Directed by Pascal Laugier, Martyrs is a brutally violent film and, as such, is not recommended for anyone reluctant about viewing it. Neither is it recommended for those who have yet to develop a sense for interpreting the grammar of violence used in film, particularly if one hopes to avoid the automatic revulsion – or perverse pleasure – so often elicited by “horror.” However, should you muster the courage to endure the experience offered by this film, there are rewards to be had. But it requires a journey of us, even demands it. One that parallels the story that unfolds on screen.

The (visual) allusions in the film’s promotional materials make clear what’s at the heart of its story, the cross the protagonists are destined to bear, since “martyr” and “martyrdom” are two words that are bandied about, and greatly abused, in today’s popular and news media. To put it simply: this film is not about the celebration of suffering; it does not provide an aesthetics of pain. Neither is it concerned with one’s willingness to die for an earthly cause. Instead, the film relies upon, as surely as it elicits, our revulsion to the violence put on display, since its objective is not merely the screening of pain and suffering but something else.

As if to underscore this point, the filmmakers inform us that “martyr” is derived from the Greek word for witness, a word that, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, speaks to matters of “knowledge, understanding, wisdom.” In this etymological sense, witness has little to do with the capacity to testify or the ability see; it cannot be reduced to the organs of vision or speech. It is, rather, a faculty of the mind, which points to the conceit of Martyrs: the capacity for witness (i.e., martyrdom) can only be achieved by virtue of the kind of journey laid out before us. So, while Martyrs inflicts massive doses of pain on its protagonists (and, by extension, upon us), it is ultimately concerned with unveiling the stubborn faith – and blindness – that blocks the road to salvation.


As we learn during the opening minutes of the film, Martyrs centers on two women, childhood friends since their residence at a pediatric facility for the neglected and abused. When they first met, Lucie, the elder of the two, had just escaped an abandoned industrial building where she was held in chains, and beaten, repeatedly and mercilessly. The younger Anna quickly took on the role of friend and surrogate mother to the tormented Lucie since, quite inexplicably and long after her captivity, she continued to be hounded by a monstrous creature seemingly intent on finishing what her captors were unable to finish.

In an early scene, we see Lucie cowering in a blood-spattered bathtub, her body covered with angry gashes. Recruiting Anna (and us) to serve as her witness, she tremblingly insists:

“It’s not me. It’s not me!”

"It's not me!"


Despite her affection for the tormented Lucie, Anna struggles with doubt. She certainly hasn’t laid eyes on the vicious creature of which Lucie speaks.

Despite this absence, or perhaps because of it, evidence of predation continue to appear, each time more ugly and fierce, as if Lucie’s carved and tortured body were a canvas testifying to the creature’s anger at being ignored. But without a first-hand look at that which subjects Lucie to such horrors, how much of what she has to say can be believed, especially when, years later, she claims to have found those responsible for her captivity and torture fifteen years earlier?

About one matter there is no equivocation: Lucie is a tormented soul, at her wit’s end, and Anna loves her deeply, in part because she has become the faculty that Lucie has been unable to provide herself. Nevertheless, Anna continues to grapple with that role, unable to give full credence to Lucie’s terrorized rants, at least not until it’s too late.

Which raises a question: if we don’t take the ones we love seriously – particularly those who have suffered at the hands of others – what is the purpose of belief? The tormented require that another stand in as their witness, to provide the faith and understanding that they have been unable to generate for themselves. And when one accepts that role, as Anna had, the challenge is precisely to learn how to overcome that which makes no sense, to divine the meaning in what appears to be meaningless. For the truth is there, however garbled or implausible it might at first seem.


Despite the affection that binds the two women, or perhaps because of it, the brutality to which they are subjected is what makes this film difficult to watch. Particularly in light of their relative silence. After all, the tormented cannot speak. They do not offer ready-made narratives by which to interpret their pain. The battered are stuck in an eternity of desperation, uninterested in and incapable of oration for the benefit of another. So, in place of speech, the room is filled with elemental expressions of the immediate and visceral. Grunts that echo blows to the body. Screams that accompany the slashing of skin. Shouts that protest an ordeal that refuses to end. The only time that exists, organized around assaults on the body: the clenched brace of anticipation, the frantic but hopeless attempt to escape, the limp hush of momentary lapses in what refuses to end.

This absence of speech reflects how violence – or any act of objectification – renders its victims mute. For us, as recipients of this gruesome display, something strange and unexpected begins to happen, particularly after Lucie loses her witness and Anna becomes the object of the very kind of brutality she was previously unable to truly accept as real. The tables are turned (on her and on us) as unspeakable cruelty pounces on a new and unwitting target. It is at this point that the film’s assault on the senses shifts and begins to render us speechless: as we are moved to the position of the brutalized, we can no longer remain “sympathetic” observers and, instead, finally come to understand the gaping void that lies at the receiving end of an unrelenting fist.

And we are unable to speak back.



Besides the faculty of speech, it is sight that is narrowed in the face of agony. Tunnel-vision, in which the imperative of survival blunts one’s apprehension of the world, the immediacy of pain swallowing the abused into a private hell of torment. We are called to witness this, too.

