What Martyrs Means to Me

Since I first saw Martyrs last August, I’ve rewatched it more times than anyone normally would, judging by the number of “it was good, but I never want to see it again” reviews. Why does this movie speak to me so strongly and why do I keep feeling the urge to watch it again and again?

Martyrs is a violent movie—obviously. And of course lots of horror movies are very, very violent, but even after my first viewing I felt there was something different about Martyrs’ violence. At the very least, it’s part of the subject matter, rather than merely part of the presentation. 

The movie’s three acts are distinct and mark shifts in tone, but they also offer a change in perspective on the cult’s legacy of violence. Alexandra West spells it out plainly in her book Films of the New French Extremity: “The audience experiences what these women have, in reverse. The beginning of the film deals with the aftermath of trauma, the midsection deals directly with the trauma, and the final third deals with the initial capture and torture.” 

In the first act we see how Lucie’s trauma torments and drives her and we see the bond she and Anna have built in the wake of it. The second act shows us way too much about what she and other victims are subjected to, while also removing any doubt Anna or the audience has about Lucie’s past. While this act has some of the movie’s grossest moments on screen, the violence has already been done and many of these moments happen while we watch Anna try to help Sarah. The third act takes us to the conclusion of what we’ve learned to fear from the cult, but suggests a resolution for Anna that’s borne out of her bond with Lucie.

Rather than only being put on the screen, violence is the language the entire movie uses. It’s reflected in the victims and perpetrators and the violence they’ve experienced, committed, and witnessed. 

What keeps drawing me back to this movie is the character of Anna. She’s not a complicated character—almost one-dimensional—and her only impulse throughout the movie is to help people. As the first two acts are driven by her efforts to help Lucie, Gabrielle, and Sarah, the question asked is “How can she help someone who’s this traumatized—emotionally, psychologically, physically?” Each time, she can’t. And when the third act rolls around, the question now is “Who’s going to help her?” No one, not even herself. For me, the core of the movie is Anna’s acts of kindness in a world that says they don’t matter. If there’s no saving the victims of this movie, then are Anna’s efforts meaningless? 

In my own depression, I often feel a martyr impulse: thoughts of uselessness and powerlessness, tempered by intrusive fantasies of martyrdom that tell me the only way of having purpose is to sacrifice myself for others. The movie feels like a controlled space in which Anna dramatizes the jerkbrain thoughts in my head. The fact that the movie says she’s doomed to failure doesn’t matter; her persistent acts of aid and kindness are what give her purpose. 

The last facet of Martyrs that is meaningful to me is on a meta level: it’s a satire of the way women (characters and actors) are treated in horror movies. First, it’s right there in the title; we expect women to give their bodies over for our entertainment. Further, it’s in the way Mademoiselle claims that women are more receptive to the divine. It’s an on-the-nose expression of one of the most insidious tropes in horror: that women are closer to nature and more susceptible to the supernatural. 

Finally, there is the infamous scene in the third act in which Anna is beaten in captivity. The scene is cold and clinical, devoid of the fetishizing and violating camerawork we’ve been desensitized to. It is the most challenging scene in the movie, and it doesn’t get any easier on subsequent viewings. That’s the point though: what’s on screen is ostensibly what many other horror movies are too gleefully willing to show you while sexualizing the violence. It’s as if the director is saying, “Would you feel better if I zoomed in on her tits? If she moaned?” I believe the scene decouples the violence and sex we commonly see in horror movies, and the viewer should feel horrible. 

So why is this movie where I live now? Its pieces come together to form an expression of pain—that which lingers and that which we fear—and the violence we may be capable of. But within this is a force that doesn’t stop trying to heal others, even though the pain and violence are inevitable and consume all. The movie leaves us with the word “witness”; this is a movie that holds pain and kindness in equal regard.

A Feral Hog Double Feature with BOAR and CHAW

If you live anywhere near twitter, then you’ve been reading about feral hogs lately.

A tweet from @WillieMcNabb from August 4, 2019, that says "Legit question for rural Americans - How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?"
A tweet from @WillieMcNabb from August 4, 2019, that says “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”

Every meme we’ve ever known has been refitted with feral hogs. With such a saturation, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to watch 2009’s Chaw, from Korea. I had another killer hog movie in my watchlist as well: 2017’s Boar from Australia.

The poster for Boar.
The poster for Boar.

Boar‘s strength was its delightful cast and the screentime it devotes to letting them banter and hang out with families and communities. This human half made the movie enjoyable, when it otherwise would have been unremarkable. The action and monster scenes were devoid of sense of space, which was a pity as they didn’t rely wholly on CGI for the monster, but it still felt like it didn’t exist with the characters on screen.

The poster for Chaw.
The poster for Chaw.

Chaw is something special. Like Boar, it gives a lot more screentime to the human stuff than any typical monster movie, but in a way that makes it a different movie. What makes it stand out is how the human scenes are filmed like American comedies: shots look like they’re out of The Office, with the handheld camera panning to catch peoples’ reactions, while other scenes look like sitcoms.

A shot from Chaw in which a farmer glares offscreen, in a shot that looks like it could have come from any number of western comedies from the 2000s.
A shot from Chaw in which a farmer glares offscreen, in a shot that looks like it could have come from any number of western comedies from the 2000s.
The old hunter talks to the detective in a restaurant in Chaw; this scene sure looks to me like a 90s sitcom or soap.
The old hunter talks to the detective in a restaurant in Chaw; this scene sure looks to me like a 90s sitcom or soap.
The village elder discusses the boar crisis with the police. The hand-held camera in this scene was, again, evocative of The Office and similar shows.
The village elder discusses the boar crisis with the police. The hand-held camera in this scene was, again, evocative of The Office and similar shows.

These scenes that are filmed like comedies are usually serious, while the action and monster scenes have the physical humor and slapstick I’ve learned to expect from Korean horror. The whole movie is lowkey hilarious, with some real good laughs. If there are any Korean cultural cues from these comedy shots, I’m way too outside of Korean culture to be aware of them. (Or it could be that this camerawork isn’t particularly western, and that I’ve just built my own associations here.)

The title, according to IMDb trivia, is a transliteration for a dialectal word for trap. That gels in obvious ways with the hunters chasing the boar, but there are also themes through of people being trapped in different parts of life: careers, marriages, cities, villages. It’s all tied up in a story of a cop being transferred to a village steeped in its history of ecological damage and poaching; for much of the movie, the boar attacks feel incidental to this.

A boar piglet give the camera side-eye in Chaw's closing shot.
A boar piglet give the camera side-eye in Chaw‘s closing shot.