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The Transfiguration of Horror: Pascal Laugier's Martyrs and the Violence of the Real

"The West saw itself as a spiritual adventure. It is in the name of the spirit, in the name of the spirit of Europe, that Europe has made her encroachments, that she has justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity." - Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs [view the trailer here] represents one of the more complex and difficult horror films produced in the last decade. On the one hand it can be treated as another example of brutal “torture porn”––the grittier and most recent iteration of horror’s slasher sub-genre. On the other hand it is a film that transcends the genre, a meditation on horrific violence rather than simply a genre film. Indeed, I plan to argue that Martyrs is a horror film in the same way as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That is, it is horror like all great works of horror fiction: the concerns traditional to the genre are given further significance because they connect to other facets of human life. Dracula and Frankenstein are therefore horror novels (although it has been argued that the latter is more science-fiction) but also more than horror novels. They are not simply appreciated by genre enthusiasts even if horror fiction is greatly indebted to them––where would all the Anne Rices be, after all, without Dracula? We can also treat Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, and (arguably) H.P. Lovecraft as writers of horror who are not simply horror writers.

Here it is important to briefly examine the concerns of horror so as to understand how a work of horrror can potentially be more than simply “a horror novel” or “a horror movie.” Horror is preeminently concerned with horrific possibility. Similarly, fantasy is concerned with fantastic possibility and science-fiction with scientific/technological possibility. The intersections of these three genres is quite common because all three are fictions of possibility––or, as they are often called, speculative fiction. Moreover, we can understand these fictions’ reactionary or progressive trends by how their specific concerns are approached and examined. If horror is concerned with the horrific, then there are ways to alienate the subject manner from a concrete engagement with the real world (the reactionary trend), ways to approach this subject matter that open it up to concerns beyond the subject matter itself (this is the progressive trend), and between these two dynamics innumerable confusions.

Reactionary horror, for example, is that which annexes the horrific from reality. Here the horrific happens outside of law and the normative structures/institutions of society; the supernatural is more frightening and alienating than the social relations that define global capitalism. The solution is always a return to the status quo. Serial killers stalking the fringes of society are more horrific than the soldiers mandated by this same society to bomb children and torture insurgents. Haunted houses are more terrible that the landed and private property that murders the homeless. Demons are more evil than America’s Founding Fathers––those slave owners who advocated and mandated colonial genocide.

Progressive horror, however, is that which tells us––sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically––that the horrific is real life itself. As Ward Churchill wrote in A Little Manner of Genocide:
During the four centuries spanning the time between 1492, when Christopher Columbus first set foot on the “New World” […] and 1892, when the U.S. Census Bureau concluded that there were fewer than a quarter-million indigenous people surviving within the country’s claimed boundaries, a hemispheric population estimated to have been as great as 125 million was reduced by something over 90 percent. The people had died in their millions of being hacked apart with axes and swords, burned alive and trampled under horses, hunted as game and fed to dogs, shot, beaten, stabbed, scalped for bounty, hanged on meathooks and thrown over the sides of ships at sea, worked to death as slave laborers, intentionally starved and frozen to death during a multitude of forced marches and internments, and, in an unknown number of instances, deliberately infected with epidemic diseases. (Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, p. 1)

The above description, which reads like a serial killer’s delirium, is not a description of what lies beyond the social real; it is a description of what is at the very heart of today’s society and its laws. This horror lurks behind the current existence of North America, and is the basis and expression of law and business as usual. Or, to put things more bluntly, “[t]he chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law.” (China Mieville, Between Equal Rights, p. 319) Real life, and specifically and contemporarily real life under global capitalism, is the violent, the terrifying, and the grotesque “written in the annals of mankind in letter of blood and fire.” (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 669)

