Friday, May 08, 2009

Movies: I was rolling my eyes upwards too.

If you're a horror filmmaker about to launch into biz, I have a single bit of advice for you: Shoot your film in a foreign language. Preferably French, if possible.


As the self-appointed torture porn guy of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers (what, was I gonna be another nostalgia besotted fan of exploitation cult stuff? - might as well announce that you enjoy metabolism and access to oxygen – besides, this gets me out of watching The Room) I've finally gotten around to checking out Martyrs, the Aught Eight Pascal Laugier helmed latecomer to the much reviled subgenre. Yet, while horror elites have gone out of their way to denigrate the homegrown torture porn flicks, they'll sprain their wrist trying to be the first to gookie cookie this particular flick.


Because it's French. So very very French.

Let's get the plot summary out of the way.

The film starts with a young girl escaping a grimy meat packing plant torture chamber. On her way to freedom, she sees another prisoner, but out of fear of getting caught, she abandons her to her fate. (Think Hostel, except the hero doesn't go back for the prisoner he could free.)

The girl, Lucie, ends up in a orphanage where, after and extend therapy/coming-of-age montage we find out that she's befriended by the pleasantly dykey Anna. Lucie's now a cutter, though in her mind the slashes come from a Samara-esque projection of the woman she failed to save. (Think Ring, but more slashy.)

Cut to "now-ish" – Anna and Lucie are an armed duo on the road looking to get revenge against her former captors. (Think Boise Moi except mercifully shorter.) Lucie finds the couple she thinks is responsible for her imprisonment and goes Columbine on them with what appears to be a very expensive quail-hunting rifle. (Think Funny Games.) Lucie's rage includes the execution of the couple's children: a young boy headed off to college and a girl in the early teens.

(I'm going to quit with the "think" motif, but you get the idea. Martyrs is a basically a mash-up flick of the New French Extreme and American mainstream horror, notably the torture porn genre. If you're watching Martyrs and comparing it favorably to American torture porn, then you just haven't watched very much of the subgenre.
Martyrs - by being French and by extension "good" – is torture porn for people who would never stoop to watch torture porn.)

Just because it struck me as curious, I'll mention here that Lucie's gun is a very French weapon in that it is absolutely savage to the human body, but apparently can do no harm to inanimate objects. The boy, for example, is shot while seated in a chair. The buckshot clearly goes straight through him, but leaves but the chair he's seated in, the glassware in front of him, and the glass double doors behind him completely unscathed. By the same token, blood in this film acts the way blood would if Jackson Pollock designed the human body. Nobody jets blood or bleeds out; rather they get injured and smear about great expressionist Crayola red swatches of it about the place. Notably, being around blood gets you covered in it, even before you touch anybody or anything.

Anna, to her credit, is horrified by the violence she sees – if you're curious about what Oskar's life will be like in a few short years after the credits roll in Let the Right One In, the scenes post-family-massacre show vividly what it's like to be the non-bloodthirsty one in such a relationship – and ends up intervening on behalf of mother, who is wounded and left for dead by Lucie, but is still clinging to life. This act of kindness is ill-rewarded as Lucie finds out, offs the mother anyway, and then – feeling unloved, I guess, or perhaps fulfilled – dispatches herself.

Anna, now alone in the world, discovers that Lucie was right all along – there's a CDC-grade sterile torture dungeon underneath the house, complete with simpering victim! (Think, of all things, Captivity - sorry, I know I said I'd quit, but c'mon, how often to get to point out that a film bit off of Captivity - seriously, it steals from Captivity for fuck's sake!) Anna tries to care for the prisoner, but it goes pear shaped when functionaries group who made all this possible show up. Dressed like people who thought "Basically, what I'm sayin' is that I want to dress like I'm a rebel in the The Matrix all the time," these folks bust in, kill the tortured girl. Then the take Anna captive and hand her into the custody of a lady who looks like what would happen if you appointed Mrs. Garrett the high priest of the Thuggie in the Temple of Doom. Mola Garrett explains that Lucie, the now dead new torture victim, and now Anna are part of some George Bataille cult (don't worry – the French didn't get the reference either – surveys show that, despite their rep for culture, the French tend to read even less than Americans do) who feel that death, administered properly, leads to states of self-negating ecstasy that can reveal truths beyond the capacities the self-bound – specifically, what lies on the other side of death.

