This post is about the 2008 French movie Martyrs. This post will contain spoilers that will absolutely ruin the movie for you if you have not seen it. This movie is not for everyone, however. If you do not like horror movies, then I suggest you avoid it. Even if you DO like horror movies, a lot of people find Martyrs to be pretty disturbing on a number of levels. I do not put it in the category of movies whose sole goal is to shock you, I do not think it is an especially gory movie (by the standards of modern horror), nor do I feel it is torture porn, but I am aware there are people who would disagree with me on those things. In fact, that is part of what motivated me to write this post. I am interested in discussing certain aspects of the movie with other people who have seen it. If you do choose to see this movie, I highly recommend you avoid reading anything about the movie before watching it. That’s how I first experienced it, and I think that it’s the best way to see this movie. More than with most movies, knowledge of the plot will ruin things for you.
If you want to buy it, it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray on Amazon. It may or may not be available for rental at your local video store.
There are significant spoilers beyond this point. If you have not seen the movie and ever plan to see it, I strongly suggest you stop reading.
Okay, so I have three main things I want to discuss. I’ll start with the ending of the movie, since that’s what indirectly led to me writing this post. So, at the end of the movie, the old woman who appears to be the head of the “cult” kills herself after hearing the testimony of the martyr. We are told that the martyr’s testimony lasted for quite a while (I forget the exact duration, but over an hour I think). Before the old woman kills herself, she has had some time to digest what she learned from the martyr, and she has a brief conversation with another guy in the group. I am paraphrasing here, but I recall her conversation with the guy being something like this:
Him: There is something after death?
Him: Was she clear?
Her: Yes. Her testimony was clear enough that it cannot be interpreted in multiple ways. Can you imagine what awaits us after death?
Her: Good. Keep doubting. <kills herself>
The question, of course, is why did she kill herself? What did the martyr tell her to cause this reaction? I saw three main possibilities:
1) The martyr told her there was nothing after death.
2) The martyr told her that when you die, it is an utter paradise.
3) The martyr told her that there are terrible things waiting after you die (either for everyone, or perhaps just for people who had done evil like the cultists).
Option #1 would likely fill the old woman with despair, which could explain why she’d want to kill herself. My initial reaction is that why would you kill yourself if you knew for a fact that there was nothing after death, but I guess for some people that could be an incentive to do it. If you are deeply unhappy, then perhaps the only thing stopping you from killing yourself is the worry of being punished in the afterlife. Or just the uncertainty of it. I guess the knowledge that death would definitely mean the end of suffering could lead one to be more likely to kill themselves, especially if that person (like the old lady cult leader) had devoted a long time to learning what was after death. She seemed convinced there was something, so learning that it was all for nothing could be quite a blow. HOWEVER, she clearly states to the other guy that there IS something after death. And if there was nothing after death, it would be weird for the martyr’s testimony to take so long. I suppose she could have lied to the other guy, so as to let him live with some (false) hope. And maybe she questioned the martyr for that long, trying to make sure that there was, in fact, nothing after death. The more I write about this option, the more it makes sense to me as a real possibility.
Option #2 would explain why the woman was in a hurry to die, but it does not explain why she wouldn’t bother to share this knowledge with the others first. Why tell her associate to keep doubting? Presumably this kind of revelation is exactly what they were all hoping for. So I’m inclined to discard this option. It does explain why suicide would be desirable, but it doesn’t explain why she didn’t tell the others first.