Martyrs represents a horror film defined by this progressive treatment of the horrific. Unlike Xavier Gens’ progressive horror film Frontier(s), however, Laugier’s Martyrs is less concerned with playing with genre elements. Martyrs is not a critical dialogue with the tradition of horror film-making but a film concerned with itself as a film. That is, Martyrs is to the horror genre what Tarkovky’s Solaris and Stalker are to the science-fiction genre. As Virginie Sélavy noted in a recent interview with Laugier: “[t]o describe Martyrs as a horror film seems too reductive.” (Sélavy, Martyrs: Interview with Pascal Laugier)

~The Story of Martyrs~


Like any great film Martyrs is multi-dimensional; numerous themes lurk under its surface story of abuse, revenge, and suffering. In Martyrs: Evoking France’s Cinematic and Historical Past, for example, Donato Totaro examines the film in the context of France’s post-WW2 and post-colonial cinematic period and suggests that it has more in common with films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Les Yeux Sans Visage than typical horror fare. According to Totaro, Martyrs can be read as a film about “France’s collective National guilt over the Vichy regime” and a complex critique of notions of “national race and purity.” Although I do not disagree with Totaro’s reading, and I think that it in many ways will intersect with mine, I want to approach Martyrs from a different angle.

As I indicated above, a progressive use of the horrific is concerned with the horror of real life. Obviously Totaro’s reading places Martyrs within this context, as well as within the context of French cinema, but my engagement with the film is specifically concerned with exactly how it articulates this progressive trend in horror. According to Pascal Laugier, in his interview with Sélavy, Martyrs describes “a world where evil triumphed a long time ago, where consciences have died out under the reign of money and where people spend their time hurting one another. It’s a metaphor, of course, but the film describes things that are not that far from what we’re experiencing today.” So what, exactly, is the metaphor of Martyrs that describes what we are experiencing today? Clearly the film is a disturbing meditation on torture and suffering, and I would like to suggest that this subject matter can be read as an analogy of the torture and suffering permitted by the so-called Western world’s imperial domination. Indeed, Laugier has indicated that his film is about the fact that “the Western world is sick.” Martyrs is a controlled exposition of this sickness, a drawn out meditation on the power relations that allow the Western world to function. More specifically, I want to argue that Martyrs is ultimately a metaphor of how imperial-capitalism is experienced by its victims. In order to make this point, however, I want to spend some time describing the contours of the plot.

opens with an adolescent and bloody girl running down the streets of a factory district, screaming at the top of her lungs. The following sequence explains that this girl, Lucie, was held prisoner in a warehouse and subjected to brutal torture. The police are confused because there was no sign of sexual abuse or trauma: before she escaped Lucie was simply chained to a chair and subjected to horrendous physical abuse. Being an orphan, Lucie is placed in a home for troubled children where, because of her trauma, she is unable to properly interact with the other children. Only Anna, one of the other girls in the home, is able to relate to Lucie and become her friend.

Lucie is a racialized and female victim haunted by the trauma of her past. This trauma continues to inscribe itself on her body despite the fact that she is no longer being held by her torturers. In the supposedly safe space of the orphanage, Anna discovers Lucie crouched in a tub, arms bloody from numerous lacerations. Anna, though horrified, is not entirely shocked; she has seen this happen to Lucie before––Lucie even speaks of someone (a she) visiting her again, hinting that something else was responsible for the cutting. Lucie’s trauma is something outside of her body, reified and mysterious: she locks the doors of her orphanage room to keep it out, but it breaks in while Anna is sleeping. A ghostly apparition, a terrible traumatic spectre, it appears crouched on the back-board of her bed––an ominous hag, its obscure face staring at her through lank strands of hair. And as this manifestation pounces upon the terrified Lucie, the screen decays and is filled with a single, flickering word: Martyrs.

