Sunday, March 29, 2009

What will you see if you transcend?

MARTYRS (2008)
Wild Bunch (Production Company)

Genre tongue waggers are calling this one this year's answer to INSIDE because it is French, gory as hell, and uncompromising. While I liked INSIDE to a certain degree I also think this movie is far better written than that one with a good deal more on its mind. A lot of genre critics are accusing this current wave of French horror directors of a game of gruesome one up man ship as it seems each film from the land of golden fries takes the gore and brutality up a couple of notches than the one before it. But to say that ignores that each film has had their own distinct feel and approach to the genre. All of them may be gory and aggressive, with a lot of bad attitude, but they each have different things going on as well. With that said this one may be the richest in depth and story of the group I have seen (INSIDE, FRONTIER(S) and now MARTYRS, I still need to see MALEFIQUE).

The film opens suddenly with a young just barely preteen girl running out of a building. She is in her underwear, filthy, bloody, her head shaved almost down to the scalp. She is bruised and clearly hurt and has been held captive. We can hear a commotion inside the building she is running out of, but she hits the sidewalk running for her life. During the opening credits we learn what has happened to her as we get a super 8 police file footage of the crime scene investigation. She was being held captive in a small room, chained to a wall with enough length to slightly move around. She had one chair to sit in, that had a hole cut in the center so she could use the bathroom in the bucket below it. She was not sexually abused in anyway, but was clearly beaten repeatedly, and malnourished over the extended time she was held captive. Otherwise the girl is not talking. We also see file footage of her in the mental asylum she has been taken to, where doctors and other children cannot get through to her. They eventually get out of her that her name is Lucie and she makes friends with another girl there named Anna and they bond. After the credits Anna is being asked by the hospital staff and police to help them get through to Lucie to find out if she can help them find who was holding her captive. Anna says Lucie doesn't know, that she never really saw them. Later than evening Anna finds Lucie in their room with deep slashes on her arms, and she begs Anna not to tell anyone. She claims she did not do it to herself. That night we see a very twisted, old, naked, female shape crawling around the floor of the girl's room and hovering over Lucie's bed and Lucie clearly sees it too. Cut to black.

Then we meet a nice suburban family, two teenagers, a boy and girl, fighting over a love note. Dad trying to get them to settle down while he gets ready for the day and Mom working in the garden digging a dead mouse out of a pipe. The family basically gangs up on the boy because he is failing out of school and wants to move in with his girlfriend, who no one really likes. Apparently she wants to come by later and the family isn't too hip to that idea either. It is clear this family is going to play into the movie ahead in an integral way.

To go any further with a plot description will only go into spoiler territory that should NOT be discussed when seeing this film. I went in blind and was knocked senseless and so should you. Suffice to say that it does NOT go anywhere you are expecting it to. One plot element does play out in a way you sort of expect it to, but then that almost leads you to think the rest of the film will play out a certain way, and then it just steadfastly refuses to play by the rules from that point on. In fact this is a movie that just throws the rules right out the window and makes them up anew as it goes. This is sure to piss people off and annoy the shit out of some viewers. Other viewers my become bored at some points of the film as it certainly tries your patience at times. But the film is rich with rewards for those who stick with it. There is psychological and theological meat to chew on for quite some time after the film has ended if you choose to look at it closely enough. But to discuss any of this I have to talk about some spoilers. So if you have not seen the films. QUIT READING NOW. Come back after you have seen it.

The first half of the film is relatively straight forward revenge fueled splatter with Lucie all grown up killing the people who tortured her as a kid. But Lucie herself is being tortured mentally by the woman she didn't have the heart to save when she escaped. So in fact Lucie has continued to the torture started by the cult well after she escaped from them. They instilled the psychological steps, but she continued it all these years later. The question being, if she had not escaped, would she have died or became a martyr? Anna on the other hand once she experiences her friend (that she clearly loves) dying, she symbolically starts the process of saving not only Lucie but the old woman Lucie could never save. When she discovers the woman in the basement/laboratory she doesn't hesitate to free her, care for her, take off her shackles and face mask. She does everything to free this woman from her bondage. Something she never really could do for her friend. Nor that her friend could ever do originally either. And unfortunately not for this woman ultimately.

Once the cult arrive in the movie it takes a sharp right turn. Pacing wise this is very, very jarring as the first half had been very fast, incredibly violent and visceral. Now suddenly we are thrust into this philosophically based interpersonal torture and debasement session that is repetitious to the extreme. The friends I watched it with were evenly split down the middle. Half saying it was horrifying and effective as showing how the psychological torture and breaking down of the psyche worked, the other half being bored at the repetition and not empathizing with Anna's plight. I think most American audiences are going to go with the latter half of my friends who tuned out as it is at first grueling but most audiences are going to miss the point of the repetition, or just not care. thus throwing themselves out for the rest of the movie, which is near brilliance.

The last third is even more brutal as Anna is skinned alive and left to hang. But she finally hits the point of transcendence where she crosses over into life after death without dying. (clearly modeled after the photo they show in the film from the book TEARS OF EROS) She becomes a Martyr and manages to come back and tell the old lady who runs the cult what she saw. We the viewer don't know what she said though. Once the cult is gathered to hear what was said, the old lady sequesters herself away and shoots herself before telling anyone.

In the annals of pure nihilism, that ending has got to be close to the top. We've experienced true horror for this lead character. Horror that is not fake, not in her mind, not supernatural. Things that are actually occurring with the whole point being that she will hit a point of transcending the pain and suffering and basically see god, or something on the other side. But the down side to that is that since she is not dead, she comes back. She is stuck in the state of horror and disrepair these people have put her in to get her to that point. She seems to not be suffering after her Martyrdom, but who is to say that will last? The ultimate irony is that it really was for naught as the leader of the cult became selfish and capped herself once she had the knowledge of what awaited her. This girl's suffering was meaningless and just a tool. Every one's suffering was meaningless and just a tool to her own salvation.

Now apply that to just about any religion that has martyrdom as part of their doctrine...

Not an easy film to embrace. Not an easy film to watch or even like at times. But the more I think about it, the more brilliant it becomes.

Naturally Hollywood is remaking it. I simply cannot see how they can do this. Even if I was okay with the idea, and I am NOT, I cannot see how the story can be pared down, sanitized, and made user friendly for US audiences. But then again FUNNY GAMES was remade pretty much frame for frame, so I guess anything is possible.

Andy Copp

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