The Girl just finished watching Lost for the first time and thus I was forced to play the role of Lost apologist. (her: “does kate ever stop being boring?” me: “kate is always boring, sorry”) Most flaws I admit readily but one common complaint against it I’ll always defend as its greatest success: the endless procession of unexplained mysteries and strangenesses. Lost was at its overambitious best when it piled up mystery after mystery at high velocity, answering questions with total insanity that only raised dozens more questions. What’s in that hatch? Oh, it’s a button that ends the world if you don’t press it. How does that work? Because there’s a magic time-travelling steering wheel beneath it. What is with that spirit horse? Why are all these characters named after philosophers that have no bearing on the plot? Why does that statue have four toes?
Maybe I’m unique in this but I find incompleteness to be compelling. The writers can promise that EVERYTHING IS PLANNED and you will be AMAZED AND ASTONISHED but in reality it’s usually a letdown when the central mystery is revealed to be aliens/God/destiny/whatever routine explanation is supposed to satisfy. The unknown and unknowable answers are the ones that dig into my brain and give me that tingling spooky feeling. When The X-Files tipped its hand it revealed that the real ultimate truth was irredeemably campy. When Twin Peaks ended with a batshit insane non-ending it produced maybe one of the greatest TV episodes of all time, because that thing can resolve any number of different ways in different viewers’ heads. You get to pick the answer you want.
Lost was about the unknown, the Fortean, about the writers making up the craziest things they could think of in each season finale and then trying to explain them in the next season. It was inevitable that the final explanation would some large chunk of the audience. It’s an okay ending, but it’s not a great one. It doesn’t leave you with the same sense of mystery you came in with. But then explanations are rarely as compelling as mysteries.
In 1978 an Australian Cessna pilot disappeared along with his aircraft, after reporting another strange aircraft hovering above him. There’s a recording of his final transmission. I’ve never been able to track it down. But it ends with seventeen seconds of dead air and metallic noises. Even here sitting on my bed in the sunshine the thought of it gives me goosebumps. There is no final explanation, no authorial plan to give us answers. There is only the knowledge that strange things might be out there, that sometimes there’s a hole in reality that you can fall into and never return from. Seventeen seconds dead air and then nothing ever again.
So why not in fiction too? Look at Picnic at Hanging Rock, also perhaps not coincidentally from Australia, and there is the perfect mystery movie. Nothing is resolved or explained but it wriggles around the edges suggesting hints of something great and terrifying. When the novel it was based on first came out people assumed it was based on a true story, because it all unfolds the same way things do in reality: the truth is only glimpsed in slivers that serve to confuse instead of clarify. And when audiences first saw it they reportedly hated it, because they felt it wasted their time and made no sense. Why does everything have to be answered all the time? Why not embrace the unknowable?
One day I realized, rather unexpectedly, that I counted Martyrs among my favorite movies. It’s not an easy film to watch and it’s certainly not for everyone, but assuming you can stomach it (or even if you can’t) it’s one of the most emotionally intense movies around. I’ve described it as the apotheosis of torture porn. It takes the genre to its greatest heights even as it repudiates it. Ultraviolent horror typically plays itself like a freakshow of atrocities (we’ve severed this guy’s tendons, LOOK IF YOU DARE), or as twisted black humor, or some mixture of the two. There’s always an air of detachment, a sense that these victims have it coming and it’s OK for you to look on their gruesome deaths with glee. What separates Martyrs is the compassion.
Martyrs cares about the victims. The scene in it that really gets inside my gut and makes me sick isn’t filled with gratuitous violence and gore (well actually there is a fair amount of gore but that’s not the important part). It’s a scene about compassion. Anna rescues the girl from the basement, tries to take care of her and set her free, but it just doesn’t work. The girl’s too broken, too far gone into insanity to really function as a human ever again. It’s one thing to watch an awful asshole die horribly, it’s completely another to see an innocent destroyed, to see somebody try to save them and fail. Martyrs plays compassion against the viewer. The more you care, the worse it hurts.
Martyrs isn’t even particularly gory. Up until the end Anna’s torture isn’t about getting cut up or otherwise grotesquely injured, grand guignol-style. Up until the end all the violence takes the form of simple beatings, and it’s far more effectively nasty than anything else in the genre. It just hurts to watch someone get chained up and systematically dehumanized. Destroying the body is one thing but destroying the spirit is another. And Martyrs makes sure you care about Anna, this impossibly compassionate girl who is put in a situation where she is utterly without hope.
There were rumors a few years ago of an American remake, which would probably be a hilarious trainwreck on par with that hypothetical remake of Oldboy starring Will Smith. The key quote from the prospective producer is this: “Martyrs is very nihilistic. The American approach would go through all that darkness but then give a glimmer of hope.” But the hope was always in there. Anna wins in the end. “Wins” is too crude a word – she transcends, she is transfigured. It’s one of the most serene and beautiful depictions of the spiritual in movie form. Everything around that final revelation is awful, gut-wrenching, deeply disturbing and hurtful. It is nihilistic. But the bleakness has a purpose. It’s not just a sick joke, or just an excuse to look at gross special effects. Martyrs cares deeply for its characters. It makes you care too. So it can hurt you deeper, yes, but also so you can transcend too.