Saturday, December 11, 2010

Martyrs (2008, Pascal Laugier)


I have mixed feelings toward Eli Roth's Hostel movies. They display an obvious love for the genre but are utterly devoid of insight or feeling for the chosen subject matter. Martyrs is both a substantive infusion to the hollow center of the "torture porn" controversy and a partial explanation for the former film's influence. One IMDB eyewitness described Pascal Laugier's bilious reaction when an audience member dared compare his film with Michael Haneke's post-modern sadism exercise Funny Games, prompting Laugier to declare his film the antidote to such works. Haneke is unlike Roth a clever provocateur and it follows that my Hostel comparison is even more egregious. My reasoning is this: Roth's epochal piece of bad taste had a contempt for humanity that felt unearned and insulated, as if everything he had learned about the dark side of our nature simply came from horror movies.

Hostel offhandedly ascribes cartoon villainy as the cause behind a far more intriguing scenario, disarming any plausibility and leaving only the absurdity of grue. Roth's torturers are wealthy businessmen who want to kill people for fun apparently just because they can afford to. We are not invited to contemplate the possibility that the desire to murder might be laying dormant inside so many otherwise ordinary people. Nor are we invited to contemplate the minds of the women willing to act as sexual bait for future torture victims, in an amplification of the old misogynist scary stories of hookers harvesting the organs of their johns. That Roth's sequel made two of these businessmen into main characters only further demonstrated how little he had to say about them. These situations are founded on a fear of people as the ultimate sources of evil. That the author takes this evil at face value is actually more unsettling than the movies themselves.

Martyrs is also a film afraid of the normal looking neighbors next door but does not let the viewer take any horror-genre shortcuts in indulging this fear. There is no easy black humor or familiar beats of suspense. Laugier gives actual humanity to his torturous villains as well as their victims and the result is more disturbing than the most elaborate murder set piece. This is Hostel with a point, churning the stomach and mind in equal measure.

The most common type of kidnapping and torture outside the political realm happens between family members, usually parents and children. Mentally deranged mothers and fathers are capable of physical and sexual abuse on a level of religious fervor; the gut wrenching cases of Elizabeth Fritzil, David Pelzer and "Genie" are those of parents who dehumanized their children by inculcating the psychological state of a horsewhipped slave. For each of these cases there are many more involving the kidnapping and imprisonment of other people's children as sex slaves and human "pets," and one wonders which is the more tragic. Martyrs is unquestionably inspired by such real life incidents of meticulous monstrousness and asks why they are so. The answer is ultimately unsurprising in the context of a horror film, but the journey never betrays the outrage of first hearing, for instance, the story of Josef Fritzil and his daughter. Laugier's moral compass demands we acknowledge the banality of such evil at the start before elaborating any further: a young girl named Lucie escapes on foot from an abandoned industrial area suspiciously resembling the rotting factories of Eli Roth. Once in police custody she cannot remember where she came from or who kidnapped and tortured her. The story jumps ahead to her young adulthood and that of her friend Anna whom she met in an orphanage after the escape.

Laugier begins to play games within games. Lucie arrives at an upperclass household and promptly blows away the family inside. We surmise and are confirmed by her that the adults of the household were the ones at whose hands Lucie was tortured. We are also shown that Lucie is subject to hallucinations of an emaciated, demonic girl resembling herself, putting her sanity and the household couple's identities as perpetrators in question. Furthermore the family has been established prior to Lucie's arrival as bourgeois-ordinary in private and suitably helpless in the face of her wrath, especially their two younger children. Lucie exasperatedly asks the teenage son if he knows what his parents had done before shooting him and killing the younger daughter in cold blood.

With doubt of guilt and sympathy for apparent innocents caught in the crossfire, Laugier prompts questioning of revenge as an equalizing force in addition to circumstantially wondering if the right people are being struck back against. Is whatever Lucie's torturers did worthy of such vengeance? If this is indeed the guilty couple, would justice be better served in the court of law? Certainly for their felled children. If this had happened to yourself, could you wait for the slow gears of justice or would your rage dictate the same actions as Lucie? Would you spare the children? Unlike that subgenre of exploitation films frequently referred to as "Rape-Revenge" (i.e. I Spit On Your Grave) the cause of the victim's rage has not yet been revealed in full and we have only the ruthlessness of revenge with which to gauge the heinousness of the original crimes. This is a powerful omission.

