Director Kevin Smith once said (in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated) that if he were in charge of the movie ratings system, he’d automatically give an R rating to any film that included violence against women. If this is his primary criteria, then Smith would most likely have rated the French horror film, Martyrs, either X or NC-17. Martyrs is an absurd “horror” film, that is nothing more than torture porn attempting to masquerade as a serious film with religious undertones.
In the beginning of the film, a young girl named Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) escapes a warehouse where she has been imprisoned and tortured. Lucie is rescued and cared for by a psychiatric home apparently run by nuns. During her time there, she is plagued by visions of a nightmarish creature that we soon learn represents her guilt over not having been able to save a woman with whom she was also tortured. Fifteen years later, Lucie enters the home of a seemingly loving and respectable family and kills them all. When her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) arrives to help her clean up the mess, Lucie’s guilt and trauma overcome her and she kills herself. As Anna continues to clean she discovers and underground chamber beneath the house that houses computers, medical equipment, and another malnourished, tortured young woman chained to a wall.
Anna soon learns that the family was part of a secret society bent on finding the secrets of what lies beyond in the afterlife. This organization, led by Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin), believes that young women, through torture, are particularly vulnerable to transfiguration…or visions of the afterlife. With each tortured young woman, they come close and closer to recording this information, and they quickly begin the process on Anna, taking it further than they ever have before. Think St. Bartholomew and you’re right on the money.
Some viewers have picked up on Martyrs‘ religious subtexts…of course, they’re built in in the title. One of these rightly critiqued religion’s tendencies to lead people to enact violence on others in its name. There is something to be said for this, especially when we consider the ways in which religion has historically victimized women to a greater degree than men. However, it seems to me that religion, in and of itself, is not as much of a problem as is the confusion of knowledge with belief or faith. What Mademoiselle and her society fail to realize is that the afterlife and what it may or may not look like is beyond any human being’s ability to know. On the other hand, however, we can believe in, have faith in, or hope for a variety of after-lives, yet this belief and hope necessarily involves this doubt. Doubt is the essential ingredient in preventing acts of violence against one another in the name of religion when we encounter others who may not believe exactly as we do. The relentless pursuit of faith or belief as knowledge confuses the two and corrupts or cheapens the former.
Far more offensive than the film’s religious element is its relentless violence against young women, an offense of which director Pascal Laugier is just as guilty as the church, even if it is only staged and not “real” violence. This film further contributes to the devaluation of women in popular culture, even if some viewers might be tempted to view Anna’s defiance throughout the film’s conclusion as some sort of vision of feminist empowerment. The conclusion of the film reminds us that “martyr” is Greek for witness. Unfortunately, what we’ve witnessed in Martyrs is an elementary attempt to use religion to make a profound point. DVD viewers have the option of watching the film with an introduction by the director. In this introduction, Laugier apologizes but never says for what…for making a crappy film, reveling in the abuse of women? Though incomplete, his apology is about the only thing he gets right.
Reports have circulated about an American remake. It’ll be interesting to see what changes take place. I imagine we’ll see, unfortunately, a whole lot more of the creature that haunts Lucie day and night during the first half of the film.
Martyrs (99 mins.) is rated R for disturbing/severe aberrant behavior involving strong bloody violence, torture, child abuse and some nudity and is available on DVD through Netflix.