With this context established, the film flash-forwards fifteen years. A white, bourgeois, nuclear family is enjoying a blissful breakfast. Unlike the world of ugliness and terror that defined the opening scenes––the world of victims and their trauma––this is the surface world of capitalism: clean, ordered, lawful, and comfortable. The world of family values where a caring mother and father nurture their two teenaged children. The familial and nuclear home represents that part of the world that is “brightly lit” where “garbage cans swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about.” It is a world that is “well-fed… easygoing… its belly is always full of good things.” But it is a world commanded by “white people.” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 39)

The privileged position of the nuclear family, however, is always haunted by the horrors it conceals and permits. When Martyrs first reveals this family, directly following the apparition of the hag and the title screen, there is a moment of horrific misdirection: a girl screaming as she is chased down hallways and stairs. Soon we discover, however, that the girl is only being chased by her brother and that this is nothing more than sibling rivalry, familial play. The loving patriarch chides his children, the mother returns from an act of domestic labour, and soon the family is eating together and interacting in a manner supposedly normative to all nuclear families.

The misdirection that comprised this scene’s beginning, however, is a metaphor of the violence undergirding the privileged institution of the family, and Martyrs will excavate––both literally and figuratively––this violence. The nuclear family and the private sphere, because they are the building blocks of capitalism, are used by Laugier as a microcosm for global capital itself. The privilege of this family’s members is dependent on the victimization of others. The greatest violence in Martyrs is not, as with those horror films that demonstrate the reactionary trend, the devastation of the nuclear family by terrible forces outside of law and “the natural order”; rather, the nuclear family is the origin of violence. If the white, privileged, and familial unit in the film is a microcosm of something larger, then the white supremacist and lawful world of imperial capitalism is no more than “an avalanche of murders.” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 312) And Martyrs will reveal this avalanche of murders as it demystifies the family unit and what it represents.

Let us return, however, to the blissful family breakfast in its private sphere that, at first, appears divorced from the ugliness that defined the film’s opening. Midway through a family discussion on family concerns, the doorbell rings. Slightly annoyed by the interruption, the patriarch leaves the table to answer the door. Here is where the ugliness supposedly outside of the private sphere manifests. As the father opens the door, he is met with the symbol of the serial killer who disrupts familial sanctity––an adult Lucie with a shotgun is waiting outside. The peace of the family is demolished when she pulls the trigger, blowing away the father.

Immediately the private sphere is thrown into chaos as it is forced to confront the violence that threatens its cohesion. As the mother and children flee, Lucie methodically hunts them down. The clean space of domestic bliss is punctuated by shotgun blasts and marred by the viscera of family members.

At one point, Lucie confronts the teenaged son from behind her shotgun. In answer to his confusion, she asks him if he knows what his parents did to her. It is clear he is confused by her question but, before he can answer Lucie shoots him as well. Then she finishes her hunt, finally catching and murdering the fleeing teenaged daughter. Where the parents were shot quickly and immediately, Laugier took some time making the deaths of the children messy: the terrified and confused son is confronted; the daughter succeeds in temporarily hiding but is killed in a desperate attempt to escape. In both cases the viewer is forced to temporarily sympathize with the victim. Why should the boy pay for the crimes Lucie ascribes to the parents if he is unaware? Why should the terrified girl, probably also unaware, be prevented from living?

