Thursday 1 November 2018

Cult Cinema #11: The Pain is the Point

Martyrs (2008)

(I'm not sure you can spoil a film like this. The blank description of the carnage, misery and pain visited upon the women in the 2008 original version of Martyrs is inadequate, really, to get across the extremity of it. Suffice to say, though, there are many spoilers here, along with all of the content warnings.)

Martyrs has a dire reputation. Even the people who like it will tell you it's a work of relentless, nihilistic carnage; the ones who don't will dismiss it as torture porn. Is it? Well.

The idea of pornography in the sense of horror has been something that's been talked about for a long time. The whole rationale for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre being refused a certificate by the BBFC for 25 years depended upon it being described by the censor as, you may remember, “the pornography of terror,” in that we are expected to enjoy the terrorising of a young woman over a solid hour, and you can sort of see that with the sadism of it, the grotesque black comedy but also in the way that the film uses tension, and how it's paced to entertain. You're supposed to enjoy it. And attitudes have of course changed, both in respect to horror and to pornography itself, so when James Ferman wrote that in 1974, the default public line was that pornography was wrong. In the last twenty years, the general public attitude to that has changed. And so, when Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) came out, the label “torture porn” was applied to them and the films that followed them by critics, and while initially that was derogatory, directors and fans have reclaimed it, and unapologetically use it. Inevitably, Martyrs got stuck with the label, and in 2012 was deemed a significant enough example by the BBFC to be included in a consultation about whether the Board's policies on sadistic violence in films should be changed.

Pascal Laugier himself, the director of Martyrs, has quite openly said that he thought Hostel was great. But he's also said that he intended Martyrs to be the “anti-Hostel”. In another interview, though, Laugier has said that he was OK with the labelling of his film as torture porn, but also said that he felt the label was nonsensical. So I guess he's not much help.

Leaving the director's words aside, is that fair? Well, the film kicks in with first distress and then bloody violence in the first couple of minutes, and doesn't let up. There is pain, and blood, and there is horror. It is not fun to watch. There is no pleasure in the terrible things visited on the characters in Martyrs. The primary emotion that the sufferings of the film evoke is in fact pity, off screen and on. The first reaction to the film I shared with a friend was “That was horrible. That was Salò horrible.”
Martyrs is by no means as horrible as Salò. Very little is. But I think what I was responding to there was the tone of the film's horrors. Like Salò, Martyrs is not fast-paced. As in Salò, the torture in Martyrs is not especially the release of tension. There are no laughs to be had. The pain in Martyrs – especially the second half – is dreary, and repetitive, and inevitable, and, we will eventually find, not so much pointless as driven by a core of shocking nihilism.

In 1971, a child named Lucie (Jessie Pham) escapes from an environment of terrible, sustained abuse. Traumatised, the girl is taken to a home. There we meet another girl named Anna (Erika Scott), who takes Lucie under her wing. It cannot end well: Lucie is haunted by something violent, something vengeful, something that assaults her, that damages her externally to reflect the damage within. We will discover later that the thing that haunts Lucie, the naked, scarred, rage-filled, emaciated woman who assaults her with fists, and teeth, and razors and knives, is apparently the ghost of a woman she could not rescue when she escaped.

Fifteen years later, we see a suburban family, normal, happy. They're eating breakfast. They're joking, bickering, secure. And then a young woman with a shotgun enters their house and, weeping, fumbling shotgun cartridges with bloody fingers, massacres them, one by one.

It's Lucie, now an adult (Mylène Jampanoï), but no more able to cope with her trauma. She has murdered these people because she is convinced that the adults are her childhood tormentors. She contacts Anna, still her only support (Morjana Alaoui), who comes to find her, and although appalled by what Lucie has done and clearly disbelieving Lucie's rationale, nonetheless helps clear up. One of Lucie's victims (Patricia Tulasne) is, miraculously, still alive; Anna tries to rescue her, but Lucie intercepts and finishes the woman off, screaming, breathless, driven out of her mind with fear and hate.

(I'm already running out of ways to express the visceral awfulness of this without repeating myself, and I'm aware I've got to pace myself for what's to come. Truth is, a week after having seen Martyrs, I'm still distressed by it, which I guess means that I've found a film that's beaten me.)

