2008’s Martyrs is one of those movies whose reputation unquestionably precedes it, and though I always felt like it was something I needed to watch, every time I went to place it on the review schedule, I would chicken out and watch something less notorious. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve watched plenty of fucked-up movies, and for the most part they don’t bother me as much as they probably should. But Martyrs seemed like one of those films that turned up on every single list of “most disturbing films ever,” and for a long time, I was just never in the mood to sit through it. In preparation for the unknown day when I would sit through it, though, I somehow managed to not read anything about it for all these years, just so the plot wouldn’t be spoiled (which is actually something I’m really glad I did, because one of the best things about the movie is how it constantly blindsided me and went in directions I wasn’t expecting).
Anyway, as you can probably surmise, I finally settled in and watched the thing, and…yeah, I get it now. This movie is, hands down, one of the most nihilistic films I’ve ever seen, and one of the hardest to sit through. While I don’t think I’d call it gory in the way movies like Terrifier 2 or The Sadness are gory, it’s certainly brutal, and that brutality is largely a product of the realism and unrelenting nature of its violence, which will make even the most hardened of horror fans squirm in their seats. I’m glad I watched it, but I don’t imagine ever wanting to sit through it again, which in some ways is really the highest praise one can give to a horror film, because it did the job it set out to do: it horrified me, it disgusted me, it revolted me, it put me in a dark place. Kudos?
Now, to talk about this movie with any depth at all, I’m going to have to spoil what happens, and like I said, I would recommend that if you are going to watch this film—and I can’t in good conscience recommend it unless you know what you’re getting into, because it’s not a pleasant experience—it’s better going into it not knowing where it’s headed. So consider this your final spoiler warning.
Though Martyrs—written and directed by Pascal Laugier—often gets lumped in with the New French Extremity movement, it’s actually got a deeper philosophical bent to it that somewhat justifies its torturous visuals, though that doesn’t make them any easier to stomach. The savagery is near-constant and sickeningly real, but it’s all for a purpose; you never get the sense that the movie is just showing you fucked up shit for the sake of thrills or titillation. It’s showing you these images to disturb you, to make you uncomfortable, and it succeeds at that in spades.
At the beginning of the film, it’s 1971, and a young girl named Lucie, who has been held prisoner and sadistically tortured for about a year, escapes from captivity and runs screaming into the streets. The authorities take her to an orphanage, where she unsurprisingly has a hard time overcoming her trauma.
One other girl at the orphanage, though, Anna, befriends Lucie and cares for her, slowly becoming Lucie’s only lifeline. Because of the two girls’ close friendship, the police ask Anna to relay any information that Lucie might have shared with her about the person or people who abused her, but Anna will only tell them that Lucie doesn’t really remember much of anything about her experience, and she wouldn’t be able to identify her captors because it was always so dark. We also learn that Lucie is seemingly being tormented by some kind of demonic-looking woman, who may or may not be real.
The story then skips ahead fifteen years. We’re introduced to an upper-middle-class family, the Belfonds, who seem about as average a clan as you’re ever likely to see. The mom, Gabrielle, is fixing a water pump; the unnamed dad is making breakfast; the teenage son and young daughter are squabbling like siblings do. It all seems so ordinary, but as you’re watching it, you can’t help but be on edge: who are these people and what do they have to do with the young girl we saw at the beginning of the movie?
Soon enough, we find out. The doorbell rings, and when Mr. Belfond goes to answer it, Lucie is standing on the doorstep, aiming a shotgun at him. Moments later, she coldly blows the guy away. Lucie then comes into the house and proceeds to slaughter the whole entire family, even the kids, though she does seem to feel a little bit bad about this.
After perpetrating the massacre, Lucie calls Anna, who has been waiting in a parking lot nearby and clearly wasn’t quite prepared for what Lucie did. Evidently, Lucie had suspected that the Belfonds were the people who had tortured her as a child, and although she was ostensibly only going to the house to make absolutely sure it was them—she actually tracked them down through a newspaper article about the daughter’s swimming championship that featured a photo of the whole family—once she arrived, she told Anna that she was certain they were the culprits, and wiped them all off the face of the earth.