This is not, despite its oddness, an invention of the filmmaker. Not only is the central concept lifted from the writings of Bataille, but the cult apparently decorates their lair in images from Bataille's death/sex opus The Tears of Eros. The flick gains a considerable amount of mileage out of one particular image – one of a series in the original work – of a man literally dying the death of a thousand cuts. Though, oddly, the film sells the gender wrong: The torturers, in their almost Alan Moore-ish zeal for putting the screws to women, never fully explains why women make better torture subjects than men. As an aside, in Tears, Bataille is at least honest about the fact that person being chopped up is doped to gills with opium, hence the weirdly beatific expression. As weird as this motive sounds, it ends up being not too dissimilar from the secular religion of Jigsaw in the Saw franchise, though Martyrs wisely doesn't let Mola Garrett ramble on and on about it.

Anna, by accident of place, is selected to be the next mortinaut in the cult's program of postmortuary exploration. They starve, humiliate, smack about, and then ultimately flay Anna. If you were of the mind that Hostel was okay, but what it really needed was close-ups of a chained-up woman pissing in a can followed shortly there after by several shots of said woman being skinned alive, then you are in luck, my friend. Curiously, these militant spiritualists don't seem to have any method to their madness. They're shown as having all these elaborate security and prisoner-abuse processes in place, but none of the abuse we saw on young Lucie, the first abandoned prisoner, and the second nameless prisoner match what happens to Anna. This despite the fact that, as we learn later in the film, they've been doing this for nearly two decades and have had some small measure of success.

Anna, sans skin, sees what's on the other side of the great divide and whispers her vision to Mola Garrett. The cult's faithful gather at the house for confirmation of what lies beyond, but Mola Garrett kills herself instead of telling. The viewers, mercifully, aren't left in suspense. After you die, you seem to drift about in cheaper, less trippy effects show that will remind you of the end of 2001. We get a few more lingering shots of hypernaked Anna then we roll the credits.

As far as torture porn flicks go, Martyrs belong in the first rank. It's innovative in its story structure, which weds the captivity narrative to several horror and exploitation threads: the women's revenge flick, the lesbo love tale, the J-horror style ghost story. This keeps the film from feeling like a retread of previous torture porn flicks (when, ironically, it is hugely indebted to other flicks in the subgenre).

It is also, I think, the first notable torture porn flick to bring an overtly supernatural element into the mix in the form of the whole "Death: the Final Frontier" angle. Unfortunately, I don't believe the film is all the better for this particular intrusion. The cult's bizarre motivations, seemingly haphazard methodologies, and blithe inhumanity don't set them apart from the villains of other films in the TP constellation – the look like the guys from Hostel and talk like the baddies from Saw. Worse yet, the supernatural context robs the film of any satiric bite it might have had. Like Jigsaw, the idio-religion of this cult seems determined to not think of itself as a religion – rather, they fancy themselves extremely neuroscientists. Consequently, the flick only faintly evokes that old Francophone cinema go-to crowd pleaser: anti-clericalism. Though the cult is wealthy, Martyrs doesn't touch on the inhumanities spawned of an ethical system ruled by market logic, the way Hostel does. In fact, the whole cult-thing is little more than elaborate dues ex machina to justify the extended suffering we're treated too – it places the motivations and methods of the villains out of the realm of scrutiny, basically making them not really make sense in the first place, and preempting questions about the illogic of what they're doing.

