Masterpiece or Menace: Is Martyrs (2009) Torture Porn?

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Martyrs movie poster

Martyrs: One of the most over-hyped movies of the past decade?

“Martyrs” (2009) is a controversial French film that some consider torture porn. It is full of brutal, raw violence all for the sake of purifying a body to allow for the transcendence of the soul and mind to a holier plane of existence, or to become one with the universal consciousness, or whatever concept floats your existential boat. Seriously, it is! Wait, you thought that this movie was about torture and blood and guts and had no philosophical value to it?

Sorry buddy, but you done been lied to fool!

The hint to the true plot of the film is in the title. It’s right there, hiding in plain sight. Yes, that’s right. This movie is actually about making Catholic martyrs, and even though the cult responsible for the torture and suffering of their victims claims that the transcendence of the soul upon the death of a martyr isn’t a religious experience, that dialogue is actually a red herring meant to throw off the audience and trick it into thinking that this is just another torture porn movie where innocent people are maimed and mutilated just to please the sadistic urges of their captors.

This movie is about mankind’s intense desire to ease his anxiety about the finality of death by proving that there is an afterlife, and that God exists. This part isn’t spelled out — at all– and I felt like I was missing something; something crucial and super important to the story and because of that, I couldn’t get into the movie.

I wasn’t emotionally moved by it at all. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it either. I’m just sort of meh about it, which is weird. I was prepared to see an emotionally jarring, tough-to-watch movie with a ton of feels in it, and I got… a sadistic religious cult thriller?

 

Here’s the thing: “Martyrs” has a huge reputation for being torture porn; I’ve read a ton of reviews and spoken with a lot of people who love that movie and they all wax poetically about how violent, disturbing and brutal it is, and after I saw it I was all like, “Wait… that’s it? Really?” (And yes I did see the unrated director’s cut of the movie, which is supposed to be even more intense and nasty, and it wasn’t any of those things.) Guess what? It’s not torture porn.

 

I was told to brace myself for a horrible, gut-wrenching powerful movie of betrayal and brutality, so I was ready for an extreme emotional trip down pain lane. And I got nothing out of it. Nothing. Not even a lousy t-shirt.

I was expecting the same level of burning outrage I experienced after watching the real on-screen slaying of animals (complete with still hot quivering innards) in “Cannibal Holocaust”. But, I didn’t even get remotely pissed off by “Martyrs”, and I honestly thought that I would be angered by it.

Am I annoyed that this movie has such a reputation for being so damned brutal when it’s not even in the same category as say “Guinea Pig: Flowers of Flesh and Blood” or “American Mary” for that matter? Yes. But it’s only a slight annoyance, like when you go to get a glass of water and your Brita® water pitcher has only a teensy bit of water on the bottom so you have to fill it and wait for the water to filter through before you can have a glass, and since it isn’t cold you have to add some ice cubes to it to cool it off. That’s how annoyed I was, which is to say: not very much.

To be fair, “Martyrs” does contain some very realistic beatings that take place over and over and over again because the cult just had to tenderize the woman meat before they butchered it for the martyr market. It also has an entire family killed by a shotgun at point-blank range, and then the fake main character Lucie has visions of an emaciated tortured dead woman attacking and horribly cutting her. In one sequence the dead woman ruthlessly drags a straight razor over her back, repeatedly in a very cringe-worthy performance. I honestly think that was the most intense part of the movie.

All the real brutal stuff that happened on-screen, happened to Lucie. Everything that came after that, was muted by the sheer savagery of Lucie’s fight with her own personal demon/ghost/ dead girl.

 

Lucie is having a bad day. A very bad day.

 

Lucie suffers from Survivor’s Guilt and what appears to be a form of multiple personality disorder. She was so crazy she was interesting to watch and the violence she commits is so intense that it completely diminishes the impact and takes the oomph right out of the ending of the movie. The first act was really interesting, but the second and third acts were a completely different movie altogether.

