Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is unique – there is nothing quite like it in horror cinema. Historically, it exists at the cusp between the New French Extremity of the 2000s and the emergence of Julia Ducournau’s new brand of extreme body horror, but its vision is singular enough that it doesn’t really seem to belong to a specific time or place. Its most authentic precedent is probably Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc – it is The Passion of Joan of Arc rendered as a horror film – insofar as it attempts to envisage the moments of both torture and transcendence that occur on the very cusp of death. There is not a scene in the film that is not suffused with pain, while Laugier’s aim seems to be to create a film that is literally painful to watch, that inflicts pain upon the viewer. What sets it apart, other than the sheer extremity of this pain, is the profoundity, the catharsis and the purification of its thesis on pain, as well as its emergent narrative, which only really comes into focus in the third act, meaning the extreme body horror is all the more vivid for being paired with a profound sense of opacity, a deepening mystery that gradually encompasses the very existence of pain itself.
The first ten minutes play as a precis or summary of the New French Extremity– all manic trauma, as a plethora of running, screaming, falling and crying plays out on grainy 1970s Super 8 footage, before we abruptly shift to a normal French family in the present. Their five minutes of conversation are the only reprieve in the entire film, although even this is overshadowed by the flux we’ve just witnessed, and absorbed into the arrival of Lucie Jurin (Mylene Jampanoi) and Anna Assaoui (Morjana Alaoui), the two main characters, who burst in and proceed to massacre the family. They shoot them all with machine guns, but even this doesn’t seem to be enough for Lucie, who screams at the corpses, shoots them again, and eventually takes out her rage by firing the machine gun through the roof of the house, as Laugier cuts to a flock of disturbed birds, evoking an ambient and transpersonal trauma. No sooner has the family been killed, however, than a monstrous creature emerges, and starts to attack the two women, prompting a second and even more extreme round of bloodshed.
Little by little, a cursory narrative starts to emerge, although it remains minimal. It seems that the married couple were responsible for imprisoning and brutalising Lucie when she was younger, and that she has decided to take revenge on them, with the help of her friend Anna. Any further speculation is quickly subsumed into the fight with the creature, which returns again and again. Every encounter between bodies and objects is traumatic, and the body is little more than a surface of pain, although unlike other torture horror from this era, there’s no viscera – just endless permutations of skin and blood (and blood is everywhere, on everything). The result is an extraordinary combination of extremity and austerity, light years away from both the shlocky campness and grindhouse grimness of American torture horror at this time. This is violence in search of transcendence, or violence as transcendence – a purging that is neither comic nor gritty, but fixated, aesthetically, on something more elevated. At times, Laugier draws on the toiling bodies of the Dardennes, since Lucie and Anna spend most of the first act bent down to the ground – crawling, clambering and scrambling their way from one trauma to the next, in the face of a vortical and almost mystical lifeworld.
No surprise, then, that most of the screenplay is comprised of cries of pain, which quickly eclipse language, or becomes their own language. As they negotiate the horrific creature, the two women communicate mainly by banging their extremities, ejecting or leaking fluids, or screaming out in inchoate sounds. Beyond a certain point, they don’t even seem to be battling an external antagonist, but their bodies’ own capacities for pain. Trying to bathe wounds with string and alcohol just increases the pain; Lucie clutches her hands over her mouth to stave off memories of her captor doing the same; and, eventually, Lucie harms herself as violently as if it’s another monstrous body doing it to her, culminating with her cutting her own throat and leaving Anna to contend with the monster. Over and over again, this creature confounds its body language with that of the two women, which Laugier enhances through unusual angles and vantage points, and even when it recognises Lucie, and embraces her, it can only commune through pain, ritualistically cutting down her arm and rubbing blood into her hair, before banging her head against the wall. Indeed, at the moment Lucie dies, we realise the creature was a projection of her trauma, a double body, a repository of her own body’s capacity for pain, that she could only resist by taking ownership of that extreme pain herself.
Throughout this first act, Martyrs imagines a horrific afterlife, not happening sequentially but simultaneously, all around us, even or especially in the blandest of suburban spaces. By the time Lucie dies, the creature vanishes, the second act starts, and Anna finds herself alone in the house the next morning, the original family feels both unimaginably distant and uncannily present. Martyrs now becomes a descent narrative, as Anna sets out to discover exactly what happened to Lucie, and the meaning of her death, searching the house until she finds a hollow board that takes her to an underground corridor lined with iconic photographs of trauma – people who died in war, or in famine, or in lurid crimes scenes. She then discovers a trapdoor that takes her even deeper, to an imprisoned woman, far beneath the house, who apotheosises the film’s aesthetic of pain so far. Bound fast by chains, and completely crisscrossed by cuts, scars and bruises, this woman’s skin is a single sustained surface of pain.
This discovery prompts the arrival of a host of people, and finally brings us to the premise of the film – a cult that believes true suffering can lead to “martyrdom,” a glimpse of the divine, or a transcendence of the human, at the moment of maximal bodily pain. The cult operates by abducting people, and taking them to this limit of pain, in an effort to photographically record, and vicariously participate in, this moment of transcendence. Lucie was one of their abductees, as is the woman imprisoned beneath the house, while Anna soon becomes the next. Accordingly, she is promptly subjected to a regimen of pain, in what often plays as a loose adaptation of the Room 101 sequence at the end of George Orwell’s 1984 – pain as a threshold for all human experience. If any director were ever to attempt an accurate depiction of Orwell’s climactic vision, it would probably look precisely like what Laugier offers up here.
Along the way, Anna learns that not everyone has what it takes to achieve martyrdom, which (supposedly) tends to work better with younger female bodies. Buried within Martyrs, then, is perhaps the most brutal deconstruction of the male gaze ever committed to screen, evoking an audience that achieves catharsis by subjugating women to the point of maximal pain. Women become an object of veneration to the cult, as they do in patriarchy, but in an eerie way, like the attention accorded to an object prepared for sacrifice. That engenders an empathy, a compassion, a desire to protect Anna that is unlike anything else I’ve experienced in cinema, even as Laugier reminds us that this protective impulse is merely the flipside of the film’s fixation on torture. Watching Martyrs is thus like watching cinema itself, and the male gaze that subtends it, as it works through all its residual violence towards the female body.
This results in a third act that takes both the extremity and austerity of the film to its logical conclusion – a formalist exercise in both torture and torture horror in which Anna’s body is evacuated of all subjectivity and taken to its outermost limits of pain. After the unremitting length and obliquity of the first two acts, the third plays as a series of short functional fragments separated by fades that become more and more frequent as Anna reaches transcendence. In the final stage, the cult doctor removes all her skin, both culminating the skin as a surface of pain and removing it as a surface of pain, before hanging her up for the supreme moment of transcendence and martyrdom. She achieves it, describing her final two and a half hours as a state of exquisite ecstasy, which the camera captures by zooming into her eye, where it registers an abstract image that turns into a light, and then a bright white flame. For a moment, Anna’s pain contains the entire universe, evoking a cosmic male gaze built on the suffering body, and then it’s gone, as the cult leader in charge reports a gaze she can’t even put into words, accepts that it admits of no interpretation, and then shoots herself. And the purging and catharsis of classical tragedy must have felt something like this ending – strangely purifying as it leans into cosmic forces and human limits that defy understanding.