(Notably, when I first wrote extensively about the subject of torture porn, I cited two elements I thought were central to the subgenre: a overwhelming tendency towards naturalism and the curious lack of importance sex played in the films, especially compared to the slashers that preceded them. If I was rewriting that series of essays, both elements would have to be taken off the table: Martyrs touches on the first element and Captivity is all about the latter.)

The visuals are also extreme, even for this subgenre. Taking its register not from the horror genre, but rather from the current strain of French shock cinema, the film likes its gruesomeness sustained for as long as it can manage it. This is less a feature of torture porn than it is the influence of flicks like Irreversible. The film's ably shot, though the style favors crisp storytelling clarity over the hyperrealistic squalor of the Hostel series or the frenetic editing and color washes of Saw (or, for that matter, the look of other recent French fright flicks). In this, again, the film most resembles Captivity, though Martyrs is considerably more visceral for most of its running time than that film's worst scenes.

The real question about Martyrs - indeed about the whole wave of extreme French horror that's taking the horror blog-twit pro-am by storm – is why such a perfectly middle-tier film gets such lavish praise. Martyrs is a fine film. It is reasonably well made (though rife with continuity errors and other early-filmmaking career tells), looks professional, and is scary and brutal by turns. On the other hand, it's more clever than creative, it lacks any subtext that justifies its wallowing in extreme imagery, and it doesn't seem to take even it's own premise very seriously (which is not the same thing as having a sense of humor – this flick most definitely lacks a sense of humor).

I think it's just the French language. It makes your film seem better. Seriously.


Heather Santrous said...

I admit that when I did my write up for this film, I didn't notice some of the things you pointed out on your first viewing. It wasn't until I watched it a second time, just a few nights ago actually, that I noticed that the shots were only doing damage to humans, unless Lucie intended to hit something that wasn't human.

I wondered also why the other women looked so much different than Anna in the end. I think the reason is because those women cracked under what was being done to them. Mademoiselle does say that most of the people they put this through (they have done this to men since she says they have discovered that women are more subjective to being martyrdomed) end up going insane basicly. What I didn't get is why they just don't put these people down, instead of doing what we see has been done to them. I think Anna was different because she was enduring everything out of her love for Lucie, even if Lucie wasn't returning it in the way Anna wanted.

By the way, I didn't like this film more just because it is a French film. I have really liked some of the films coming out of France, but a good film is a good film, doesn't matter where it came from.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Heather,

I thought the movie was good too. I just don't think it's great and I certainly don't understand why people would think this was so superior to similar domestic flicks.

My issue is more with those who trash all domestic TP movies, but praise the French extreme stuff. If I recall, you don't have any axe to grind with the domestic stuff. So the French, not French thing wouldn't apply to you.

Also, the other victims don't just look a little different - they got treated differently and sometimes in ways that would seem counter productive to the cult's needs. Of the two nameless ones, one of them has had an eye blinded and the other was fitted with some sort of blinder - this despite the fact that the cult's only way of recognizing an ecstasy is by the expression of the eyes. This doesn't even go into the application of barb wire wraps and the cutting which everybody except Anna seems to get subjected to.Anna may take it differently, but her love for Lucie doesn't explain why the cultists behave so haphazardly. My point is just that the cult's motives and their actions don't really link up in any important or sensible way. The director/writer throws it out there, but other than an excuse to keep the horror coming, it isn't particularly significant.

As for the explanation of the gender thing - the "because women are better for it" seems to me not to be much of an explanation. Doesn't Mola Garrett actually even say, "That's just the way it is"? Why? Because? Seems like a cop out.

I'm not trying to nitpick the film. For a young filmmaker, he made a heck of a film. I just don't think it rises any higher than the torture porn flicks that already exist.

spacejack said...

It's a strange film. Usually I come down pretty solidly on one side or the other (like it or hate it.) Once in a while I'll watch something like this and think "Hmm, I'm not sure if I should like this or not."

I think one of the most uncomfortable things about the film is how the focus eventually drifts away from being a revenge story told in reverse to exposition about the cult's purpose. It's as if the storytellers callously lose interest in the protagonist in order to explain this cult.