It starts out with a very insane and mysterious main character, Lucie, breaking into a house and gunning down a family, and then Spoiler Alert! she kills herself and her friend Anna becomes the main character, like 30 minutes into the movie. Who does that? Isn’t that against story telling rules or something? Didn’t they just break some sort of movie code by doing that? I’m pretty sure they did.

 

Martyrs haunted bathtub

The bath tub was the most supporting character in the movie. It should’ve won an Oscar, or whatever award it is that the French give to actors. Yes, I’m too lazy to look that up. Deal with it.

 

Because of the jarring switch in point of view, the overall plot was a hot mess and became rather pointless in parts. To me it looked like an excuse to make a movie about beating the crap out of women to force them to experience an ecstatic religious trance that can only be brought on by extreme pain. If I hadn’t promised Dead Derrick that I would watch it with him, I would’ve turned the movie off the moment the main character was killed and her friend became the main character. Why? Because, it’s dumb. Who does that?  The psyche-out faux main character usually dies before the title shows on-screen, you know like Drew Barrymore in “Scream.” Her character was set up to be the main character but doesn’t survive the scene she’s in. But “Martyrs” wasn’t set up that way, there was no indication that it would be that way. It was just, oops. She killed herself. Next!

Let’s talk a little more about the plot, shall we?

It appears that Lucie is seeing a ghost of a tortured emaciated girl who is inflicting harm upon her body, but in actuality she’s just crazy and is cutting herself. But wait, what’s this? The family she killed was guilty of torturing girls! And the emaciated girl she saw in her visions was real and was chained in their basement with a permanent metal chastity belt and a steel plate stapled to her head to keep a cover over her eyes!

Later we are told by Mademoiselle (the head of the cult) that the emaciated girl saw cockroaches crawling on her skin and it drove her crazy. According to Mademoiselle, all women that are close to death that have suffered enough to become martyrs see crazy shit. So, instead of letting her see things, we’ll blind her. Man, what?

 

The Creature has her head clamps removed by Anna.

I love you bathtub. You’re so supporting.

 

Why the hell was that one chick chained up and blinded if they wanted to see the ecstatic vision in the eyes of their victims before they died? That made zero sense. Go home movie, you’re drunk!

 

Anna in Martyrs

I don’t feel so good you guys. Can I go see the bathtub now? He’s my only friend and confidant in this world.

 

Bring on the Pain!

When Anna’s torture time arrived, the movie became a tedious treadmill, and a tame one at that. The worst violence and torture committed is implied and takes place off camera. Normally I approve of that, but for a movie that is supposed to be one of the nastiest, worst of the worst movies, it just doesn’t deliver in the gore department.

However, there is a really cool practical effect at the end with the skinned girl– you can see all the veins and muscles in her body, even the tiny ones on the tops of her feet and hands. That was a work of art, and I can appreciate the time and effort that was put into a full body prosthetic like that… but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. It was first done, with amazing effect, to characters in the first two installments of the “Hellraiser” franchise. Needless to say, I prefer Uncle Frank and Julia to Anna. They were colorful, nasty, sadistic villains that were three-dimensional people with needs and wants and desires. What did Anna want? What did she fight for? What made her strong enough to give her a conviction and sense of faith that allowed her to become a martyr? We’ll never know.

Oh, and the Martyr Death Cultists? We don’t even get their names, aside from the family that is killed in the beginning of the story. We’re just supposed to hate this faceless, unmoving, greedy organization that wants to force women to spiritually transcend and then die. Seems like a waste of a good spiritual awakening to me.

Let’s beat them up, make them suffer until they lose their will to live and then skin them alive and see what shakes out of their brain pan. Seriously?

 

Come to Daddy.

 

We’re talking about a realistic movie that exists in reality, i.e. our world. It has nothing fantastic in it, like Cenobites or Angels or anything. There are no supernatural beings that can physically manifest in this reality, at all. So, considering the premise that this does, in fact, take place in our reality; skinning anyone alive and leaving only the skin on their face would kill them. Either the loss of blood or the intense agony and pain would give them a heart attack and they’d die. They wouldn’t linger on for a day or so afterwards. You could survive having your back skinned, maybe. If you’re lucky and don’t die from infections and what not. But removing the largest organ of your body and staying conscious enough to go on a head trip to holy land? I think not.

