I defy anyone who still thinks the term “torture porn” makes any sense to watch writer/director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and reconsider their position. This isn’t my way of chastising people with different opinions than myself but rather my way of saying: “This film is a good example of what’s wrong with the term.” Martyrs takes the underlying concept of torture porn—pleasure from excessive displays of pain—and thoroughly explodes it in 99 minutes of grueling, non-stop butchery. It is impossible for the viewer to go away feeling exhilarated or excited after witnessing so much carnage; instead, most viewer reactions I’ve read have made it seem as if you can’t help but feel gutted and defeated, a sentiment I shared. This is the film Wes Craven’s original, schlocky The Last House on the Left (1972) anticipated, one you cannot dismiss because of the cheap metaphor undergirding its copious displays of barbarism. It’s about damn time. Lots of allusions ahead, but trust me, they’re warranted.
Martyrs is the film Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) could have been, one that, for the most part, does not make the political subtext with which it depicts torture apparent. Where Roth essentially updated Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) with an anti-American, post-9/11 slant, Martyrs makes no such explicit claims. Instead, it begins as a grisly inversion of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), a film about survivor’s guilt and the revenge of repressed guilt. Souls tormented its protagonist with mute, immaterial walking corpses; Martyrs focuses on ghosts that hack, slash and bash their way to visibility.
Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) miraculously escapes from a subterranean torture chamber. Years later, she is haunted by the ghost of a woman she met but failed to free in her haste to flee her captors. With the help of fellow orphan Anna (Morjana Aloui), she tracks down the people that pitilessly eviscerated her and discovers that they are in fact not hicks that dice up city folk for kicks, but rather the heads of a middle-class suburban family. All the while, Lucie’s ghost happily cuts away at her flesh using her hands, bluntly recreating the disassembled, self-disintegrating mindset of a torture victim. How Laugier knows what these victims go through is anyone’s guess. Still, what sets his depiction of a split-personality, revanchist killing machine apart from his forebears is that he almost immediately reveals to the viewer that Lucie is the one still hurting herself. Lucie’s manifested guilt is not entirely the driving mechanism behind the film: what eventually takes precedence is uncovering who the monsters are that created it and why they did it.
The fact that Laugier has a perfectly normal family act as the perpetrators of the film’s gruesome activities serves firstly as a dig at Craven’s Last House. The wily and utterly audacious Frenchman effectively shames the fittingly named American for stopping as short as he did in pointing the finger of blame at a small suburban couple who, having just lost their daughter to a gang of thugs, decide to creatively slaughter her executioners. Laugier upends that film’s self-satisfied, pseudo-ambiguous conclusion by suggesting that perhaps these milquetoast, child-rearing folk had a reason for hurting other people that goes beyond their family tree, a reason that is infinitely more sinister because it serves a curiosity that has no ties to the domestic or even the mundane. These people torture others because they want to vicariously experience their “other"ness, to see what it’s like to have a person cross over to “the other side” and come back to tell them how green the grass is. This is where I really start to go out on a limb, so bear with me.
Though the “other side” is immediately a reference to Heaven, Laugier uses it to not-so-subtly critique the way violence always tends to gravitate around a repressed or minority figure. The “other side” can only be reached, according to Lucie’s captors, by victims of violence that is so extreme that they can no longer perceive the mundane world. They must be young and they must be female (so says the older woman organizing the experiment). These “martyrs” can no longer see people (let alone their race), but to reach that point of transcendence, they have to first undergo a process of “other"ing, which in this case involves non-stop beatings.
Though it may look obvious or intentional, during this process of bloodletting, the skin color of the only martyr left alive gets a little darker after a couple of beatings (there’s no logical explanation for this as the martyr in question is never shown to be hurt with anything except her captors’ fists and boots). The martyrs are beaten without a word from their jailers, as if to show that the act of beating another person cannot possibly be called an “advanced interrogation tactic.” These girls must first be completely alienated and once they’ve been physically and emotionally broken down, they have their “other"ness and all other traces of their identity forcibly ripped away from them. This means literally losing their skin, the flesh ripped away to reveal glistening tendons and muscles. Any possible sign of their race or gender is thus completely removed, turning them into so much unidentifiable flesh. First the martyr becomes an “other,” then they become nothing. There is no possibility of “getting off” here, just a hyper-real representation of the horror of physical suffering. This is the kind of movie that justifies its daunting provocation with scant but revealing dialogue like,“People no longer envisage suffering, young lady.” Martyrs has an intelligence and a dogged determination to do and to say what its predecessors could or would not.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.