Martyrs. “Yeah it’s a great film.” noted Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, “Don’t see it.”
As any horror fan who doesn’t mind reading subtitles knows, France is the go-to place right now for visceral, gory, and (sometimes) thought-provoking chillers. And as Mr. Lindqvist’s comment hints at, Martyrs stands near the top of the bloody heap. Personally, I think Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside is the better film, but that’s like picking which leg you’d rather have stuck in a trap and have to chew off while simultaneously discussing the meaning of life. There ain’t much difference. As far as mixing metaphysics with meat grinding goes, Martyrs gets the job done just fine.
The trick to making it through Martyrs (besides closing your eyes a lot if you tend to chunk noodles easily) is to hang in there until Act II. That’s when the film begins to head off into more philosophical (yet still repulsive) territory. And when mysticism enters the picture in Act III, you might just find that the director is intent on more than just making you ill. Not that he avoids doing that, mind you.
You see, the final third of the movie revolves around the original Greek meaning of the word martyr as one who bears witness to the truth. Death wasn’t really part of the equation. It was only around the time of the Maccabees that religious persecution began to be associated with the word, and only in the first few centuries of Christianity that martyrdom came to be seen, as the Catechism defines it, as “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.”
It’s important to grasp the distinction between the original meaning of the word and our current usage if you’re going to make sense of the ending of Martyrs. (This assumes, of course, that you’ve actually made it to end rather than fled the room to go vomit.) You see, in Christianity, the reason the martyr is willing to submit to pain and persecution, even death, is everything. It can even bring a certain internal happiness to the situation. That’s how St. Paul can exclaim in this week’s readings, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” But in the original secular sense of the word, the motivation of the martyrs is inconsequential. It is only that they provide answers which is of any importance. Understanding that the antagonists of Martyrs hold to the old meaning is necessary to put the brutality of the movie into some kind of meaningful context. There is no joy in the fate of some of the characters in Martyrs which, when you consider the secularist state of France right now, is just what you would expect.