By Noel Vera
Directed by Pascal Laugier
(Warning: plot and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail)
PASCAL LAUGIER’s 2008 horror film Martyrs deserves respect for taking the challenge presented by American torture porn (The Devil’s Rejects, Hostel 1 and Hostel 2, the remake of I Spit In Your Grave) and upping the ante considerably.
The film is composed of a prologue and two parts. It opens with a 12-year-old girl whimpering as she hobbles out of a warehouse; Lucie is taken to an orphanage where she is entrusted to Anna. All seems fine, only Lucie is tormented by a shadowy creature who cuts her skin.
Part one takes place 15 years later. An upper middle-class suburban family is enjoying breakfast in their nicely upscale home when the doorbell rings. The father answers the door and a hooded figure with shotgun blows him (and the rest of the family) away. This is Lucie as a young woman (Mylene Jampanoi) and she has come for revenge.
Older Anna (Morjana Alaoui) arrives later. She’s horrified that Lucie, who was supposed to only reconnoiter, took a weapon with her; worse she’s not sure Lucie’s right: is this the woman who abused the 12-year-old years ago? And how did that monstrous creature that haunted Lucie follow them here?
Here’s the paradox: the first half I find carelessly shot and edited and wretchedly written – Laugier (who also did the script) provides zero motivation for the two girls to remain in the house. Clean up the mess? Hide the bodies (in the bathroom?)? Fight off Lucie’s creature? Certainly Lucie has issues and Anna (staying by Lucie’s side) is hardly a poster child for coherent thinking but – two days? And no one bothers to come to the door and check on them?
Logically that first half is ridiculous; morally it’s not indefensible – or at least no more indefensible than other examples of the genre. Considering home invasion films (yes, it’s a thing), by my book the gold standard is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a deadpan, perfectly paced black comedy of a horror where a pair of youths enter a wealthy home and proceed to wreak high holy hell on the not unsympathetic family – the difference being Haneke’s youths are more convincing in their motives (what little we discern anyway) and actions, more clever about hiding their presence from neighbors, employ far less explicit gore to have you flinching for the victims. With nary a shaken cam and surgically precise editing, Haneke builds a sense of dread and claustrophobia far more unsettling than anything Laugier can muster.
But Haneke’s superbly executed film is merely that – a game. Does it say anything more than what it shows? It’s perfect on its limited terms – I would submit that it achieves perfection only by limiting itself to said genre.
Laugier apparently has other ambitions – hence part two.
Anna is caught by a mystery group of which the parents are apparently members; they take her down to the high-tech antiseptically clean dungeon (more like a medical facility) under the house and explain their motive for tormenting Lucie and any number of helpless women: that throughout history martyrs have been created through suffering, that in extremely rare cases martyrs (young girls apparently making the best candidates) are able to see beyond their pain into the world beyond, and that the group is dedicated to finding out what these “witnesses” (the meaning of the Greek source word) are actually seeing.
Ironically I find the filmmaking in this second half much better, the images thoughtfully composed, the interminable beatings and ultimate atrocity committed on Anna faultlessly paced and edited, as deliberate and inevitable as a march up Golgotha.
What I question is the film’s message. Transcendence through suffering is an old idea, one of the key concepts of Christianity and familiar to the Greeks (the film puts a modern spin by referencing photographs used by Georges Bataille). Skeptics would call this a sop for pain; believers of various faiths (or at least those skeptical of the strictly rational) would say there’s something there but difficult to describe. (What words can you use to represent something that transcends reality?)
I’d say it’s possible; cinema if anything is uniquely positioned to capture the moment, feeling, whatever. Cinema, in faithfully recording the surface of reality, can (when the director knows what he’s doing) suggest the substance beneath, the meat, if you like, hidden by skin. Robert Bresson strove to achieve this throughout his career; Martin Scorsese was inspired to attempt something similar in Silence (2016) about a pair of Jesuits captured by Japanese authorities and tortured into surrendering their beliefs. Scorsese emphasized textures and surfaces – the rough grain of wood, the unyielding stones, the relentless pounding of waves. He creates in the viewer (those who care to listen) a consciousness of sound or its absence in a vast land against which the priests persistently pose their questions. The film suggests that if one listens closely enough one can detect an answer – or is one being deluded, presumably by the sheer effort involved? Scorsese refuses to confirm either way.
Silence I’d say most closely resembles (and succeeds at) what Laugier attempts (and fails to achieve); key is the question why? Anna, as it turns out, just happened to be there; anyone would have served, and if a choice failed they would find another. Arguably Anna’s love for Lucie (Laugier gives them a moment) is sufficient reason but what’s this love made of? Fifteen years of Anna constantly caring for and covering up on behalf of Lucie – but we’re only told that; we don’t see them in everyday life, in the business of waking, eating, working, falling asleep. We see them in extremis, right after the family’s massacre; we don’t know what they like, what they dislike, what they believe in (if any; even atheism would be something).
Scorsese’s Jesuits believe in Jesus, in bringing the faith to the Japanese; the authorities focus on these beliefs – not out of some vague desire to unearth secrets but for the urgent reason that their sovereignty is at stake, from what they see is an invasive foreign power. Doesn’t have to be Christianity – Allah, or democracy, or even the secret of gunpowder would have served – but we at least know what’s at stake and that the stakes are at least believable (helps that film and novel – by Shusako Endo – are based on an actual episode in Japanese history, the plight of the Kakure Kirishitan). What’s at stake in Martyrs? A hastily sketched love story between two women versus the mysterious James Bond organization responsible for their suffering? Shot prettily (at least in the second half) against gleaming metal and glass? On the whole I much prefer the Scorsese.