Anyway, I knew nothing about the plot before seeing it. It almost lost me with the extreme scenes of self-mutilation, but because I had no clue where it was ultimately going, I was pretty compelled to see it through.

So in a technical sense, it was quite successful for me - just about every plot twist was a surprise for me, and the acting & direction kept me immersed.

I also agree with Heather, I assumed the other subjects didn't fare as well as Anna, so they took other approaches with them.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

The story structure does keep the film suspenseful and, though I never thought about it, it is sort of like running the standard revenge plot in reverse.

About the previous prisoners - that theory has the problem Heather pointed out: Why keep them at all, especially if they're in such a bad state that they can't communicate what they saw, which is the whole project's goal anyway?

I just think the motives of cult and the inexplicable link between their motives and actions strain, rather than support, the film. It doesn't ruin the film or anything. It's just an observation.

Heather Santrous said...

Maybe women are better for it because they deal better with pain (hello child birth!) than men can? Not completely true but thought I would throw that out.

CRwM said...

I wouldn't be against that theory, but the cult's whole thing isn't about resisting pain or being able to "take it." It is about destroying the concept of the self and giving one's soul over to suffering so that you gain special insights into life and death. It isn't so much as product of the intensity of pain as being a sort of masochistic Zen master about it.

Lucie couldn't do it because she has to fight - she struggles to escape, fights her own guilt, and desires revenge. But that's because she wouldn't submit, not because she couldn't take pain.

Seems more likely to me that the movie is proposing that women are just more likely to submit to their fates. Not a particularly enlightened viewpoint, I feel.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I really hated Martyrs (mostly for the reasons you gave in the review - nothing worse than a prententious horror flick trying to pass itself off as arthouse), but upon further reflection I guess even that is too strong a reaction, it's just a well done, but comparatively meaningless movie and not really deserving of a strong reaction one way or the other (except disappointment maybe after all the hype).

Just three minor points:

1. I felt the violent parts were oddly restrained in a way, certainly inspired by extreme French shock cinema more so than extreme horror (or Torture porn), but without anything of substance to say, I still thought it felt like someone doing exploitation whilst trying to condem the genre at the same time, resp. being dismayed that someone could lump their movie in with other Torture porn flicks (which might explain the praise heaped upon it, seems to work for Haneke and Noe too).

2. The title annoyed me to no end - yes, Martyrs has other meanings than just the common Christian one, but the interpretation found in the movie is not among them and either a laughably silly (but sincere) attempt to come up with something "intellectual" or -and this is what I find far more likely and annoying - a well calculated move by the makers to sell the movie as something it plainly isn't (and thus imlicitly showing a contempt for the stupid horror audience the film is aimed at).

3. I guess within the context of the film, the cult uses women because they are more likely to have greater empathy (and also more likely to "accept their fate" - unpleasant as it is, I think this is a very clear implication). In reality, I suspect it's because seeing a woman get tortured is an easier sell, but I suppose this is another debate really (I still think that the audience for torture porn tends to identify with the perpetrators more than with the victims - e.g. all the Jigsaw fanboys I had to endure the last time I bothered to watch a part of the Saw franchise in a cinema (must have been Saw 2).

Heather Santrous said...

"...yes, Martyrs has other meanings than just the common Christian one, but the interpretation found in the movie is not among them..."

I'm not sure if you mean the actual meaning given towards the end of the film, or if you mean the film itself. Martyr does mean "to witness" in Greek. Although I think the actual Greek word is spelled slightly different. I know not everything on the internet is true, but I found this on several web sites that talked about the Greek meaning.

As far as the film using that meaning, I can see where people would question that. She does become a witness, but the film is really straining the meaning of witness, at least I thought so.

Anonymous said...

I mean the ending given towards the end - yes, martyr does mean "to witness" (even "with your blood" in some translations) in Greek, but it's a term that is used in very specific contexts and none of them fits the story of the film.
The best possible explanation would be to consider her a martyr because she's willling to sacrifice herself and lie to the cult to save future potential victims, but the way the ending is presented, I don't really think that was intended (and wouldn't fit in with the title).

