☆☆ If you haven’t seen Martyrs, I would STRONGLY recommend that you watch it without reading this review…or any reviews for that matter. I think it is best to go into this movie without any idea where the story is going to take you. You will only be able to experience watching this film for the first time once, so I suggest you make the most of it. ☆☆
Martyrs (2008, Written and Directed by Pascal Laugier) opens with the young Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) running down a deserted street, screaming and covered in blood. She had been kidnapped and subjected to extreme forms of torture before escaping. The authorities remain completely mystified about who did this to her and (more importantly) why. Severely traumatized, Lucie refuses to speak to anyone, save for her only friend Anna (Morhana Alaoui). Fifteen years later, Lucie knocks on the door of a normal suburban home and executes the entire family living there. She is convinced that these are the people who tortured her as a child, and calls Anna for help. Anna is skeptical about Lucie’s convictions – especially since Lucie also believes that she has been being attacked by a monster ever since her escape.
After a few plot twists that I won’t mention here, Anna discovers a sleek and completely sterile torture chamber hidden underneath the house. In the dungeon, she finds another woman who was being tortured by the family. Anna attempts to help her, only to be abducted herself when the leaders of a mysterious organization arrive at the house. The leader of the cult-like group reveals to Anna that they are torturing women in an attempt to recreate the experience of martyrdom. By using pain and violence, they want to push these women into a plain of higher existence in an attempt to discover what lies beyond life and after death.
There is something called a ‘peak experience,’ a psychological turning of our heads when the boundaries of ordinary experience fall away and we experience a wider form of consciousness. Most people have had some sort of peak experience in their lives and most spend the rest of their lives trying to replicate these experiences. Of course, these experiences become harder and harder to come by, as we gradually begin to turn off our brains and close ourselves off to new experiences. I believe this is why so many people turn to some sort of abuse – drug abuse, alcohol abuse, nymphomania. They are trying to replicate, in an artificial way, a peak experience from their past. In Martyrs, the abuse is physical; it is pure, unrestrained violence.
The problem with modern society that Martyrs touches upon is the lack of interesting (or at least immediate) challenges. Civilization is a recent development for mankind and one that comes into direct conflict with our instinct to fight and struggle. Civilization allows us to become victims of an annoying habit of relaxing our concentration, of living comfortably and without purpose. In his interview with Ain’t It Cool News, Pascal Laugier mentions that he drew the inspiration for Martyrs from HP Lovecraft, “There is a line from HP Lovecraft that drove my energy to do the film. Just a line, you know? He once said that Horror was a genre that was supposed to be against the world, against society and against civilization.”
There is no doubt that ordinary man is condemned to a form of blindness by his habit-bound existence; he plods through life like a blinkered horse, never seeing too far beyond the end of his nose. He is a sleepwalker. But what about the man who wakes up? What kind of world meets his eyes? What was Wordsworth describing in The Prelude – what is “the reality of the unseen”? This is what Laugier sets out to explore in Martyrs, and as an member of the audience the film made me question (yet again) my own motivations for watching horror films.
So how do we wake up? How do we expand our consciousness? In Martyrs, Laugiers uses the experience of suffering as a way to ‘wake up.’ It is no secret that death, or coming close to death, has the ability to snap us out of our apathy. This is what Christopher Walken’s character in The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) is attempting to achieve by playing Russian Roulette after his experience in the Vietnam War. Our instinct to resist death, to run from suffering, puts us in a state of heightened consciousness. We are no longer living at half-pressure. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment says he would rather stand on a narrow ledge forever, in darkness and tempest, than die immediately.
Religion is basically another name for this dissatisfaction with the constricted vision of modern life. Intensely religious people want to escape the ‘cloud’ that weighs upon us. Ordinary consciousness focuses upon certain objects or ‘facts’ the same way eyes do. However, beyond these central facts there are other things of which the consciousness is only half-aware, things that lie at the margin. But consciousness can suddenly widen, so that things that were once at the margin are suddenly grasped and absorbed. There is no fixed limit. This is a peak experience.
