Welcome back to another installment of the Chapter x Chapter series, a column where I take a deep dive into horror reading with a new review for each chapter of the book. The first book of this series is Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity by Alexandra West. If you're looking to start from the beginning, I recommend you check out my introduction.
Alright, I'm taking a deep breath for this one. I know that I'm not alone in being traumatized by Pascal Laugier's 2008 film, Martyrs. In fact, Alexandra West kicks off her chapter on this movie by acknowledging it and Irreversible are the two most infamous films to come out of the New French Extremity. I knew before watching it that Martyrs would be one that I'd need to brace myself for given it's reputation. But I wasn't ready, readers. I just wasn't ready.
Even a simple recap is challenging, so I'm going to to try to make this quick (SPOILERS AHEAD). A young damaged woman named Lucie kills a seemingly normal family and calls for help from her friend Anna, to whom she claims the family was part of a group that tortured her as a young girl. Lucie, unable to handle her own psychological trauma, winds up killing herself, only for Anna to find out that Lucie was right and that the family Lucie killed was part of group that tortured her in the name of creating "martyrs" who can see what's in the afterlife. Anna is taken to lengths of torture that accomplish just that. When she whispers what she's seen in the afterlife to "Mademoiselle," the leader of the group, who responds by calmly committing suicide.
Fun, huh? I do think it's important to note that I've never dismissed Martyrs as exploitative torture porn. It's a very well made movie that doesn't glorify a single frame of violence. In fact, it does just the opposite. Every act of violence is tragic and cruel. Laugier wants us to hate what we're seeing, and West notes that in a lot of ways he hating making it.
The question then becomes, why would depict scenes they hate making and that they expect the audience to hate watching? West explains that the film takes the audience deep into how trauma can affect a person, effectively making them see the long-term affects of abuse in the beginning of the movie through Lucie before making them watch Anna go through her own abuse at the end of the film. Human beings do some awful things to one another, and this film forces the audience to acknowledge this fact.
West also pulls beauty out of the film that I couldn't see, possibly because of my own privilege. I have never really been able to get over the deep feeling of injustice of Anna's fate. As someone who's likely to be on the receiving end of systemic oppression, the unfairness and cruelty of how things play out have festered in my gut. Even Mademoiselle's suicide seems like a one last "fuck you" as she ushers herself into the afterlife while letting her followers keep guessing about what awaits them.
West's interpretation of the ending, however, finds "beauty in degradation, hope in loss, and triumph in darkness." She notes that many see the ending as nihilistic, but also asserts that while Anna may not survive, she has disrupted those who have captured her in a way that could change everything. And in a film that serves as an indictment in religion, West notes that it's not spiritual faith that pulls Anna through, but rather her unconditional love for Lucie.
Honestly, this is the kind of insight that pushed me to read this book in the first place. West is able to identify themes that I'd never pull out of a film on my own no matter how many times I watched it. And frankly, once is about all I can muster for Martyrs. But by being able to incorporate West's insights, the despair of the film doesn't have to be all-encompassing.
Check out Chapter 13 here.
Bryan's To-Watch List:
- Le Manoir du diable (The Haunted Castle)
- Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon)
- Les Diabolique
- Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face)
- Le Viol du vampire (Rape of the Vampire) or really anything from Jean Rollin
- Baise-Moi (Can be translated as either Rape Me or Fuck Me)
- Sombre (Dark)
- In My Skin
- Criminal Lovers
- Ils (Them)
- Suel Contre Tout (I Stand Alone)
- Ma Mere