Keep Doubting: Why Martyrs is One of Horror's Most Biting Critiques on Systems of Violence and Oppression
Hi horror fans! There's been a bit of a lull in my posts recently, but today I'm back with a post on the film Martyrs. It's been called one of the most brutal horror films ever made, and its often referenced by hard core horror fans as one of the best, and simultaneously the worst, films they've ever seen.
There are a number of write ups online about the film, and what's been interesting to me is to note the overwhelming lack of attention to the issues of race and womanhood that the film touches on, despite the fact that (in my opinion) it's one of the sharpest commentaries on the intersection of these two issues with modes violence, that I've ever seen on film. I mean, do we all think it's a mistake that Laugier cast two brown women in the lead roles, and that the film ends (SPOILER ALERT!) with one of them making the ultimate sacrifice via being skinned alive?
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, so let's back up and look at the other ways the film forms a pointed critique of the West's foreign and domestic policies towards minorities, and the manner in which it directly implicates Western audiences in global systems of torture and oppression, systems that disproportionately impact women.
The film begins with scenes of a young girl (Lucie) enduring torture, then eventually fleeing the scene of her abuse. The image of young Lucie running from from her captors is eerily similar to the image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack. This is a powerful image. It's one that has endured and taken on life of its own as a depiction of the horrors of the Vietnam War. This iconic image has very a particular depth of meaning and "aura" especially for French and American viewers. And while the association between the two images may not be consciously taken in by viewers, I do believe that it there is an underlying, subconscious effect. It's a way for Laugier to code the film. He wants viewers to frame what follows in a very particular way. From the very beginning, our minds are being tuned by Laugier towards thoughts of colonialism, war, exploitation, and torture.
As the film moves forward, we see what Lucie has grown into - a woman reeling from her past, and haunted (quite literally) by her inability to save others in the same predicament during her escape. She's intent on finding her abusers, and exacting revenge.
But when she finds them, it turns out that they are a normal, middle class, nuclear family. We meet them as they are sitting down to breakfast in their home. The conversation includes light banter about school, and mom's work in the garden unclogging a pipe. The power and impact of this scene shouldn't be ignored, as it establishes a very important point: this family is completely normal. It is average. It is middle class. And while the horrors that (we come to discover) they engage in are abnormal, the family itself is an average one. It looks very much like our own families, or families that we know. This is a point I'll come back to underscore later, because I believe that Laugier is being very clever here - he is implicating us, and those like us, in systems of torture and oppression before we even realize where the film is ultimately headed.
Once Anna is captured, the film takes a strange turn, and almost becomes an entirely different film, one that is unflinchingly cruel in its depiction of depravity and violence. What strikes me about these scenes of torture, is that the torture exists as a systematic method from which something can be gained. There are stages. It is clinical, practiced, and is very specific in its desired outcome. It is quantifiable in what is does or does not produce, namely a martyr.
This process of torture becomes a way that Anna can "prove" her usefulness to the elite, and in this way - via treating the body as product or a commodity - Anna's torture is akin to slavery. Her body and personhood isn't of use until the elite can profit from its production. And in her final moments, Anna's ultimate sacrifice and assimilation comes from not only the removal of the physical traits that mark her as Other/Brown/Minority, but from herbody providing a "good" to her abusers. She literally becomes a product.
Towards the end of the film, we finally get a chance to see who has been gleefully funding the torture - all are white and wealthy patrons. And I couldn't help but to read the film as an allegory for systems of oppression and violence. Who benefits? Who suffers? How, and by whom, is the system supported and maintained?
When Mademoiselle states, "Keep doubting" at the end of the film, everything clicks into place. If doubt continues, the system continues. Mademoiselle is saying that the torture and oppression must go on, regardless of whether or not the afterlife actually exists. The crux and power of the system lies not in the answer to the question, but in the question itself. It is the question that justifies the system, and it is the system that keeps the elite comfortably in power. Therefore, the question should never be answered, if the elite hope to maintain their status.
In the context of everything we've seen before, the definition of "martyr" shown at the end of the film then takes on a particularly nasty double meaning. Anna clearly becomes a martyr - in the ideological sense - by the end of the film. But thedefinition for martyr that Laugier chooses is the Greek definition: witness. The double meaning of that word shouldn't be lost on viewers.
Laugier is saying: we too are implicated in these systems of oppression. The depiction of the "normal" family Lucie kills at the beginning of the film begins to feel hotly uncomfortable and take on deeper meaning, because for many of us, it's like looking in a mirror. We like to point fingers, and accuse the 1% of terrible deeds, but what makes us better than the elite? In reality, nothing. Our moral compass is no better. We buy fast fashion, shirts and tops so cheap that we can only surmise that they are produced in overseas sweatshops. We purchase chocolate from companies that publicly face accusations of engaging in modern day slavery. We hear stories of young girls being sold into sex trafficking, and continue to vacation and spend our dollars in areas known for such atrocities. And just as in the film, many of these horrors disproportionately impact women of color.
In Martyrs, Laugier forces us to engage with suffering in a very direct and personal manner. We become martyrs of a different sort, the ones who see and bear witness, yet do nothing.
We, too, are agents of this horror. We are complicit.