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.