Keep in mind that all of this happens in only the first third of the film, and as events unfolded, I found myself simultaneously intrigued by and also dreading what was going to happen next.
Anna arrives at the house and starts to help Lucie get rid of the bodies. We also see that the demonic woman who has apparently been plaguing Lucie since childhood is still with her, and we now understand that this woman is simply a manifestation of Lucie’s guilt and trauma, and that she only exists inside Lucie’s head. To Lucie, though, she’s very real, and she has killed the Belfonds in order to appease this woman, though she’s confused as to why the woman is still tormenting her, even though the abusers are dead.
The two girls run into something of a snag, though: while Anna is dragging the bodies out into the yard, she discovers that the mom, Gabrielle, is still clinging to life. She decides to help the woman, because perhaps deep down she doesn’t condone what Lucie did, and she may not even entirely believe Lucie that these were indeed the people who tortured her. The movie plays with the audience in this way, too, as Lucie is presented as clearly not the most stable person, and we are also doubting whether the Belfonds were actually the ones responsible, or whether Lucie was either mistaken or completely delusional.
Lucie catches Anna trying to help the dying woman, though, and accuses Anna of not having her back, of not believing her, just like the doctors never did. She then proceeds to bash in Gabrielle’s skull—repeatedly—with a hammer, and damn, did I wince watching that shit. Yikes.
So now, the alleged abusers really are all dead, and Lucie has a moment with her demonic counterpart, embracing her, even as the demon woman slices open both Lucie’s arms longways and bashes her head repeatedly into the wall; when we see these events through Anna’s eyes, we see that obviously she’s doing all these things to herself. It’s made clear through a flashback that the demon woman was actually another victim of the torturers, who Lucie failed to help when she escaped their clutches as a child, a failure that has haunted her all these years.
Lucie then crashes out of the house through a window and slices her own throat. That’s right, the person you thought was the main character is now dead and it’s only about halfway through the movie. What the actual fuck? You may be asking yourself.
Well, strap in, because if this thing was difficult to watch before, it’s now gonna jump right up into the next level of fucked-up-ed-ness. While I was sitting there, wondering what the hell was going on and contemplating whether or not the Belfonds really were the tormentors Lucie suspected them of being, Anna discovers a secret passage in the Belfond home. Which leads down to a basement, which is kitted out with all kinds of upsetting photos and medical equipment, and also contains a cell where a naked woman is chained to a wall, and by the way is also sporting a metal device of some kind that goes over her head and around her eyes, blocking her vision. Did I mention that this contraption is nailed to this woman’s skull? Yay!
Anna, horrified, realizes that Lucie was right about the Belfonds all along, and now you, as the viewer, start to feel not so bad that Lucie came in and blew them the fuck away (killing the kids was still kinda fucked up, though). Anna tries to help the woman by freeing her and placing her in a bath and prying the metal thing out of her head (AAAGGGGHHHHHH), which was also fused to the flesh of her face, so there’s that. The woman is freaking the fuck out, though, and at one point she runs off in to the house, finds a knife and starts to saw one of her own hands off. Jesus Christ.
In the midst of the woman’s episode, a completely shocking event occurs: a woman strolls in through the front door and kills the hysterical woman, just as calm as you please. And for a second you’re thinking, okay, are these the authorities? Did someone call the police? Is Anna saved?
Oh, you sweet summer child. I hate to break it to you, but the answers to those questions are no, no, and absolutely not. You see, turns out that these people who have just arrived—because yeah, behind the woman who shot the captive woman is a bunch more people who stream in like they own the place—are essentially members of a cult, of which the Belfonds were also enthusiastic devotees. These cultists, who are all wealthy and mostly middle-aged or elderly, have spent years seeking a true martyr, not in the sense of someone dying for their religious beliefs, but in the more basic sense of a witness. They’re convinced that if you put someone through enough pain and torture, then that person will eventually transcend life and be able to see what lies on the other side of the vale, as it were. The leader of this cult, only ever called Mademoiselle, shows Anna a series of photos of still-living people who endured the most unimaginable agony, but had a particular look in their eyes that suggested that they had borne witness to what lay beyond death.
