Enter a young girl, running — bruised, bloodied, her cries bellowing. It is unknown who, or what, she is running from, and it remains a mystery for years. Known for being one of the most severe and gut-wrenching films of the New French Extremity, the reputation of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) certainly precedes it. But to arrive expecting a surface-level torture-porn flick, however entertaining, is to have been undersold a cavernous subtext that flows through its bursting veins.
Martyrs is a film told in two parts: the story of Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), her abuse, and her revenge; and the story of Anna (Morjana Alaoui), her discovery, and her subsequent capture by a world beneath the floorboards that she wasn’t even sure existed. Above all, though, Martyrs is an unflinching tale about the institutional abuse of the female form.
TW: Graphic still images and descriptions of abuse.
The life of Lucie is told through cuts between flashbacks and reality. For years throughout her youth, she was held captive — beaten daily until she escaped — and the splicing of these scenes of past and present often result in direct mimicry, showing that Lucie still is still partially hostage to her past. At one point, the head of the orphanage at which she lived as a child specifies that none of her abuse was sexual; Lucie herself is unwilling to disclose any details to those who try and pry them out of her. Disbelief, combined with a lack of any real knowledge about what happened to her, makes Lucie’s past very unsettling to dissect, but it highlights an undeniable reality: the erroneous assumption that the nondisclosure of your trauma means there mustn’t be any.
Even Anna, Lucie’s best friend — and the only one she ever told about her abuse — doesn’t entirely believe her. When Lucie becomes adamant that she’s finally located her former captors, and brings her along as she murders this unassuming couple and their two children, Anna dangles between being compelled to comfort her friend, and being horrified at what may have been the murder of a bunch of innocents. Lucie commits this murder to placate a nagging wraith (a vision of a woman that she didn’t help when she escaped) that aggressively stalks her, slashing and attacking her when she’s within reach. Even after the murder, Lucie wails — painfully, not cathartically — and the vision of the woman persists. A physical manifestation of survivor’s guilt, this wraith wreaks havoc on Lucie’s body, affixing new scars to her old ones, and ingraining a sense of permanence and helplessness deeper into her flesh, until she eventually takes her life.
As Anna retreats into the home, she finds entry to a space beneath the house: not quite a basement, but rather a series of chambers — sterile, metal, and winding — that she maneuvers through, only to discover that she is not alone. Within a cell is a woman, Sarah (Emilie Miskdijan), who is chained to the wall, curled within herself and whimpering. Shackled by her wrists and bound by a chastity belt, her vision is stripped by metal headwear. All sense of agency is taken out of her control, and the plethora of scars and welts across her figure indicate her abuse.
These metal constraints that leave her immobile, blind, and sexually oppressed seem easy enough for Anna to remove… until they aren’t. Unshackling is simple, but the removal of her mask necessitates prying metal bolts from her skull and peeling off layers of her scalp as the lengthy stronghold of her confinement is finally released. Even with the elimination of the apparatuses that held her hostage, the separation leaves her with even more grisly wounds — her captivity was not designed for liberation.
Anna’s trespass into the underground leads to her own internment by the unnamed philosophical society that formerly held Lucie (and others, over decades) captive. This organization shoots Sarah, sweeps the house, and cleans up all evidence of the murders, kicking the bodies, including Lucie’s, into a mass grave in the backyard. The expendability of not only their victims, but their perpetrators as well, is apparent — they’re just tools for the cause: creating martyrs. They scourge young women to the brink of death, only so that they can report back to them what the afterlife holds. The house isn’t the only site of these experiments, either; this society exists across the world. Their leader, Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin), explains to Anna that young women are optimal subjects for martyrdom, but that if they can’t accept their situation and transcend, they become victims who can’t stand the torture, and succumb to death. She labels Sarah and Lucie as the latter — a symbol of the invalidation of gripping female trauma and an echo of the nagging testament often made to women: “Don’t be a victim.”
When Anna becomes the next attempt at transcendence by the hands of the cult, she is subjected to the identical unrelenting and merciless brutality as those victims before her — she is chained to a chair, her attempts to stand up and resist only met with more beatings. Eventually, her eyes swell shut, impelling her to the blindness that Sarah and Lucie also experienced. As the severity of her torture escalates, it culminates with a flaying, and she is left to either “succeed” or die like the others. In a state of catatonia, Anna becomes the fourth successful martyrdom in 17 years, and the first to be able to report on the world beyond the present one. Anna whispers into Mademoiselle’s ear, and her eyes widen; but as the cult anxiously awaits Anna’s insight, Mademoiselle tells them to “keep doubting” and shoots herself.
Martyrs establishes some damning parallels with the greater institutions that exercise power in our world. The society’s decades-long cycle of abuse against young women is indicative of the historically persistent, institutional exploitation of women and the female form — treated as bodies and resources for research before they are treated as humans. The abuse of women as conduits of trauma, motivated by oppressive expectations and for the benefit of everyone but themselves, is a reality that spans globally. Its existence in the basement of a house inhabited by a “happy family” is a mirror: it’s a space we know exists, but one masked by the illusion of domestic society. We are often unsure of what lies within, and are often fearful of it.
Mademoiselle’s suicide leaves Anna’s insight unknown — was the answer too helpless to bear, or too beautiful to wait for? This ambiguity leaves the audience curious for themselves, but also with the knowledge that this non-knowledge is a motivator for the cult’s experiments to continue at the expense of women’s lives. Sarah, Lucie, Anna — the women before them, and all those who will come after them — are submitted to trauma that isn’t their fault, but becomes their responsibility. They are sacrificial lambs to the selfish exploits of an establishment larger than they can fathom, and martyrs to causes they don’t even claim.