I want to pause, here, and briefly discuss the importance of these victimizations. Obviously Lucie believes that the parents were behind her childhood trauma, and her brief conversation with the boy is meant to be the first indication of this fact. The inclusion of victims who are quite probably unaware and individually not responsible for the violence inflicted upon their murderer, however, is important in that it removes the symbolic act of violence from a simplistic moral interpretation concerned only with the act. What is important, for Laugier, is the context of violence and these children, regardless of their possible ignorance and uninvolvement in the violence inflicted on Lucie, are part of that context. Recalling Fanon’s analysis of violence in The Wretched of the Earth, the murder of the children is similar to the murder of colonized children and bystanders in anticolonial struggle. Fanon did not, as some simplistic readings of The Wretched of the Earth suggest, believe that it was “good” or “desireable” to bomb settlers who were simply targets because they were born into a colonial context. Rather, as Lewis Gordon has argued, Fanon saw this type of violence as a tragic manifestation that was necessarily produced by the violent context of colonialism. Thus:
Even if it is argued that it is wrong for certain violations to occur… such an argument is irrelevant, ultimately, if there is no will to change the fact that they continue to occur. The colonized people’s struggle for liberation should not, then, be treated as the same as the colonizers’ violence (which is a maintenance of colonialism). For in the accomplishment of the former’s struggle is the possibility, fragile though it may be, of a world that is not by dint of its very structure, violent. (Fanon: A Critical Reader, p. 306)
Although I will return to these concerns in the final section of the paper, I want to indicate that, for Lucie, the execution of this family, even the supposedly innocent children, does represent a “fragile possibility” of escaping her violent and traumatic past. Unfortunately, Martyrs is the type of film that rejects catharsis, regardless of this fragile possibility of freedom. For the moment, though, I want to note the murder of the two children as something intrinsically important to what I find interesting about this film, especially since there are other moments where the viewer is forced to sympathize with Lucie’s victims. Laugier, I believe, wants the viewer to sympathize with these victims for a very specific reason which I will discuss at a later point.

As I have already indicated, the point of Lucie’s murders, her disruption of the nuclear family, is an act of revenge. She believes that the parents were responsible for her childhood captivity and torture. Upon murdering them, she calls Anna and confesses her crime––arguing with her shocked friend that she was “certain” that these were her victimizers. Although it is clear that Anna wanted Lucie to wait and inform the authorities, devoted as she is to her friend, she leaves for the scene of the crime.

While Lucie waits for her friend to arrive she is visited by the hag that manifested in the film’s opening scenes. A naked, emaciated, and lacerated thing, the hag assaults her. This seemingly supernatural being is behind the murders: Lucie, in fact, was trying to placate it and exorcise it from her life by killing this family––and she says so as she pleads with the malevolent creature to stop hurting her. But it is a rage-filled monstrosity and only leaves when Anna arrives.

The next movement of the film is comprised of Anna’s interaction with Lucie and her murders and Lucie’s momentary confrontations with the hag. While Anna, clearly shocked by the violent murders and almost certain that these people did not deserve to be killed, is trying to dispose of the bodies, Lucie confronts her past trauma. The hag, we discover, is related to a fellow victim the child Lucie saw while she was escaping––a fellow victim she failed to save, an apparition of her guilt.

Thus, the hag is a reification of guilt that Lucie should not have to feel. The fact that a child who was escaping from torture was unable to save a fellow torture victim is not the fault of the child, but the fault of the torturers. Similarly, when the victims of capitalism and imperialism are blamed for failing to act properly, for wallowing in their oppression, for competing amongst one another and dragging each other down, they are often made to feel guilty for failings encouraged and produced by the context of oppression. At one point Lucie cries to the hag, “I even killed the children,” as if she should feel guilty for acting according to the rules imposed by a context of violence, rules that she did not write.

As Lucie reflects on her past and occasionally collides with its violent manifestation, Anna discovers that one of the victims, the mother, is still alive. Believing that Lucie’s victims had nothing to do with Lucie’s past trauma, Anna tries to help the woman escape. Once again the viewer is temporarily led to sympathize with Lucie’s victims. The family is a space of safety and stability, after all, that has been violated by seemingly irrational violence. By this time the viewer is very aware that Lucie is not entirely stable––the fact that she is tormented by a quasi-supernatural creature that wants her to kill is enough to make even her best friend suspicious of her ability to think clearly. As viewers we want Anna to succeed in helping the mother escape; we definitely do not want the clearly demented Lucie to discover that the caring and self-sacrificing Anna is betraying her friend’s trust.

Of course Lucie discovers Anna’s actions and the escape attempt fails: Anna is pushed out of the way and Lucie pulverizes the mother’s skull and brains with a hammer. Then, as anticipated, she confronts her friend––smashing furniture with the hammer and screaming at Anna’s betrayal and inability to believe Lucie’s claims. In the midst of this confrontation, however, the hag returns. Now, because Anna is watching, we discover that this creature is a hallucination, a reification of Lucie’s trauma and guilt. From Lucie’s eyes we see the hag assaulting its victim, from Anna’s eyes we see Lucie destroying herself. In the end, Lucie suicides and Anna is left to deal with both the body of her friend and the body of her friend’s victims.