There is the idea of ‘thresholds’ in psychology. A threshold represents our psychological limit; a person with a high noise threshold can stand a lot of noise. “Misery will never end,” said Van Gogh immediately before committing suicide. This is an example of a low pain threshold – not meaning how much physical pain a person can stand, but how far he is aware of the pain in the world. Anyone who is too aware of suffering, and their own inability to remedy it, is likely to fall into a state of anhedonia.
Anhedonia is the most dangerous form of schizophrenia – it is the complete inability to feel pleasure. To a person with a low pain threshold, it seems that anhedonia is the inevitable state of all human beings, if they are not too stupid to draw the correct conclusion from their experiences. This is what happens to Lucie, who is haunted by a ghoulish naked woman, and the unnamed woman Anna discovers in the torture complex hidden beneath an idyllic suburban house, who is convinced that cockroaches are crawling all over her body. They both suffered irreparable psychological breaks during their imprisonment and torture. They will never be normal or happy ever again.
But on the other side of this balance, we have to take into account peak experiences and mystical experiences, in which pain and misery make no difference. This is the experience that Anna finally has at the end of the film, the so-called ‘martyrdom’ that her captors are attempting to recreate.
Of course, peak experiences do not only follow physical suffering. They come from a sense that there is something that seems most worthwhile, a personal center of gravity. This is an important concept; a man who lacks a strong personal center of gravity is bound to be weak and self-divided, whereas the word ‘saved’ always means possessing a strong personal center of gravity. Newton is ‘saved’ by his love of science, as is Einstein. Beethoven is ‘saved’ by his love of music.
There is something wrong with ‘normal’ human consciousness. For some odd reason, we seldom get the best out it. The main trouble seems to lie in our sense of values, which only seems to come alive in moments of great excitement or crisis. Otherwise, we only live at half-pressure. If you keep up a certain conscious straining, you can break through the boundary between the conscious and sub-conscious. We are certainly capable of a far broader and deeper sense of reality than we are accustomed to. This is what happens in religious experiences; this is why Zen Buddhists meditate and practice koans, why Hindus fast, and why some sects of Catholicism engage in self-flagellation. The mysterious organization in this film is using violence to achieve this heightened state of consciousness and literally force these women through the boundary between life and death, or the conscious and subconscious mind. Obviously, most of the women are broken in the process and few achieve this state of martyrdom.
The main problem with Martyrs is that it is ambiguous why Anna possesses a strong enough center of gravity to reach this state of enlightened consciousness. It is true that a martyr is ‘one who suffers.’ However, a martyr is a person who suffers for something – a people, a country, a belief that they refuse to renounce. Particularly when it comes to religious martyrdom, it is for the sake of a religious belief that the martyr suffers. Anna doesn’t really seem to be suffering for the sake of anything and she certainly isn’t suffering due to some deep internal conviction. Therefore, it makes her martyrdom seem somewhat arbitrary, even more arbitrary than the violence inflicted upon her. Where does her strength come from? Why doesn’t she suffer a psychological break similar to the two women before her?
Of course, this may be because Laugier cannot answer this question, just as he cannot reveal the vision that Anna saw during her martyrdom. As long as we are restricted by reality, the mendacity of normal existence, we cannot be expected to understand a higher plain of consciousness.
With Martyrs, Pascal Laugier has created a really extreme, intensely uncomfortable exploration of peak experiences, mystical experiences, and the boundaries of human consciousness. Laugier is asking basic questions, “What is transcendence?” and “What do we do with pain?” He pushes a lot of boundaries in Martyrs in an attempt to bring the audience, along with Anna, to another state, another level. Some people will see this film and immediately love it; others will immediately hate it and hate it forever. For me, it certainly was a film that required a bit of time to digest and process. Ultimately, I really appreciate and like this film. Not only is Martyrs an extremely successful horror film, but one of those rare films that forces you think long after the end of the movie.
Highly recommended, but not for the faint-of heart.