Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Suffering and the Afterlife -- Reflections on "Martyrs" (2008)

A martyr is a person who endures great suffering. Often we use this word in a religious context, as in "those dudes who willingly went into the Amazon jungles to preach the word of God and were killed by hostile natives who wanted none of it were martyrs." Obviously, there have been many true martyrs over the course of history, from Jesus Christ himself to Ghandi, to Mother Teresa and even Martin Luther King, Jr. All of them lived difficult, challenging lives, and endured great suffering for the sake of others. That's why we respect and revere them so strongly.

After watching Pascal Laugier's 2008 horror masterpiece, Martyrs, you may need to start thinking about this word in a much more complex context.

The story is about two girls, Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui), who become friends in an orphanage for troubled children. Lucie was the victim of radical child abuse: blindfolded, chained to a chair, beaten, starved and tortured. She escaped, and her friendship with Anna becomes the only thing that connects her to humanity.

Fast forward fifteen years later. Anna and Lucie are still friends, decidedly co-dependent, and maybe more intimate. Lucie believes she has discovered the whereabouts of her childhood tormentors and wants revenge. What ensues is carnage, confusion, and incredible terror. I don't want to give away too much. All I can say is that Lucie brings Anna into the world of her childhood in more ways than one, and it is one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen on film.

One of the themes Martyrs deals most strongly with is that of the afterlife. Can a person be made to witness the world beyond ours? And more importantly, can they live to tell about it? Great horror fiction takes risks at trying to uncover the unknown. The Exorcist shows the effect that Satan's presence has in this world and assumes that he is a real and vital force. Poltergeist is about crossing over into the unknown dimension outside ours. Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Sixth Sense all show what happens when other dimensions intersect with ours.

Martyrs takes a very practical and disturbing approach to learning about the Other Side. It combines the elements Eli Roth played with in torture-porn like Hostel with the psychological thrills of The Silence of the Lambs. What makes this approach so effective is in the establishment of such likable main characters. While Lucie immediately elicits our sympathies because of her abusive past, it is Anna's caring and compassionate heart that win us over. When the horror begins happening to her, it's as if it is happening to us. In a lot of ways, the progression of her character over the course of the film is symbolic of the progression we, the audience, go through as well.

There's not a whole lot else to say about Martyrs, except that it's the sort of movie you won't want to revisit anytime soon, yet won't be able to get out of your head anytime soon, either.

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