Martyrs shouldn’t really be a masterpiece. It is a barbarous, harrowing, psychologically damaging film that shows the brutal destruction of the human body and mind. It is unrelenting, with virtually no calming gaps between scenes for the audience to regroup their psyche enough to not feel completely destroyed by this film. Yet this is why it is a masterpiece – it is the ultimate horror film, achieving the Holy Grail of horror: it leaves you feeling terrified and destitute of all positive emotions. It is a film that needed to be made, but should never be seen.
The opening of Martyrs and the ten minutes that follow aren’t all that bad – at least the film breaks you in gently. Or does it give you a false sense of security? One things for sure – it’s first ten minutes are standard horror fare: a girl runs frantically, panting and screaming. She is bloodied, dirty and her shaved head and slashed skin indicates she is evading her captor. Cut to a grainy 16mm showing said girl unsuccessfully integrating into a children’s home as a gentleman recalls the site from which the girl – Lucie – escaped. We learn she was tortured and kept in horrendous conditions rendering her completely volatile. We see Lucie becoming friends with caring and considerate Anna, and over time – despite Lucie’s relapses – the two become firm friends and Lucie appears to be on the road to a steady recovery.
15 years later and an entirely different scene emerges. A seemingly ordinary family – Mother, Father, son and daughter – are having breakfast when an intruder breaks in, shotgun in hand. Each family member is blown away in a cold, relentless fashion. It’s Lucie, enacting revenge on those she believes are responsible for her capture and torture 15 years ago. At this point we’re left wondering whether her need for revenge has driven her to the point of clouded clarity in which she has shot and killed an innocent family. As she cleans up and calls Anna to come to her, Lucie is attacked by a naked, ravaged woman who appears to be possessed. She inflicts deep scarring wounds on Lucie, who manages to lock herself away from this demon.
At this point we’re kind of left thinking ‘what the fuck?’. What appears to be a revenge film quickly turns into an almost supernatural film with our lead protagonist (or is she an antagonist?) being pursued by a demonic woman. Anna arrives and the film seems to find some form of stability (if you can call it that) as they begin to clear the bodies up. Its unknown at this point whether or not Lucie’s actions can be justified but we automatically begin to side with Anna, who seems to cower slightly in fear of Lucie and her erratic behaviour. But the film soon takes a turn for the worst as Lucie’s demon continues to haunt her to the point of destruction. We learn that the demon is nothing but a figment of Lucie’s damaged mind and it is this demon that becomes her undoing, driving her to a brutal suicide. We’re now left wondering where this film is headed and what could possibly be next. Just as things seem to be veering back to the sensible, Anna finds a door to a hidden basement and the true horror of this film is seen.
Hidden beneath this suburban home is a metal, sanitised death chamber. Pictures of dead people adorn the walls, and doors lead off from the corridor to rooms that have housed unspeakable terror. Tucked away in a kennel-like room is an emaciated woman, bound by chains with a metal plate stapled to her head and crotch who gropes frantically at the air in search of the sounds of Anna. Her ravaged body is covered in deep cuts, her frame trembling as Anna aids her out of the room and into a warm bath. When Anna removes the metal mask from the woman’s head by literally ripping the staples out, this film shows no signs of holding out on us. We witness this rescued woman’s disheveled demeanour and can see the damaging effects the torture has had on her. As she attempts to cut her wrists then ferociously rubs her head against the wall, she is shot dead by a group of people dressed in black that enter the house and calculatedly remove all of the dead bodies, taking Anna captive at the same time. Shit is about go from bad to worse.
Soon after Anna’s capture she is introduced to Mademoiselle, a frightening woman with Headmistress eyes who explains with sadistic ease the reason why they do what they do. Mademoiselle explains by referring to the images on the wall that those closest to death, who bare such arduous pain and torture, are able to see a life beyond our own in the moments before they die and it is infinitely recognisable by the look in their eyes. This is what they do – they find the one that is able to see. “The world is full of victims; a martyr is rare. They bear the sins of the earth, transcend themselves. They are transfigured.” She tells Anna in the simplest of tones, “Young women transfigure better. And that’s just the way it is, my dear.” And with this, Mademoiselle walks off.
What ensues in the last 30 minutes of the film is what makes Martyrs the controversial masterpiece that it is. As explained by Mademoiselle, all those that have been photographed with eyes that have witnessed something far beyond our own comprehension – those that have transfigured – have reached this pinnacle after enduring unending torture and physical destruction. This is why they do what they do, this is why they capture, torture and attempt to transfigure these young women. So we know, the moment Mademoiselle has walked off, what is in store for Anna. In order for us to continue to see this through we must witness the breakdown of Anna and the destruction that these people enforce, but nothing can prepare us for the brutal beatings and torture that we witness first hand. There are 10 minutes of force feeding, light deprivation, violent beatings, rough haircuts and a forceful sponge bath. It is a horrific viewing experience for the audience, as close ups of Anna’s face make this voyeurism all the more arduous to endure. Her strength and endurance give us a glimmer of hope, as we hope that her resolve will mean she eventually manages to break free. But it’s not to be seen. Anna is told there is one last stage, and with this we see her strapped to a circular metallic swinging device. Her clothes are removed and surgery begins on what turns out to be one of the most stomach churning sequences seen on screen. Thankfully the ‘seen’ remains light as the surgery is passed over, but the results aren’t. Wheeled back in to the room and covered in a veil, Anna is strapped to a stand and the wheelchair forcefully removed. Anna drops to her knees and the true extent of her torture is seen in glistening g(l)ory – she has been flayed alive. Only the skin on her face remains.
Her torturers go about their lives like any normal person would – washing, making dinner – normal household chores. Then from the distance we hear a woman scream and it is soon revealed that Anna has the look in her eye; the look that says she has transfigured. The camera zooms slowly into her eyes, going deep as a kaleidoscope of light burns so bright on the screen. Is this the paradise she has seen? The light soon fades, swirling blue to black as the camera pans back out of her eye. Was it there after all? Mademoiselle arrives and Anna whispers in her ear. Delegates gather at the house, at least three or four dozen and we see the extent to which this psychotic consortium work. As they eagerly anticipate the findings that Anna has divulged, we see Mademoiselle preparing herself in the bathroom. Her compere arrives and she asks him, “Could you imagine what there is after death?” He answers no, and selfishly she replies for him to keep on doubting. She places a gun in her mouth and kills herself.
We are left reeling from this. After witnessing such barbaric abuse of another human we are expecting an answer that we never get. And rightly we shouldn’t either – how dare we voyeuristically witness the destruction of another life in search of what comes after. The ending has led to much speculation for those who have watched it, as people derive their own interpretation of just what it was that Anna saw.
I was talking to my fiancee about this film when planning the 13 Days of Horror blog posts and what’s interesting is though we both unanimously agreed that the film was damaging and didn’t leave us for days, we both differed on the ending of the film. For me, I thought Anna saw the afterlife – she transfigured and saw what waited for us on the other side and this is why the old lady killed herself; Caroline thought that there was nothing after this life but that Anna told the old lady there was something in the hopes that they would all kill themselves to get there and thus end the torture to other girls. Others speculate that Anna saw nothing and told Mademoiselle as such – this is why Mademoiselle killed herself. Regardless of the open ending, the fact still remains that Martyrs is a devastating, difficult and brutal film to watch. It leaves you feeling morose – and this is why it is a masterpiece. As bad as it sounds, this is a film that had to be made, but not necessarily one that needed to be seen.
TOMORROW: World Cinema Horror