There’s a strange appeal to watching a DVD you’re not supposed to have. Maybe it’s the unexpected, ending up with a film you might never otherwise have seen. Martyrs unintentionally ended up in my filthy paws and became a far more attractive prospect than the pile of unwatched DVDs I’ve been putting off watching. Perhaps I did enjoy Martyrs more because of the serendipitous nature of ending up with a copy, but regardless it’s a very good film.
What I knew of Martyrs was that it’s Italian (it’s French) and gory (one out of two). I presumed there would be a religious overtone, with some girls being tortured, receiving stigmata, and maybe also being crucified, but Martyrs has little religious content. As revealed towards the end of the film, the events of Martyrs are caused by a group who are obsessed with the “other world”, the afterlife, and how to can cause others to see it while still living. The way for someone to see the afterlife is to experience extraordinary pain and suffering. And what kind of people are most prone to see the afterlife? Young girls of course (though this definition includes woman in their twenties).
One of the interesting things about Martyrs is that it changes protagonist midway through the film. The film initially focuses on Lucie, a young girl who is physically abused and kept chained in a room. She escapes and is taken to an orphanage where she befriends Anna. 15 years later Lucie hunts down the people responsible and murders them. Anna tags along.
There’s an air of mainstream action to the revenge scene. A man opens his front door to receive a fatal blast from a shotgun. Once the parents are dead, Lucie considers what to do to their son. She surprised me by killing him, and seconds later the daughter too, making it obvious that I wasn’t watching a standard vengeance tale. Particularly because the villains are dead 20 minutes into the film. And then something weird and naked creeps through the corners of our vision. Lucie gets scared. She must prove to this thing that she had murdered the family, she’d done what it wanted. What? We realise that Lucie is mental (understandably, given the abuse she went through as a child). This strange, nude thing is a product of her imagination, though she sees it as completely real. It hurts and cuts her (the marks on her face now starting to make sense, the symmetrical ones on her back less so).
Anna arrives and is anguished by the bodies. The two stay at the house and Anna tries to bury the bodies. Lucie suffers two more visions, which is one too many. The ‘thing’ slices Lucie’s throat. And now the star of the film is dead.
Later Anna discovers that this house has a torture centre. In a basement she finds a victim, with a metal visor on, horribly scarred and emaciated. Anna frees the victim, who doesn’t last long before a group turn up and kill her. They reveal that they were behind this girl’s torture as well as Lucie’s years ago. There’s a worrying formality to the group, they’re not even concerned that the Police may arrive. Their attitude suggests that they have important contacts which stop their work being interrupted. And it’s about time for their work to resume, with Anna as their new subject. Cue pain.
Undoubtedly, some will consider the violence of Martyrs gratuitous. I see it in the way that any film with on-screen violence can be considered gratuitous. Cutting around a violent act, having the action happen off-screen, will provide the same intellectual result. We viewers can understand the implication. But films are more than just an intellectual exercise. We don’t just want to understand the facts of the story, for that we could read a summary of the film’s events. Good films should trigger emotion, and often that’s what violence does. Martyrs is a film about pain and suffering. I want more than just to be told that. I want to see it, be involved in it, see it register with the characters. I want to feel dread in my stomach and feel as close to these horrible acts as possible from the safety of my couch. To avoid showing the brutality would be to tell the viewer the story, instead of letting them experience it. Could the removal of staples from a girl’s head be shown in a longer shot? Do we really need so many scenes of Anna being beaten by the same man? No, and yes. Technically we don’t. A distant shot of the helmet removal, or simply a shot of the man ascend the stairs while a bloodied Anna looks on would tell us the same thing. But to be truly involved in the pain we need to be up close and personal with it.
Anna’s experience reminds me of the comic V For Vendetta, and the imprisonment of Evie. While their experiences are quite different (Evie’s was false, for one thing) there are emotional similarities. Evie matures while imprisoned, she becomes proud and determined. When she is released she is no longer Evie – she is Eve, free of fear. Although Anna isn’t free by the end of Martyrs (only free of her skin), she has mentally left the pain and torture behind. She is beyond the physical agony. As the film neared the end she began to accept the daily beatings as the norm, and by the finale had mentally moved beyond the agony and brutality. In a tale as bleak as hers, this is really the best that we can hope for her.
To me, Martyrs had two endings, an emotional one and an intellectual. The emotional ending was when Anna sat, broken by her treatment, one of her last moments in her skin. The camera explored her face in close-up, the music perfectly fitting the emotion of the moment. She is horribly bruised and marked, now beginning to accept her fate. Vicious and systematic torture, this is her life now, and she is starting to accept that fact. What remained after this scene, while necessary to the story as a whole (and the ‘Martyrs’ of the title) would simply not be as emotionally powerful as this point.