I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life. What streams out to the possibly moved spectator in strange close-ups is not accidentally chosen. All these pictures express the character of the person they show and the spirit of that time. In order to give the truth, I dispensed with “beautification.” [...]
Rudolf Maté, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism. But in Falconetti, who plays Joan, I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call “the martyr’s reincarnation.”
-- Carl Th. Dreyer on The Passion of Joan of Arc
Torture is not the point of Martyrs. The film deals with human pain, the meaning of it, which is something completely different.
-- writer-director Pascal Laugier
My attraction to repulsion occasionally yields a transgressive masterpiece, but, more often than not, it's just proof of a strong emotive fortitude combined with some twisted prurience that I never grew out of -- that is, a willingness to endure aesthetic defilement. Despite all the highfalutin cant that's been written about it, I doubt sublimity is the prime selling point for Un Chien Andalou. But I'm with the Marquis de Sade in that art has no obligation to depict virtues. Morality enters into our relation with the art, however reprehensible it might be. The intrinsic morality of the art is but one side of the dialog. It is for this simple reason that I don't support obscenity laws of any sort. The desideratum of Nekromantik needs no more of a defense for its existence than Jennifer Aniston's current love interest. So, with that in mind, I caught up with some of the fairly recent horror films coming out of France; to see what, if anything, they say to me. First up is Martyrs, easily the nastiest of the bunch, so it's only uphill from here.
I missed all the controversy surrounding Laugier's film after its premiere at Cannes in 2008. It was the discovery of an import blu-ray with its promise of complete depravity that lured me in last week. The film is divided into two parts, each with its own rusty moral message nailed through the viewer's palms. If you've seen Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses, the bifurcated structure is similar, just without any intention of entertainment. The first half is basically a rape-revenge story, only without the sexualized sort of rape. It's the more realistic part of the tale. The second half is pure sci-fi phantasmagoria that creatively borrows from both 2001 and The Passion of Joan of Arc. It's in this segment that Laguier defines what he means by martyr (in nauseating, physical detail):
For me, the martyr represents the one who, having no other choice but to suffer, manages to do something with this pain. Of course it’s an extreme projection, entirely disenchanted, of what I was telling you about today’s world. Since we don’t believe in anything, since the world is increasingly divided between winners and losers, what is left to the losers but to do something with their pain? Deep down, it’s what the film is about.In the same interview, he claims melancholia as his goal (that is, the realization of spiritual malaise), but it's more like watching the butchering of the tortoise in Cannibal Holocaust extended to an hour and half. If he shares with Dreyer's Joan the dominance of the spirit over the body and material existence, it's only as what's left when spiritual fatigue finally gives out. Ultimately, it's Martyrs' vile fantasy that undermines any moral critique Laguier is attempting (although, this analysis over at M-L-M Mayhem offers a perceptive and forceful defense of the film that's well worth your time). One gentle soul has compiled all the film's bloodiest moments in high definition for the commonweal.
Wasting no time, the film opens with a young Lucie, bloody and beaten, limping away from a dilapidated warehouse (looking like a Vietnamese girl who's caught the tail-end of a napalm attack). She goes on to live in an orphanage where she meets her BFF, Anna. Haunted by one of those mangled apparitions from J-horror, Lucie regularly cuts herself over the guilt of not having rescued a fellow hostage during her escape. Despite all the torture she endured, Lucie won't confide in the authorities, only Anna. The reason for her silence is made clear when the film cuts to 15 years later.
In a nice, upper-middle class home on the outskirts of some town, we see a loving family of four preparing to eat breakfast. After about 5 minutes of suburban bliss, there comes a knock on the door. Dad answers, and receives 12 gauges through the chest. Lucie begins her revenge. Next goes mom, then the son sitting behind a cereal bowl, and finally the daughter takes one in the back. Anna arrives to help clean up, but begins to question her friend's sanity upon seeing the dead children (who weren't even born at the time of Lucie's entrapment). When Anna tries to help the barely alive mother escape, Lucie finishes the job and then kills herself. (This description doesn't even come close to conveying how grueling this segment is. I remember looking at the timer thinking, "holy shit! -- only 55 minutes have passed.") Then the real fun begins. Anna discovers a high-tech torture chamber underneath the house, adorned with illuminated pictures of real-life torture subjects, where she finds the living remains of a current victim.
Clearly, Laugier is suggesting the way civilized, bourgeois society rests on the repression of violence, that it's defined by what it leaves unsaid and unnamed (much like what I discussed more extensively regarding The Dark Knight). The problem here is with the explicitness and concreteness of the metaphor. The parents are quite directly the torturers. There is no actual repression, which effectively lets the real world bourgeois counterparts off the hook by claiming that they do not torture little girls, these parents are nothing like me. (This is, by the way, exactly the reasoning Roland Barthes used in criticizing Pier Pasolini's Salò: "I am really not like them [the debauched libertines], I am not a fascist, since I do not like shit.") Only in Anna's slaying the children does the film ask the significant question of what defines 'innocence' and 'responsibility' in a terrorist act. JMP (from the aforementioned M-L-M Mayhem) has it right, at least regarding the writer-director's intent:
The inclusion of victims who are quite probably unaware and individually not responsible for the violence inflicted upon their murderer, however, is important in that it removes the symbolic act of violence from a simplistic moral interpretation concerned only with the act. What is important, for Laugier, is the context of violence and these children, regardless of their possible ignorance and uninvolvement in the violence inflicted on Lucie, are part of that context.