The crucial point is that while it's true that one doesn't necessarily have to volunteer to become a martyr, the conclusion the film draws -you can become an unwilling martyr for someone else's cause- is simply wrong, unless you're willing to accept that their definition is simply something they made up on the spot.
Usually I'd consider this a minor point, but when a film goes out of its way to present itself as something more than just "stupid American torture porn", I think it's indicative of either the makers not caring nearly as much as they pretend to do and /or the makers having a certain contempt for their audience.

CRwM said...

Heather and Anon,

Out of curiosity, I looked into the origins of the term martyr and the movie, intentionally or not, does effectively evoke a pre-modern sense of the word.

Apparently, as the Greeks may have understood it, the term would have applied to witnesses in something like our modern legal sense: that is, as a witness at a trial. This is how the term is used in the Old and New Testaments too.

The link to the later, modern religious usage comes from the fact that, in those rougher days, uncooperative witnesses were often tortured by the authorities to give up the truth. Metaphorically this got extended to religious figures whose grace under persecution was intended to be understood as proof of the truth of whatever faith was calling them a martyr.

How much of that was intended to filter into the film, I honestly don't know. But, I think we have to be fair and at least grant that it's an odd, but not nonsensical use of the word.

At least, that's my take on the title and that final title card.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how this makes the usage of the word not nonsensical - none of the victims are witnesses in the legal sense (or any other sense the Greeks might have had in mind), even if we include the (introduced at a far later stage) element of torture (since they aren't in possession of the truth, but -if the cult is correct-about to find truth through their "martyrdom"). This is especially puzzling since most people are familiar with the "modern religious usage", but the film goes out of its way to make sure that we understand that this isn't the connection they had in mind, so apparently the "witness interpretation" is what they had in mind, but that's exactly what I think makes the title nonsensical.

As I said - if we understand Anna to sacrifice herself willingly (to protect others, btw. this would also be the understanding of the term in the buddhist sense), the title might make sense, but I don't see how the "witness" interpretation applies here and am fairly certain that the latter interpretation is not what they had in mind.

CRwM said...


Certainly the metaphor is stretched – though I think it has to be viewed as a metaphor and not a literal usage.

In this case, like the martyr-witnesses of ancient Greece, the victims of the cult are people who are tortured in order to get them to reveal the truth. (Though, like I said, that kinda strikes me as hogwash because I don't think the directors – being good traditional French atheists that they are – don't really buy in life beyond death and, therefore, have to cop out on the whole "truth" that gets revealed part. Which brings me back to the problem of the cult in the first place: the are a nonsensical deus ex machina.)

That said, the metaphor has wiggle room (as all metaphors do) and it doesn't work on a one-to-one trait equivalence.

All that said, I thought the ending definition card was a bit much. It felt like one of those online debates when someone goes, "Maybe you don't know what term X means: Websters defines it as blah blah blah." It's off-putting and seems smug.

Anonymous said...

I guess I pretty much agree, although I think it's more a case of the directors wanting the title to be viewed as a metaphor, but not providing enough to justify such an interpretation (for all the reasons you gave).
I just don't think it works - I don't see what it should be a metaphor for and the idea is still so close to the original meaning that it seems more like a case of misapplication to me (I think you could make a stronger case for Hostel having a "deep" subtext).

In the end, I suppose discussing the title and its potential meaning is already more effort than the directors put into it in the first place, but what really annoys me is that I feel like I'm still expected to think about the meaning anyway.

Aaron White said...

I am many days late and many dollars short with this comment, but having just watched Martyrs, I'd say the heroine is a witness to, among other things, the afterlife (or a vision/hallucination of same). It is this bearing witness that is of interest to the cult.

I view the cult through my conflicted views on vivisection, but maybe that's a personal problem rather than a substantial thematic insight.