Martyrs (2008) is a French film that, on the surface, looks quite similar to Saw or Hostel — a nightmare for someone like me who couldn’t sit through the first Final Destination. It has mental hospitals, torture and horrific monsters covered in scars.
At its heart, Martyrs is a film about sacrifice; it chronicles one person’s search for a glimpse beyond the physical world into a void she couldn’t possibly imagine. The protagonist is sent on this journey by the antagonists in an effort to help them gain some wisdom about what the human mind can do when it’s stretched to its limit, and this journey involves unspeakable acts of cruelty inflicted upon her.
While this sounds extreme — and it is — Martyrs did not repulse me. In fact, I found myself smiling as the credits rolled, and the only word out of my mouth was “beautiful.” The plot forms a close parallel with the experience of watching a horror film: we feel a powerful thrill when we sit in complete safety and witness someone else’s descent into the unknown.
While there are some horrific events depicted, I never once got the impression that director and writer Pascal Laugier was disgusted with his audience. The tone was subtly respectful, even as it made me cover my eyes or look away at parts. Laugier’s characters felt real. The antagonists were reprehensible, but they were not outrageously evil; the protagonists were flawed, but understandably so. I felt Laugier was trusting me to relate to his characters, and I had to trust that he wouldn’t abuse my emotional investment — and he didn’t.
Martyrs might look like torture porn, but the difference in tone and approach is key. In true torture porn, there is an implication that the audience somehow feels pleasure from watching depravity — that the pain of the characters is the most important aspect of the film. One gets the sense that the filmmakers do not respect the viewers much because of this, and their films tend to be nasty affairs, with mean-spirited and stupid characters who are shackled to limp writing or illogical twist endings. It’s an odd dance of denial: while we crave the dissonant euphoria of surviving a horror film, we cannot allow ourselves to truly empathize with the characters so that their eventual deaths are deep and meaningful. In Martyrs, that depth and meaning is present.
In North American society, horror is not an easy emotion. We are a culture of aggressive optimists, and happiness is a long-term goal rather than a part of a wide emotional spectrum. We tend to deny that negative emotional experiences can have any positive outcomes, and suffer more as a result. The stigma around clinical depression is another example of this; it is so difficult to admit that the negative feelings are a legitimate experience, and the denial can delay or prevent someone from seeking the help they need. Part of the treatment for depression involves working with the negative emotions, and acknowledging the legitimacy and importance of your darkest thoughts — a real-life confrontation with the monsters inside of you.
The urge to watch a horror film is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it a sign of moral deficit. If it were, then violent film-inspired crimes would be a lot more common. We feel an urge to explore this dark side of the human condition, and horror films allow us to skip to the edge of the void and then come back in safety. A film like Martyrs understands that this process is a vital part of being human and respects you for it. It taught me how to enjoy horror films, and I’m eager to explore what the void has to show me next.