 

“Martyrs” is “Hellraiser” meets French Existentialism, but without all the fun demon stuff from hell added in. Demons, shmemons. Am I right?

 

Up until that point, even with all that crazy stuff going down, the violence was realistic. It was brutal and harsh, but it wasn’t torture porn. There isn’t a single scene where the violence against the body is drawn out and the camera zooms in for a close up of bodily harm with childish glee. No clumps of flesh slapping wetly against a cold concrete floor. No finger nails being ripped up, no amputation, nothing.

This might be a violent movie, but the only things that would be edited out of it if it were played on TV on the SyFy Channel would be the bewbs and maybe a bit of the part where the chick smashes her captor’s head in with a hammer. But, that’s it. Just let that sink in for a moment, will you…

 

OK. Done? Great.

 

While it is a spin on the whole “Flatliners” or “The Lazarus Effect” near death experience trope, “Martyrs” just doesn’t cut it. Sure, what Anna sees when the endorphins hit her and her mind breaks is very pretty, but it’s the atypical ubiquitous tunnel of light scenario, which the characters in this film call “transcendence.” Their body and soul is purified by pure unadulterated pain and suffering and the mind goes to a higher plane of existence right before they die and there, they see eternity. Freaky, right?

 

 

Martyrs Tunnel of Light

Go to the Light Carol Anne! There is peace and serenity in the Light!

 

That sequence doesn’t prove that there is an afterlife, nor that there isn’t an afterlife. It just confirms what countless other people with near death experiences have been reporting to see when their hearts stopped beating, and then we’re cut off. Just like that.

We don’t hear what she says to the crazy head of the cult. But whatever it is, it drives the leader over the brink and Mademoiselle kills herself, right after telling her disciple that he should keep doubting about whether or not there is an afterlife.

One could interpret Mademoiselle’s actions to reflect that whatever she was told was horrifying, such as “There is nothing after death,” and that all of the pain and suffering they put countless women through doesn’t mean anything. However, according to Andrew Couzens in his article “The Philosophy of Martyrs: Transcendence in Torture”  Mademoiselle killed herself because she obtained forbidden knowledge of the divine, and she didn’t earn it herself by physically suffering until she saw the face of God with her own two eyes. This comes from the long-held belief by some sects of Catholicism and Eastern religions that only by experiencing pain will the body cleanse itself of all sin; only pain can bring justice to society. We pay for our guilt by experiencing pain. Since Mademoiselle was unclean in the eyes of God, she was undeserving of such holy knowledge and had to die.

In Couzens’ interpretation of the ending, this knowledge is too great a burden for someone who has not earned it via suffering, and she kills herself to prevent anyone unworthy from hearing it and passing along the Good Word, which is ironic since the entire goal of the cult is to learn such secrets. Thus, returning us to the conclusion that the death cult’s actions are utterly meaningless, because just as soon as they obtain their goal, the answer to what awaits us after death is forever lost; the forbidden knowledge is destroyed with the death of two women– the martyr, and the head of the cult.

This interpretation makes sense from a French/Christian cultural point of view. But at the same time, lack of knowledge of this POV created a very ambiguous and unsatisfying ending that required this reviewer to dig up other reviews until she found one that actually explained what the hell happened during the final moments of the movie. I was left with countless questions and for once, I was unable to fill in the blanks on my own.

 

What is the point of all of this? Is the message of the movie that there is no point to life, that religion is a farce and there is no afterlife? That we’re all just waiting to be turned into victims that stop fighting back and give in to the idea that we’re going to die and there isn’t anything we can do about it? Is this supposed to tell us that we should all surrender our will to live, because surrendering oneself to suffering is beautiful and will cleanse us of our sins and guilt and make us worthy of going to heaven? Honestly? I really don’t know. You’ll have to watch and decide for yourself what those answers are, if they exist in the movie at all.