We are also called upon to generate an understanding that is not immediately available to the victims of violence. We are invited to develop a form of “knowledge, understanding, wisdom” that requires that we relinquish the privileged stance of the passive observer, for why else would we be subjected – or subject ourselves – to the nightmare of suffering bodies in a darkened room. “Entertainment?”

Lucie's escape

The fact that both Lucie and Anna are visibly non-white (specifically, Eurasian and Arab) is probably more evident – and significant – to the French moviegoer than those of us located on this side of the Atlantic. It is a deliberate choice that speaks to the Sins of the Father, past and present, in which the state’s bid for power leaves countless terrorized in its wake. As a result, the passive viewer comes to be implicated in the film’s story, as a different sort of witness is invoked, one attuned to the radical shift the film’s geography of violence: away from the old and, by now, abandoned site of Lucie’s childhood captivity to the “hi tech” modifications hidden from public view. Old forms of brutality lie dormant as new and improved mechanisms for the delivery of pain continue to exact their price, shielded from the light of day.

The (silent) question is: who’s blind to what?


It should be made clear that Martyrs is not a morality tale: it is not interested, nor does it take satisfaction, in denouncing the evils of the past. Instead, we are plunged into a dark hole of meaninglessness, in which raw flesh is exposed to ceaseless attacks that stretch the limits of physical and psychic endurance.

Immediately before Anna is thrust into this hell, the one which previously held Lucie captive, the voice of their tormentors finally speaks. Anna (and we) finally discover the rationale for the brutality, one rooted less in the gratification derived from the exercise of brute force than a different – even “spiritual” – goal. Like us, Anna is incredulous. But the private gallery dedicated to the butchered and the dying leaves no doubt as to the seriousness of this exercise: They are chasing a certain effect of violence, something imprinted, not on the body, but the soul. More frightening than anything we might have imagined, it is a parasitic dependence upon the women themselves. Feeding off the brutalized spirit of the other.

Portraits of the "Sublime" Portraits of the "Sublime"

With Anna standing before us, looking at those portraits, we are shown – quite literally – the pervert’s relation to “his” object, worshipping a truth that is not one’s own, only to be wrenched from its source so that an otherwise empty existence may gain some coherence. Inhabiting this space of the pervert, even if only in passing, Anna serves as a stand-in for members of the movie audience, alerting us to be cognizant of the relations we are establishing with the film, its characters, and the violence that brutalizes them.

(Are we perverts, too?)

From Whence Does Meaning Come?

Yet, despite this – or because of it – we are offered a glimpse at what lies beyond the pain and the suffering.

It speaks as much, if not more, to those born with breasts and brown skin – like Anna and Lucie – who, by virtue of their subjection to certain forms of physical and psychic torture, have a certain kind of access to what is hinted at here. And while these traits are certainly not prerequisites for such an experience, in our historical moment some of us are more prone to be subject to the kind of brutality meted out by those imprisoned by the neediness and greed that grows from desperation. It is a “sisterhood” borne of pain, but one that (also) contains the seeds of grace.

For those of us less fortunate, the film speaks to us, as well. For grace, if it exists, is not restricted to the meek. But rather than offering an easy answer, and one easily digestible, for the impatient yet comfortable moviegoer, Martyrs provides an enigma and a challenge that reiterates Anna’s earlier struggle with doubt:

“Can you imagine what comes after death?”

There is no voyeuristic satisfaction for the pervert here, neither for the assembly of the wealthy sponsors of violence depicted in the film nor for us on this side of the screen. We are refused those gestures by which the world of suffering comes to be anesthetized or exalted. For that is not the kind of witness endorsed by this film: it allows for no easy (passive) visual consumption; neither does it provide the unearned satisfaction provided by the testimony of another. Instead, Martyrs teaches us about the necessity of developing our own capacity of witness, of overcoming a certain kind of fear and submitting to the extinction of what we take to be ourselves, including the desires and certitudes that fortify, blinding us to what really matters.

The Buddha would have been proud.

~ by mistified on April 27, 2009.

8 Responses to “Martyrs”

  1. A brilliant analysis and review. Quick question for you or anyone else who reads this – do you have any idea WHO is featured in the photographs Anna is shown? If so, would you mind emailing me at

    • Thank you.
      About the pictures: I don’t know the answer to your question. Sorry …

  2. Thank you for an incredible review. That movie shocked me on many levels. Reading this page redeemed some comfort.

  3. […] trouble to come along (thank you) I would recommend the Divinations review of Martyrs to be found here. Not only is it considerably more elegant and erudite than mine own, it also goes beyond my effort […]

    • Thanks so much for the endorsement.
      It seems the film has impacted us in similar ways …

  4. Fabulous piece, thanks for this. I have had a lot of traffic since offering up my own (distinctly average) effort today. Hope you don’t mind, but I have recommended all visitors click on through to here for further insight. Regards

    • Thanks for you kind words, and for the recommendation.
      Despite your modesty, your entry is among the more thoughtful I have seen.

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