Friday, February 7, 2014

Martyrs (2008): The world is corrupt

Martyrs (2008)
Dir: Pascal Laugier

If you're going to watch Martyrs, its best to go in blind.  With that in mind, don't read this review. It will be spoiler filled, and probably rambling, as I try to come to terms with the movie.

No, really, I'm serious.  The movie works best if the only thing you know is nothing. If you haven't seen it, skip this review. And, if you have, please join in.

Last call.

Martyrs. The only torture porn movie that I've been fighting with for a few days. It almost seems as if it has a point. But, it may not be. It almost seems as if it is a cosmic joke played on the viewers of the horror genre. But, it may not be. And, therein lies the theme of the movie.

Just in case people aren't going to actually WATCH the movie before reading this article (and I don't blame them), I'm going to go through a walkthrough of the movie as, there are going to be themes that parallel in both halves.

Martyrs opens with a young girl, Lucie, escaping capture in the middle of an industrial park, running, scarred, and screaming. She is rescued, and taken into the custody of a group, but is haunted by an abusive female ghostly being stolen from any litany of J-horror, like The Grudge or Ringu.

Fast forward 15 years. We're thrust into a middle-upper class familial scene of two adults and two kids. One kid is a slacker boy (played by young indie genius Xavier Dolan), and the second is a medal-winning swimmer girl. The boy just dropped out of college because he didn't want to get a law degree. They sit down to breakfast and we get a sense of this family.

A knock on the door interrupts breakfast. Father opens it, and it's the older version of Lucie. With a shotgun. Which she uses to quickly exterminate all four members of the household.

After the extermination, Lucie calls Anna, her best friend from the group home whom had also been her confidant, and Anna comes to comfort Lucie while cleaning up the mess. Lucie is still haunted by the earlier spectre, who physically slashes her. Which causes Anna to question whether Lucie actually killed the right people. Eventually, Lucie kills herself, and, as Anna is still cleaning up, because now her fingerprints are everywhere, she discovers a rabbit hole under a cabinet leading to an icy lair of rooms.

And, this is where the movie takes a hard right.

Anna discovers a scarred and emaciated girl in the lair, chained up, with a heavy metal headpiece stapled to her head. She takes her out, cleans her up, removed the headpiece with a great amount of gore. And, just as she's leaving, a group of people in black clothing invade and kidnap Anna, taking her down to their lair.

They explain that they are a cult in search of the afterlife. They have discovered that, through extreme pain and suffering, some people can become "martyrs" and they can see the afterlife while they are still living. Women have a better chance at it than men, which is why they only torture girls. But, most girls are only "victims" in which they suffer and then go crazy, sometimes seeing things or fearing things that aren't there. As with Lucie and her haunted spectre of the girl she left behind.

Through this, Anna becomes the next subject of the experiments. She is fed disgusting gruel, which she constantly refuses to eat and gets slapped for it. She then is beat by a taller, stronger man, who wakes her up every time she passes out in order to beat her again. Then she refuses to eat and slapped again. Then beat again. Then has her hair forcibly cut. Then starved again. And the cycle goes on.

Finally, Anna sees Lucie who tells her to let go. Let go of her fear. And just accept it. And, through this advice, she stops fighting, and starts accepting her fate. The torture amps up until she is skinned alive, until all that is left is her face.

Yes. You read that right. by the end of the movie, Anna is skinned with only her muscles showing, exposed to strong sun lamps, and through this, she sees the afterlife. This is shown to the audience as a series of abstract light dances. She whispers to the head of the cult about it before she dies. When the head is supposed to tell everybody about it, she unmasks herself. Taking off her eyelash, and letting down her hair. Wiping away her makeup. When she is retrieved by an assistant, the following conversation happens:

Leader: "Can you imaging the afterlife."
Assistant: "No."
Leader: "Keep doubting."

Then, she shoots herself. End.

And, that's what Martyrs is. Two movies hammered together with little more but a rabbit hole or a hinge to link the two. Stylistically, the two movies are also night and day. But, they hold each other in a way of wrapping their arms around each other.

The first film is much more of a sub-Alexandre Aja film. It's feels like a lamer attempt at a High Tension style extreme horror. There's the questioning of what reality is, whether Lucie is wrong or right, the tension of Anna having to control herself, clean up the house, and keep Lucie calm and/or sane. The mother even revives at one point, only to be re-murdered by Lucie. It's a half-assed attempt to recreate the success of High Tension, but never stands up to the quality of film that Aja created with High Tension (even if that movie was more obvious).

But, then the second film flips to Hostel as directed by Michael Winterbottom. Martyrs takes as much of a distance towards what's happening as Anna's captors take to her torture. It becomes sterile, and brutal, with much punching and beating. But, it happens, and it is inevitable. The only way out is through. And, the length of the sequence numbs the audience to make us feel that the only way to finish the movie is to survive the infliction.

In both halves, however, Laugier neuters the hope of everybody. Lucie is seeking salvation from her haunting by the systematic murder of the family whom she remembered as her captors. But, she is ultimately murdered by her figment. The cult leader is also seeking salvation for her inflicting of the abuse, but is ultimately murdered by the knowledge. There are no answers that make it suitable to create such an atmosphere.

Revenge is wrong, as it doesn't erase your memories. Abuse for information is wrong, as it isn't really the answer you want. And, in the end, nobody is any happier with the end result. In a way, the movie is about the atmosphere of the time it was made. While this is a French movie, this is also still while Guantanamo Bay was at the forefront of international talks. And, America's war on terror was still be discussed by many, especially in our relentless pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.

Martyrs offers no answers. No solutions. It doesn't offer up a moralistic "treat people OK" as Anna, who only wants to help Lucie, the murdered family, and the victimized girl she discovers, ends up being skinned alive. We have no idea if she actually saw anything. "Keep doubting" is a strange translation, if it is direct. Maybe there was nothing after. Maybe it all was a cosmic joke. But, Anna suffers, and the only person who "benefits" takes the knowledge with her. Will the cycle go on? We're not told.

In a way, Martyrs is an extension of the new wave of French literature that has been coming across into America. The writer I associate most with it is Michel Houellebecq, in that both seem to see society as ultimately diseased. It all started with the eradication of industry in the Western world. Then, there was a bunch of rich people who torture people under whatever guise you choose. They torture for philosophical knowledge. Or, perhaps just for some vague sense of safety for the country. Yet, everything that they do is empty. And, sullen.

You leave Martyrs disgusted, which is nothing new for something this brutal. But, there is a profound sense of sadness. Which is something new. It is a melancholic film along the lines of the recent Lars Von Trier films, of late. But, yet, the finale is almost the ultimate of knee-jerk "Fuck you." And, your initial reaction may be that the world is all one sick joke. Sort of akin to the feeling left by Melancholia or even A Serious Man. And, perhaps one may suspect that the joke is by Laugier.  But, there's something else at work. And, you think.

And think.

And think.

Martyrs sticks with you. Not for the sheer violence. Not for the graphic imagery. Not for any of the usual horror elements. But, for the metaphor. It's a movie by a guy who sees the world as diseased. And, it offers no exit. Is it worth it? Is it good?  Well, both movies aren't what you're expecting. They're not scary, so much as disturbing. And, isn't that what you really want? Maybe not. But, at least it will make you think.

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