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.