The moment of revelation happens when Anna accidentally discovers a secret passage in the house. Below the comfortable world of the nuclear family are sterile halls dedicated to violent victimization. Violence is revealed to be directly beneath the private sphere, hidden under the skein of family values. At the lowest level, Anna finds another victim––an emaciated and grotesque woman whose presence encourages feelings of revulsion in the viewer. But Anna ignores her own revulsion and does her best to help the woman, who has sunk to the level of bestial existence, towards freedom.

Again the fragile possibility of freedom is disrupted. Just as Lucie was unable to free herself from the trauma of the past by murdering her torturers, neither this other woman nor Anna are able to escape. The former is killed and the latter is captured by armed men and women who sweep into the house the day following revelation. While the bodies of Lucie, her victims, and the grotesque woman are thrown into a mass grave that Totaro has rightly indicated is meant to conjure up memories of Nazi genocide, Anna is taken back into the murderous world beneath the house.

An older and distinguished woman, who is referred to as the Mademoiselle, confronts Anna and, after declaring that Lucie was “nothing more than a victim,” reveals the meaning behind the torture performed upon Lucie and women like the one Anna attempted to rescue. The Mademoiselle and her colleagues are seaching for “transfiguration” and they believe the key to this transfiguration lies in the creation of martyrs. That is, they are attempting to torture people, specifically young women, into an experience of transcendence. Their systematic torture experiments, then, are not performed out of a delight for violence but because torture can possibly achieve a transcendent and valuable aim. Through violence the values of an afterlife, the older woman explains, can possibly be revealed. She even shows Anna pictures of her so-called martyrs, asking the young woman to “look at their eyes.”

Now the film shifts and Anna becomes the next victim. This shift in tone is where much of the audience is lost because, according to Totaro, it “provides none of the usual pay-off or catharsis common to the torture subgenre.” Representing nearly half of the movie, this section is comprised mainly of Anna being shaved, force-fed, and beaten by a new set of torturers who have moved into the domestic sphere once occupied by Lucie’s victims. Anna slowly bruises and emaciates; there is no possibility of escape. The music and pacing becomes melancholic.

In the end she apparently reaches the apotheosis of martyrdom and, at the final stage of her victimization, is flayed of all flesh except for her face. The Mademoiselle returns and Anna whispers something into her ear.

The final moments of the film are comprised of scenes where those responsible for Anna’s victimization gather in a mansion to learn of the supposed revelation. These people, those who have been funding and organizing the torture experiments, are “shockingly unimpressive and non-threatening… an entourage of nicely dressed [and white] bourgeoisie.” But the revelation never comes: in a willfully obscure ending, Laugier arranges for the Mademoiselle to shoot herself before she can share the secrets of transfiguration to her monied colleagues.

~Beneath the Torture and Violence~

Martyrs not only tells us that the most brutal violence lurks beneath the social relations of Western society, but examines how this violence is deployed and how members of this society are taught to both accept and ignore the brutality of the everyday. The torture in the film is meant to interrogate the real-world torture that is an intrinsic part of imperialist projects, as well as the larger and torturous existence experienced by the victims of global capitalism.

The torture inflicted upon Lucie and Anna represents the actual tortures performed on behalf of the world’s most powerful nations. As Totaro has noted, Martyrs “evoke[s] the historical-military use of torture.” The proclaimed motivations behind the tortures in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and a host of other imperialist prisons, are always abstract moralisms completely divorced from reality. Torture is necessary, it is argued, because those ordering the torture are pursuing the values of freedom or civilization. Stripped of any connection to real life, these values possess a transcendent and mystical nature––torture can be said to pursue freedom simply because this value, emptied of any real content, is a supposed value of the torturers’ society: it is somehow part of family values, the rule of law, the liberty of the market, the superiority of “western culture.”