That is, much like all of our so-called collateral damage, the childrens' death is the result of playing by the rules of the game. But, again, this is the game being explicitly played by the parents, not something like stocks rising in value on the back of Third World oppression. The metaphor's concreteness means only what one is prepared to bring to it. If the children didn't participate in the torture (and, as far as we know, they did not), they're not responsible, since nothing about their life is, in fact, shown to be based on that act, directly or indirectly. There is no real transgressive potential here, just the nausea of violent spectacle. The target of the critique is let off the meathook.
More problematic is the second half, with its exploration (exploitation) of what torture, pain and suffering mean. While trying to rescue the victim, Anna is caught by a secret organization under the leadership of the Mademoiselle, whose raison d'être is to recreate the sublime visage of true martyrdom in order to discover the secrets of the afterlife. For the next fifteen or so minutes (days and days in diegetic time), Anna is forced to eat what looks like puke and is methodically and repeatedly punched in the face. When she finally gives up any hope of escaping by retreating into herself, she's readied for martyrdom by having all her skin stripped off, save for the bruised visage you can see above. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer gives pain significance through Joan's sacrifice for a cause. She fought under God's supervision (at least, so she believed) to restore proper rule to France. Pain and an eventual death are what she paid for her decision to belong to a cause. Contrariwise, Laugier's Anna endures pain solely as the result of another's decision. That's not martyrdom, just torture. Suffering here is akin to how it was used by Mother Teresa:
This returns us to the medieval corruption of the church, which sold indulgences to the rich while preaching hellfire and continence to the poor. MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.
-- Christopher HItchens, "Mommie Dearest"
Hanging by her arms and with the dead-eyed stare of the martyr, Anna whispers whatever metaphysical secret she's discovered to the Mademoiselle. The latter is then supposed to reveal this truth to the party being held for the occasion. Instead, she puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger, following a brief exchange with one of the organization's members (borrowed from here). The man asked her if the message was clear and accurate: "Crystal clear, and so accurate that once heard you instantly realise it can be no other way. What do you think comes after death?" He replied that he doesn't know. "Keep doubting."
Laugier, through an intertitle, goes back to the Greek (via Latin) 'martur' to define 'martyr' as a 'witness,' suggesting the victim-protagonist is a stand-in for all the indigent and powerless people of the world who are made sideline casualties in a hegemonic pursuit for an abstract, totalizing idea. (The actress playing Anna, Morjana Alaoui, is French Moroccan; Myène Jampanoï, Lucie, has a Chinese father.) They are the true witnesses to what these ideas actually cost and mean, the meat of the matter. This interpretation is central to JMP's defense. Accordingly, Martyrs might be seen as a radical laicization of Saint Joan's martyrdom, a way of showing how this poor, illiterate woman was used by competing state apparatuses for control (heretic vs. martyr) -- transcendence having nothing to do with it, except as an illusory justification for the pain (willingly accepted). In fact, the Mademoiselle herself is dismissive of religion when explaining her agenda to Anna.
There is, however, a major problem with that interpretation. The film conveys, through a brief Kubrickian mindscape trip into Anna's eye, a transcendence from the body just as she fully gives up on her material constraints. This, despite claims to the contrary, provides catharsis to all the bloodletting that's come before and serves to justify it much in the same way for which Hitchens criticizes Mother Teresa's use of the Third World. It certainly complicates, if not outright contradicts, the possible interpretation that the reason Mademoiselle commits suicide is due to the ultimate meaninglessness of her lifelong pursuit, that all it adds up to is torture. Instead, having found the Truth, it's too much for her to handle, and in order to exert one last bid for control, seals it off from others. They'll have to go back to the drawing board. This seems to be consistent with Laugier's quote above, that a "martyr represents the one who, having no other choice but to suffer, manages to do something with this pain." So what about the other "witness" here, the audience? His film isn't aimed at those suffering, but at us who live in comfortable societies sustained by such repressed suffering, with enough time and inclination to sit through imaginary violence. Thus, Anna's transcendence serves as justification, an intellectual excuse, for watching all this misery-as-spectacle. The monotonous butchery says something "important." But anything important it has to say is already determined by the abstract ideas each viewer brings to the challenge (can I endure this? can I justify my willingness to endure this?). Nothing is transgressed, the social dividing lines we believe in aren't restructured. Which just means that I can sit through some really depressing shit.
A friend told me that he couldn't get the import blu-ray to play (I couldn't get any of the extras to work), so you might want to go with the domestic DVD.