Whatever Lucie did, it doesn't bring closure. The vengeful spirit or demon that torments her comes back, attacks her more viciously than ever. And it would, for, as we finally see in a ruthlessly efficient set of cuts (in every possible sense), the ghost exists in her imagination. It's a product of her trauma. We never get to see if Lucie realises that, for about 40 minutes into the film, she slices open her own throat, and Anna cannot save her.

And this is the turning point of the film, since we've been led to believe that the film is about Lucie, about her abuse and her revenge and her trauma. But no; in fact Lucie is an access point.

Anna explores the house and discovers what amounts to a very modern dungeon, in a hidden basement. She enters and finds a woman (Emilie Miskdjian) in a degraded, pathetic state. We see, quite clearly, that she has been made subject to extravagantly horrible abuses. And Anna's immediate, unhesitating response is to display compassion, as she did to Lucie as a child, as she did with the woman left for dead.
Lucie was right: these were her abusers, a fact confirmed fully when the cult that runs this place returns. Their “Mademoiselle” (Catherine Bégin), a middle aged woman in black, explains that the cult, which was indeed the same group that once imprisoned Lucie, intends to find the key to the problem of an afterlife by creating the conditions of classic martyrdom. They torture people to death.

That's not strictly correct. They torture women to death. Young women. They used to try this on men and children (such as Lucie) but they found, Mademoiselle says, that women are more able to deal with pain, and have more of the likely characteristics of the martyr anyway, and young women are likely to survive longer. And that's obviously a troubling rationale, although OK, none of these things are things we haven't heard before, they're commonly repeated truisms, some of which even have a factual basis. But in a work of fiction, it's still basically an excuse to show women being tortured. And there isn't any more to add to that, really. I don't think it's conscious. But ideologically neutral just means default, really. So I'm just going to register that it's a thing and leave it there.

The cult tortures women to death in the hopes that one of these women, regardless of her actual beliefs, might fulfil the conditions of sainthood and at the point of death will enter an ecstatic state where she will see into the beyond. See God, or the afterlife, or whatever. Bring back proof of another existence. Before she dies, their bespoke martyr will (in the manner of the classical martyrs, although this is not explicitly said) utter the truth. She will bear witness to the Great Secret of Death. She will prove or disprove the existence of God.
Just before the end credits, the screen flashes up a dictionary definition of “martyr”: drawing on its root, the Greek word for witness.

It's an important part of the definition that we've lost in a secular age. A martyr is someone who acts as a witness to the truth in a sort of judicial sense: they're a witness whose testimony is central enough to their way of being that it overrides even their life in terms of its importance to them. Which means they will die for it. As the idea of the Christian martyr developed, the dying became the point. And as the literature of the Christian martyr developed, the extravagant and gruesome nature of the martyr's death became a central part of the genre, so much so that when Christianity became part of the apparatus of state rather than a persecuted minority and martyrdom became more or less unnecessary, new hagiographies began to be centred around people who found spiritual completion by hurting themselves, by subjecting their flesh to mortification, in new and strange and exquisitely horrible ways. Although it was denied, the pain became the point.

So, for a solid half hour, Anna is tortured. Repetitively, brutally, by a man and a woman (Mike Chute, Anie Pascale), neither of whom are deriving any enjoyment from it. And the torture is relentless, and dreary, and grim. Films where women are tortured slowly to death have an awful tendency to make the female victim become sort of luminous and beautiful before she dies (or for that matter after she dies – take The Autopsy of Jane Doe, for instance), but here, nothing of the sort happens. Anna's face is a bruise. She is filthy and bloody and a mess.

Anna tries to fight back. She tries to escape. She tries to plead. She begins to hallucinate. But then she gives in. She begins to bear it. To take it with serenity and a sort of peace.

And so, seeing she's ready, they skin her alive.

I have to take a breath and pause, having written that. It's been a while since I saw it, a few days, but I've slept on what happened in Martyrs, every night since. And I don't think I've seen a film since Salò that's put me through the wringer so much, emotionally speaking, and part of that I guess is about my own trajectory, the way my own relationship to God and religion was shaped by my discovery of the awfulness of the hagiographies.

