The French film Martyrs had been harshly criticized for its misogynist subject matter, particularly the abuse and torture of the protagonists. This bad press scared me away from the film; I avoided it even after my horror fan compatriots had seen it. They assured me it wasn’t as bad as “advertised” and wanted my opinion so I sat down and watched it. My feelings? A brutally violent film with some sublime moments that has earned an unjust reputation.
From my view, Martyrs is not “about” torture but is about the spiritual powers of pain and violence. The martyrs of early Christianity earned sainthood because they did not recant as they were being slowly destroyed. They were an inspiration to others in the faith and proof in the existence of heaven, earning converts to the faith by the strength of their convictions. It was believed the pain of martyrdom pushed one beyond the boundaries of mundane existence and so torture was a force to liberate the mind or soul from the prison of the body. In this heightened state, the world beyond the natural world can be glimpsed. These are the same high concepts that motivate hapless fools to summon the cenobites of Hellraiser.
Behind all of this artistic exploration of the concept of torture as religious vision quest, is the film misogynist? I don’t believe it is. All of the characters who matter are female. It is their actions that drive the story and both protagonist and antagonist are women. Granted, women are the subjects of violence due to the beliefs of their torturers, that they are more likely to find the religious transcendence in pain, but the violence is never directed at their identity as women. It is not sexual in nature and is not sexualized by a “male gaze” camera or attitude. The acts are systematic and mechanical. A steady torment designed to break down resolve and destroy the sense of self.
There were times I was squirming in my seat. The story twists and turns in such a way as to keep the viewer on tenterhooks waiting for horrible things. And horrible things do happen but never exactly what would be expected. The ending is particularly shocking to many as it evades the answers that both characters and viewers seek by asking the simple question: Do you really want to know? It’s difficult to recommend this film because it demands a lot from its audience. Slow in pace, uncomfortable in subject matter, brutally violent, terrifically gory but in a detached and methodical way. If you have the patience and the guts it’s worth seeing that the power of violence is still a complicated part of our spirituality.