In a number of French horror films of the 2000s, there’s been this fascination with the body, particularly the insides. Pregnancy, self-mutilation, or demonic possession, these films have featured intelligent, strong heroines who are incapacitated by their own obsession with the human body, which leads to their ultimate downfall. In 2003’s In My Skin, directed by Marina de Van, a young woman, after accidentally cutting her leg, falls in love with her own body and its ability to self-heal. She continuously digs into her cut, and cuts herself, receiving euphoric pleasure from playing with the blood and releasing herself into a state of ecstasy. It is at both disturbing and beautiful, knowing that she’s retreating from society but yet admiring her passion for the hidden mysteries of her own body. In 2007’s Inside, directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maurym horror was given an electric jolt, leaving no salvation for its pregnant heroine, whose body was being hunted in her own home by a mysterious woman who wanted to cut her open to steal her unborn baby. Inside played upon the innate primal instincts of motherhood, to protect and to possess, and shocked the audience with the realization that nobody is going to be saved or be able to overpower the villain, and the lack of clichéd slow motion shots sets in the reality that mayhem and massacres like this happen in real life, with little to no consequences for the murderers.
Last year, the third film to combine the themes of mutilation, young women, and stark and sickening violence was Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier. It’s really two films in one: a heartbreaking revenge plotline with little satisfaction for the heroines, and dragged-out torture scenes with an uncomfortable brutality to it. After Lucie, a child who escapes from a torture chamber in 1971, is placed in a home for abused girls, she befriends Anna, a kind and loyal young girl who comes to Lucie’s aid whenever Lucie is tortured by literal demons that only she can see and hear. 15 years later, these demons have descended her into madness, and have driven her to depravity: to murder the nice, suburban couple who beat and starved her in their basement while living a normal and productive public life with their clean-cut teenage children. This couple is a part of a perverted and horribly vile secret society that inflicts torture on young women for their own personal gain. Anna (Morjana Alaoui) assists Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) in her mission, and Lucie, with cold eyes hidden underneath an executioner-style hoodie, holding a shotgun, inflicts a massacre in seconds on the whole unsuspecting family. The madness that controls Lucie is truly tragic to watch, as she is an agent of her own demons, helpless in thinking for herself.
Anna, having little to no contact with her family, is all that Lucie has in the world, and they share very similar looks: thin, with pale skin and dark hair and eyebrows, like almost identical twins. Anna was lucky to avoid the kind of torture that has pained Lucie, but it won’t be long before the roles are switched, and Anna begins to re-experience what Lucie went through when she was twelve years old.
Martyrs is shot in a dark, haunting manner, with big, overhead cameras panning wide, empty spaces, the different homes being the same prison no matter where the girls are, highlighting their utter detachment from society. No family, no friends, no support, only their own cracked minds imprisoned by the sins of others.
The focuses on the body and its articulations is quite fascinating, a select choice on Laugier’s part. The demon is portrayed by Isabelle Chasse, a contortionist formerly with Cirque du Soleil, whose highly flexible undulations and twisted body brings an unholy and horrifying quality to Lucie’s pain and mental torture. This same creature is reintroduced later on in a sad and heartbreaking turn of events that makes the audience cringe in sympathetic pain.
It would be too much of a giveaway to get into the second half of Martyrs, which involves the secret society’s mission and Anna’s descent into Lucie’s childhood hell. Suffice it to say that watching it feels as if you are sharing her agony and wondering for how much longer the nightmare can go on, and if she will be able to free herself like the classic triumphant heroine of many a horror film. Martyrs is a brilliantly disturbing film that is leagues above the U.S.’s “torture porn” genres, in that it does not take pleasure in showing a woman being abused nor does it glorify it in any kind of perverted voyeuristic manner. If you dare, you can make it a double feature with Inside, and note how bodily horror has been updated from the days of Cronenberg into something more uncomfortably unsettling.