Anna achieves martyrdom, even to the extent of seeing beyond this world and, before she dies, whispering what she has seen in the ear of Mademoiselle. And while other characters in the film experience different extremities (a stainless steel blindfold and chastity belt, for example, both literally stapled to the imprisoned woman's body), nothing Anna experiences is outside of the experience of the early Christian martyrs. While Anna's shaved head recalls Joan of Arc's head as she went to the stake, and the Femmes Tondues, the French women who, having slept with occupying Nazi soldiers in World War II, were publicly humiliated upon liberation, Anna's final fate recalls nothing more or less than the grisly icons of St. Bartholomew of the Cross, who was reputedly skinned alive, and often depicted skinless and even holding his skin in his hand.
Statue of St Bartholomew flayed, Milan Duomo
I also, inevitably, find myself thinking about that most gut wrenching of Christian hagiographies, the story of Thaïs. About how the courtesan, bullied into repentance, is bricked in a room for three years, explicitly with her own effusions, and how it is her own self denial and self hatred that creates her miracle (it's brief, only a few hundred words. You can read my translation of it here). I don't know if Laugier read that particular story (I’m assuming not, although Thaïs is a figure approached more than once in French literature, so maybe) but the general idea of it, that's a good example of where Martyrs goes. And I'd put money on Laugier having contact with Catholicism somewhere in his background.

For all that, the film explicitly denies a Catholic interpretation. It's not about Catholicism; it just (ab)uses Catholic iconography. The cult explicitly doesn't actually care about belief, and here's where the double bluff about the protagonist comes in, because while they want to know about what lies beyond so passionately they'll force martyrdom on an innocent, the religious part of it has been boiled down to this: the pain is the point.

These are wealthy people. They're respectable people, people who love their kids and think of themselves in their monstrous hypocrisy as good people, but they're also the people who can not only afford to build a state of the art dungeon beneath a plush suburban home but can afford to disappear women into it. And they've boiled out all the moral teaching, all the faith, and made it into an industrial level martyr factory, because the pain is the point.
Except that there is the black joke at the middle of the whole thing, and I say it's a joke, but it's only a joke in that it's one of those bleak, bitter ironies that aren't really what you'd call funny that you're only ever going to laugh at if you're exceptionally cynical, the sort of thing I imagine that someone like Thomas Ligotti gets his yuks from. Because on the one hand it turns out that Anna was always a saint to begin with. You can see it. Whatever happened to her to make her this way, she is made of compassion. Every time she sees someone in pain, she tends to them. She is a sponge for pain. And while, OK, becoming a habitual caregiver is well known as a less than healthy way to respond to trauma, it's quite obvious if you've read any hagiographies that being a saint isn't exactly a path for a well adjusted person.

But healthy or not, Anna has dedicated her entire life to healing the pain of others. She is already a saint. The industrial level abuse inflicted on her, intended to make her into one, misses the point. Her martyrdom was already achieved. The pain is the point, but there is no point to the pain. She even, unbelievably, survives. She endures beyond the end of the film, even though, by that final shot, her entire existence is pain.

Worse than this, on the other hand is the fact is that the cult misses a central problem.

Now. The martyr factory is a success, because it produces the conditions necessary for a person with the characteristics of a saint to meet a final ecstasy, transcending through death agonies. It exists because there are people who think that it's enough to have the resources to make someone else be a martyr without having to go through the agony/ecstasy yourself. So they can make someone else do the labour and get the final revelation.

Obvious point time: this is basically the final result of religion under capitalism. Transcendence as a commodity, transcendence made a product for those who can afford it, manufactured industrially by grinding up human bodies and souls.

There is a word for buying miracles: simony (Acts 8: 20-21 NIV has it so: "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.")

And, of course, it's useless.

Because there's a reason people only have these revelations after suffering: you're only actually equipped to have the revelation if you've borne this. So when Anna has her revelation, whatever the hell it actually is, she whispers it to Mademoiselle and Mademoiselle confirms to her acolytes that yes, it's the desired revelation; yes, it's absolutely clear; no, there is no shade of interpretation.

And then she blows her brains out.

Which is, in the end, what Martyrs is about. Capitalism reduces everything to the material and destroys the people who labour, disposes of them. And it perpetuates the capitalist belief that if you can pay for a thing, you have a right to it. But some things have no monetary price. Some things aren't material. Some things can't be, whether you believe in this God stuff or not. And some things you will never have a right to, no matter how much money you are prepared to pay.

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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