Martyrs (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Martyrs (2008)

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Lucie cannot escape her trauma.  It comes at night, when she rests, and in moments of peace.  With the help of her lover Anna, Lucie hopes that confronting the source of her suffering will bring it all to an end.  Pascal Laugier wrote the screenplay for and directs Martyrs, and stars Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui.

We don't believe victims.  When victims come forward with stories of sexual assault or targeted harassment for their skin color, we do everything we can as a society to dull their truth.  How else could we get through the day if we accepted there is more trauma in a city block than any human has shouldered in recorded history.  But martyrs are an industry.  Martyrs give advertisers inspiration porn, stories of people who have every right to lash back at their aggressors while opting instead to forgive, and we get to comfort ourselves in the useful lie that what separates martyrs and victims is the strength to forgive.  Victims are weak, martyrs are inspirational.

Writer/director Pascal Laugier exposes this truth in brutal fashion.  In the propulsive first half of Martyrs, Laugier introduces young Lucie (Jessie Pham) as the sickening sound of her flesh pounds and scrapes against pavement while she runs away from unseen torturers.  The next moment, she's the subject of a television special with a warmly dressed presenter aimlessly speculating as to why Lucie suffered.  Without unearthing a reason and Lucie too traumatized to speculate, there's no martyrdom, and if Anna (Erika Scott) didn't become Lucie's friend she'd be just another victim lost to the orphanage system.

The difference between victims and martyrs is all a matter of publicity.

People don't like being confronted with someone's trauma without a narrative to make sense of it.  Even Anna, now grown and played by Morjana Alaoui, has doubts about Lucie's (older played by Mylène Jampanoï) manic insistence that the Belfond family had to be killed.  The killings take place in one of many jarring narrative shifts, with the Belfond family introduced in a mock chase sequence mirroring Lucie's escape and settling into a domestic drama groove.  Laugier keeps the tension through the lull by having mama Belfond brandish a dead rodent under the nostrils of her family thinking this morbid display a laugh a minute.  Then Lucie, the calmest we'll ever see her, systematically guns down each member of the Belfond family.

Even lacking crucial details about what the Belfond family has to do with Lucie, the shrug the elder son gives when Lucie demands if he knows what his parents did is damning.  The Belfond family is so numb to suffering that they can't even muster up a halfhearted defense when faced with a gun-toting reminder of their sins.  Laugier films the disposal of the Belfond families with matter-of-fact distance, cutting to darkness for the majority of the hauling, and letting the camera hover over mother Belfond in chilling stillness.  Then Martyrs punishes Anna for her doubting Lucie's trauma through Lucie's suicide, and Anna is put through a marathon of violence when she's abducted by the same people who tortured Lucie.

For clarity - Martyrs is not torture porn, and I regret ever using the terms together in the past.  There is no titillation or excitement in the near half hour (a full third of its run-time) Anna is beaten.  Trying to keep a clinical distance from the violence is nearly impossible, but I'm impressed Laugier tries.  There is little dialogue, no chants of resistance, and only one moment where Anna is taunted with the possibility of escape.  The few bits of Anna's existence that pierce the darkness are her increasingly bloodied body and the shackles keeping her there.  Laugier doesn't repeat himself, setting up new ways for Anna to be tormented, and marking Anna's path to martyrdom is her gradual metamorphosis into appearing like Renée Jeanne Falconetti's Joan of Arc.

A favorite bit comes toward the end in a note so dark it circles around to hilarious.  Mademoiselle (the late Catherine Bégin) has learned what Anna sees of the afterlife and, after taunting her assistant with the answer, kills herself.  Fitting that a society so wrapped up in its importance, so selfish with human life and suffering, has a figurehead more willing to take Anna's words to the grave than share the knowledge with her peers.  After sitting in stunned silence for Anna's suffering to reach a transcendent conclusion, the piercing chuckle that erupted from me following Mademoiselle's suicide comes as a cold comfort.

The chaotic bloodbath of Martyrs' first half leads to icily lit shackles in the last.

Which isn't a bad way to describe how Martyrs has clung to me while other horror films, some excellent and others not, have come and gone.  It feels like getting a lozenge stuck in your throat when you have the flu, burning as much as soothing, and with each narrative twist into further depravity I have to sit there wondering if what I'm consuming is healthy.  For some, Martyrs might not be.  For me, someone who has had to come to terms with trauma and broken down screaming at others to understand, I feel unexpected hope.

Trauma doesn't need to fit a narrative to be seen or understood, much like I'm not going to sit here and map out the logistics of an international philosophy cabal trying to map out the afterlife.  In its own twisted way I see something tender in Mademoiselle's last moments with Anna.  Maybe I was just desperate to feel a warmth after all that suffering.  Or maybe I felt vindicated at the fantasy of putting the right words together to make tormentors pay for what they did.  I won't find answers in Martyrs but in its extreme edges I find a space of comfort that's rare enough in horror, let alone in life.

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Martyrs (2008)

Screenplay written and directed by Pascal Laugier.
Starring Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui.

Posted by Andrew

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