 

Look, I’m all for ambiguous endings, but that was just… yeah. Maybe I dismissed all the references to religion because the cult doesn’t believe that the ecstasy of seeing heaven or being one with the universe as a religious experience. It’s an expansion of consciousness, a transcendence from the mundane to the sublime. Maybe that’s the point. Or maybe there is no point at all, and that’s the film’s message.

Some movies make you think; some have multiple interpretations and that’s a good thing. Even with an ambiguous ending that some interpretations claim as religiously profound, “Martyrs” just didn’t click with me. While I do appreciate Couzens interpretation, and it does fall more in line with the theme of the title than some other interpretations, but I’m still left rather unsatisfied.

Why?

Well, because “Martyrs” doesn’t deserve the bad rap it has. It’s not torture porn, it’s not even really a horror movie. It’s a thriller about mutilation and torture that is done in an effort to force women to have visions of God right before they die in order to prove/disprove that there is an afterlife, and yet when it happens, only the head of the cult gets an answer. There is no answer for the audience, there is no big reveal after Anna lapses into ecstasy. There is nothing after showing us the beauty of the Tunnel of Death, except for death itself. And that’s a rather empty ending indeed.

Ugh. Thinking about this  movie is sending me into a downward, never-ending spiral of Ennui.  Yay…

Ennui

 noun en·nui \ˌän-ˈwē\
1. a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

 

Is “Martyrs” a Masterpiece or a Menace?

“Martyrs” is a Menace. Why? Because it’s an overrated movie that isn’t all that and a bag of screaming bloody potato chips. It’s just kind of there. It’s not torture porn, in spite of the countless myriads of reviewers stating that it is, and most fans don’t even talk about the dreaded existentialism or the themes of attaining religious ecstasy that run through the movie.

No. It’s much worse than torture porn. It’s a ghost tease.

ghost cupcake

You like cupcakes? You like Halloween themed cupcakes with ghosts on them? Yeah? Well too bad! You don’t get to eat them. How do you like that, huh? That’s what it’s like to watch the first half of “Martyrs”. You get to see the yummy scary ghost, but you don’t get to eat it because it doesn’t actually exist, because it’s a ghost tease, the jerk.

 

That fucking whore of a movie had some genuinely spooky, creepy stuff in the first act. I mean, it was riveting, and I was really getting into the suspense and drama because it appeared that Lucie was haunted by a hungry ghost that was physically torturing her until she killed her murderers. (Or it was a physical manifestation of her survivor’s guilt, which would’ve been cool. Not enough Goetic demons running around in movies nowadays.) But then, it drops the ball, big time, and I won’t forgive it for that.

Honestly, the subject of the plot would’ve panned out better if it were a murder mystery and we followed a few detectives around as they snooped out clues and got closer to the truth of the Martyr Death Cult and the agony and the ecstasy of attaining enlightenment.

I don’t know, maybe I missed something in the translation or it’s a French cultural thing and I didn’t pick up on it, but the whole Martyr Death Cult thing wasn’t explained, at all. It didn’t seem sinister to me; just sadistic, selfish and evil, and it’s actions were ironically all for naught.

Even after writing this review, I’m still left with a lot of unanswerable questions about “Martyrs”:

If the cultists want to know if you can see God after suffering intense pain and torture, why not physically punish yourself and see what happens? Why force other women to suffer and transcend consciousness in order to see God or the afterlife?

How could a dying tortured person’s hallucinations prove or disprove the existence of the soul and whether or not it survives after death? Was it a vision of God and heaven that Anna saw, or something much, much worse?

We don’t know. And we never will, until it’s our own time to die. And that my friends, is utterly depressing.

Maybe that was the point of “Martyrs” all along.

 

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About Cassie Carnage

Horror connoisseur. She who types too fast. Lover of cats and monsters. You can find her debut horror novel, WE ARE ALL MONSTERS here: bit.ly/waam11 Her upcoming vampire novel series, Addicted to the Abyss Volumes 1 and 2 will be out late 2017.
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