary look, a revelation which we do not share, and nothing more. The aims which Mademoiselle and her cronies have worked towards could have been satisfied in other ways which did not necessitate these protracted torture routines and, although the mystery of Anna's final words ties in with the film's ongoing ambiguous nature, this plot line barely supports the weight of the ordeal horror which precedes it. In fact if we're talking transcendence then Martyrs begins to transcend itself, just as Anna transcends herself; after all the suffering comes to an end, we can in turn wonder at the justification of the end result.

For all this, revisiting Martyrs was definitely worthwhile. Laughier has created a flawed film here but it is exceptionally intense and, to be fair, one of the most memorable horrors I've seen in recent years. Whilst the rationale behind events might not hold up to scrutiny, this is a well-made film with the capacity to disturb. If nothing else, the sound of a metal ladder hitting a cold floor has now taken on a new significance for me...
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