So because these cult people are obsessed with knowing what happens after you die, they’ve been torturing young girls and women for years, seeking a true martyr that would be able to endure all the pain and tell them in no uncertain terms what would be in store for them after death. And as you can probably guess, because they found Anna here in the Belfonds’ house, they figure, hey, here’s our next test subject!
Yep, that’s right; the final third of the film follows Anna as she is repeatedly beaten and abused, over and over and over and over again. It goes on for so long that it just becomes agonizing to watch, but again, that’s the point of it; the audience is essentially being put into the same position as the victim, being brutalized past the breaking point for the sake of a higher purpose. The movie is very meta that way.
Some undetermined span of time later, when Anna has been so beaten down that the cultists are certain she’ll transcend at any time, they tell her there’s only one more step to go, that her suffering will soon be at an end. And can you guess what this final step is? Go ahead, guess. Well, if you said, “I’ll bet the cultists are going to strap her into a metal frame contraption and flay all the skin off her body while she’s still alive,” then give yourself a cookie. Because that’s what happens. They do leave the skin on her face, though, which was thoughtful of them.
After this horrific event—and can I just give props to the astonishingly realistic and grotesque special effects work here, which is some of the best I’ve ever seen, and was done by Benoit Lestang, who sadly took his own life prior to the film’s release—one of the cultists sees the look in Anna’s eyes and screams, calling Mademoiselle and telling her to get all the other members here like yesterday because this girl is their first true martyr. And indeed, we do see some kind of transcendental imagery from Anna’s perspective, as she gazes out into the beyond.
All the cultists gather at the house, dressed in their Sunday best, and an excited second-in-command tells the assembly that Anna has indeed transcended, and has shared what she saw with Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle, in fact, is going to come out momentarily and tell all of them what they’ve been waiting years to hear; this is the culmination of all their grim toil.
Mademoiselle doesn’t seem to want to come out, though, and when her lieutenant knocks on the door to ask her what’s up, she asks him if he can imagine, REALLY imagine, what lies beyond death. He admits that he can’t. Mademoiselle then tells him, “Keep doubting,” and blows her own face off with a pistol. The end.
Obviously, this ending can be—and has been—interpreted in multiple ways, because we the viewers were not privy to whatever Anna told Mademoiselle about what she saw. Could it be that there was nothing at all beyond death, and Mademoiselle realized that her group had tortured and killed countless people for no reason? Was there in fact a pure and beautiful afterlife that Anna did indeed witness, but that Mademoiselle and those in the cult would never attain because of the evils they had perpetrated? Was the afterlife so awesome that Mademoiselle felt the need to get there right away, and thought she’d fuck with her co-cultists’ heads on her way out, or maybe she thought they’d all kill themselves too to get there faster if she told them? Did Anna actually lie about what she saw as a final fuck you to her captors? I’ve read loads of different theories, and to be honest I’m not sure which one I subscribe to, though I lean toward the explanation that Anna unequivocally saw Heaven, but related to Mademoiselle that none of the cultists would ever get there because of what they had done, making all of their “work” not only evil, but completely pointless.
Martyrs is a rough movie to watch for sure, but I ultimately found it a very rewarding and thought-provoking experience. It’s absolutely not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, and if you never feel the need to sit through it because you don’t want its images or ideas rattling around in your head, I wouldn’t blame you one bit. But as extreme art goes, it’s a magnificent film, and if you can persuade some like-minded friends to watch it with you, you can have all kinds of fun discussions about what the ending meant, in between squinting your eyes closed to take a break from the unrelenting bleakness and cruelty.
By the way, there was an American remake of Martyrs in 2015, because of course there was, but it was substantially toned down from the original, and though I haven’t seen it, it gets pretty dire reviews across the board, so if the concept of the movie interests you, just see the French one.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.