The doubt surrounding Lucie's revenge rampage is given form by Anna, who arrives at the scene of the massacre in shock. Lucie senses her doubt - and that of the audience - and reacts as would any victim whose story is given less than full credibility. Anna even attempts to help one member of the family barely hanging onto life, to Lucie's disgust and final rectification. Further haunted by the ghostly apparition, Lucie ends her own life. The disfigured spirit was that of another girl she saw as a child when escaping, but could not help. Vengeance does not settle the guilt of the lucky living, as Holocaust survivors can testify. There is indeed a parallel between the inner pain of those victims and their righteous indignation that many of those who committed atrocities against them were able to reintegrate into normal society after the war. The skeletal appearance of Lucie's specter and haughty indifference of the murdered family to (what will be soon be revealed) their crimes against humanity unmistakably invites allusion to war crimes glossed over.

Ironically, Hostel makes use of Nazi and Nazi collaborator fears in a similar but frustratingly ignorant way, which is at least useful to illustrate Laugier's thoughtfulness. More than torture, Roth constantly threatens the danger of literally having your life sold out by those you thought were friends - there's a striking scene in Hostel II where such a collaborator all but winks at an imperiled girl as she lets jackbooted thugs into a house to take her. Per his priorities, Roth discards the moment as a joke but the nastiness lingers longer in the imagination than any of the ensuing Greg Nicotero gore effects.

Shortly after Lucie's death, Anna discovers proof of the family's guilt and is captured by members of what is revealed to be a conspiratorial society of torturers. For the last time, the Hostel comparisons are warranted for showing a sharp contrast in approach. The methods of torture used by Roth's villains are horrible gimmicks ending in horror film death, whereas Laugier's are intended to prolong suffering indefinitely and force our consideration of the minds capable of routine depravity - like those of Joseph Fritzil. Where Laugier justifies and slightly diminishes his people-monsters is in revealing a twisted goal behind their work, one with preexisting human origin and history given a terrifying dimension by reintroduction into a modern setting. The title is the clue. Insofar as religious motivations produce the most decadent standardized cruelty to this day, the secret society fits thematically into the film's relentless focus on humans as the scariest creatures of all. One shudders to think what Laugier would do with the Hostel concept, but my point is that he recognizes the unexplored premise of a recreational killing-club as an intellectual cop-out. The humans without humanity in Martyrs have self-justification and that may not make them more disturbing, but it does make them more plausible and provocative. 

The last section of the film is a history of torture inflicted on Anna after her capture by the secret society. The length at which this goes on is as uncomfortable as what happens to her and settles once and for all the notion that torture in horror is porn. What happens to Anna is an endurance test for the viewer along the lines of the Camille Keaton's rape in I Spit On Your Grave. Laugier opts to keep the torturer's faces out of frame, in deference to that film's nightmarish reaction shots of the gang-rapists, but the intention is the same: to place the audience in the victim's role. I Spit was bafflingly misconstrued by reactionaries as a rape simulation; the extent of the marathon unpleasantness in Martyrs should hopefully leave no ambiguities about the sickness meant to be felt versus pornographic voyeurism. The rape of Camille Keaton was very long. The torture of Anna (Morjana Alaoui) is an act onto itself, and its brutality answers the question of Lucie's brutal vengeance that came before.

Only in last minute conclusion does Martyrs falter, giving a pat twist to the fate of the torture society after their "work" on Anna is complete. The film which precedes is possibly the horror genre's first serious moral exercise in the infamous subgenre of "Torture Porn" the way I Spit On Your Grave is the alpha and omega text of "Rape-Revenge" flicks. No serious man or woman disappointed by the snickering juvenilia of Eli Roth or teenage nihilist profundity of the Saw series should miss this; an empathic and unsparing nightmare which places the horror of torture not on an outlandish special effects pedestal but in your neighbor's basement.

3 comments:

Good Ash said...

At one point Laugier was suppose to direct the remake of Hellraiser. But then the Weinsteins told him what do and he quit.

Too bad. I think he would have done a great job on it...

rowboatsyndicate said...

You said, "The methods of torture used by Laugier's villains are more horrible gimmicks ending in horror film death, they are intended to prolong suffering indefinitely..."

I believe you meant to say Roth instead of Laugier there. Otherwise, great review.

Chip Butty said...

Thanks rowboatsyndicate. Corrected!