Option #3 was my original conclusion after seeing the movie. I took the woman at her word that the martyr saw that there was something beyond death. I assumed that whatever it was, it filled with woman with such despair that she couldn’t go on living. But as a kindness she tried to give false hope to the others, rather than tell them the truth. Does this make sense? Well, if you knew that eternal torment awaited you after death, would you kill yourself and hasten that? I guess maybe, if you were truly miserable in life, and you had a “let’s get on with it” attitude. Perhaps the revelation from the martyr was that the actions of the cult were so horrific that they would suffer eternally for it. Presumably the cultists felt that the ends justified the means, and that’s how they morally justified their actions to themselves. To find out that the ends did NOT justify the means, and that they would be held accountable for their crimes… I could see where that could cause the woman to be consumed with both despair and guilt and regret. So that could prompt her to kill herself both out of despair and ALSO as some kind of penance. But does it explain why she would lie to the others? Is she trying to offer them the gift of brief false hope before they too die and suffer eternally? Possibly. But you’d think that if what she had learned was so awful, she’d want to say or do something to shut down their cult. Otherwise they may go on trying to create martyrs. Although maybe that’s what she meant by “Keep doubting.” That could be her way of telling them to stop trying to achieve certainty about the afterlife — since clearly such certainty drove this woman to kill herself.
Okay, having worked through this by writing about it, I could see option #1 or #3 as equally plausible. If anyone reading this has any opinions on this, I’d love to hear them in the comments section. Is there a possible explanation that I overlooked? A flaw in my reasoning? Or do you think one of the above options is the right one?
I recently re-watched Martyrs with my friend Jen C, and of course we discussed the ending. Today I decided to Google it, and see what other people thought. There were a number of discussion threads about it, but almost all of them quickly got off topic. They would switch to discussing two other things, which are the two other things I want to talk about here. Many people made the following two assertions about the movie:
1) The movie is extremely misogynistic.
2) The movie, especially the scenes of the eventual martyr being tortured after being captured by the cult, were excessive torture porn and served no purpose.
These two points are kind of related, as some people claimed #2 was evidence of #1, since the martyr was female. But that wasn’t the only evidence offered for #1. The other main evidence offered was the movie’s claim that women were easier to martyr than men.
I’ll kind of talk about both points at once, I think, since they’re kind of entwined. In terms of the misogyny, it is claims like these which make me think I may not fully understand what the term means. I have always taken it to mean “woman hating”. There is a long tradition of female victims in horror movies. And there are definitely some horror movies I watch where I find the violence against women to be disturbing. Usually this is because it really feels like the film maker is intending the viewer to be enjoying it, as though they expect it to be titillating. And that’s very disturbing to me. I never got that feeling from Martyrs. Neither the camera nor the cultists perpetrating the violence seemed to be enjoying the experience. The violence was delivered in a very impersonal way, and the camera seemed very impersonal as well. It didn’t move to get reaction shots of the woman’s face, nor was it shot as though from the point of view of the attacker. It was just an observer in the room. I am not saying that the scenes of violence were not disturbing. But people compared them to movies like Hostel, and I really couldn’t see that.
I also didn’t feel that the scenes were unnecessary. I thought they established a couple important points:
1) The cultists did not enjoy the torture. True, they did seem inured to the pain they were causing, but at no point do they give the impression of enjoying it. It was a means to an end for them. I am not saying this as a defense of the cultists. In fact, I think it makes the entire situation MORE chilling and disturbing. It’s one thing to assume an evil person is committing evil acts because they are just evil and enjoy causing pain. It’s another thing to think that a group of people could do terrible, terrible things while thinking it’s serving a greater purpose. I think that latter is even harder to witness.
2) If you did not witness the progression of the eventual martyr from her starting point to her eventual martyrdom, it would be very hard for the view to accept such a strong, resourceful person as completely giving up and letting go. I think the viewer had to see the experience from the martyr’s point of view, in order for the transformation to make any sense.
Anyway, readers, I’m curious if you thought Martyrs was misogynistic, was excessive in its violence/torture, or engaged in torture porn.
I will close by saying that I think Martyrs is a great movie for a few reasons:
1) It leaves you with things to think about and does not neatly explain every last thing
2) It takes very unexpected turns and is almost three different movies stuck together
3) It’s original — I watch a lot of horror movies, and it is rare for one to truly surprise me
Okay, I’ve run out of steam here, and I need to go home and feed the cats. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the movie!