Laugier uses the metaphor of “transfiguration” as a cipher for the values that justify real-world torture. The Mademoiselle and her colleagues torture because of some abstract value, just like the soldiers and officers in Afghanistan and elsewhere torture for the abstract value of freedom. The value of “transfiguration” is an appropriate metaphor because it reveals the utter absurdity, the mystified quality, of the values behind today’s tortures that are necessary for the maintenance of imperialism. To excuse torture by recourse to freedom is ultimately, under imperialism, as non-sensical as speaking of transfiguration.

Moreover, it is important to note that both Lucie and Anna are women of colour and that the torturers are rich white folks. The racialized female body becomes the prime focus of torture and the prime bearer of suffering. Furthermore, Lucie’s trauma has resulted in a dementia where, especially when she brutally kills the supposedly nice nuclear family, she can be “declared insensible to ethics… the negation of values” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 41) represented by the family she murders. As Fanon has indicated, the non-white victim is often apprehended as irrational by the white victimizer, as beyond the social norms and thus in need of saving and civilizing––who will revert to savagery if the oppressor abandons his civilizing mission. (ibid., p. 51) The fact that this insensibility and irrationality is the product of oppression is ignored. Instead we are stuck with a Lucie who “was just a victim,” who failed to become a proper and civilized martyr.

The push for martyrdom, then, should be understood as a metaphor for imperial civilizing missions where other peoples can be bombed and tortured into submission because, in the end, this will result in transcendent values like freedom and civilization. And yet, as I noted above, it is absurd to speak of these values when, in imperial practice, all they mean is torture and obliteration. Anna’s drawn out torture in the second half of the film is a metaphor of how life is experienced by over two thirds of the world’s population: a feeling of helplessness, of inescapability, of being force-fed commodities and self-serving charity, of being beaten into submission. And Anna does surrender, becoming “sensible” to her torturer’s transcendent ethics and accepting martyrdom. In the end she is transfigured and civilized, and this civilization is the flaying of the flesh from her body so that she becomes nothing more than a face in a field of brutalized meat.

“[S]ince the world is increasingly divided between winners and losers,” Laugier remarked in his interview with Sélavy, “what is left to the losers but to do something with their pain?” Where Lucie, the “insensible” victim turned her pain into revenge, Anna subordinated herself to victimization and became the “sensible” martyr. Although it was clear that the former option might have been more productive, both options represent tragic responses to the violence that defined these womens’ lives. Lucie best represents the tragic figure of the suicide bomber who becomes victim and victimizer simultaneously. Anna, however, represents those silent victims who have been conditioned to accept the terms of structural violence.

In Martyrs the context from which violence emerges––the nuclear family, or the spaces dominated by aging and white bourgeoisie––is meant to represent the privileged space of everyday life. This is a space where the privileged cannot moralistically appeal to their possible ignorance about the torture upon which their privilege is dependent. The children at the beginning of the film are murdered because they are part of that space, because torture is happening directly beneath the veil of the nuclear family, and it does not matter if they are ignorant. Their deaths may be lamentable, they may make the viewer uncomfortable, but they are a logical result of a violent context. When large numbers of the North American public reacted in alarm to the revelation of the Abu Ghraib tortures, apparently shocked that such a thing could ever happen, we need to ask why they are shocked and why they believed that a logical result of imperialism was somehow abnormal. Those people who enjoy a certain level of comfortability and stability because of imperialism, but who remain ignorant of what their comfortability means for the majority of the world, are symbolized by the children Lucie executes. Furthermore, they are symbolized by the film’s general audience, and this audience is implicated in the film.

The audience is taught to question Lucie’s view of the world, and Laugier intentionally encourages this questioning. There are various foreshadowings, of course, but he makes the viewer wonder whether this mad and murderous woman, so much like the serial killers of other movies, can be trusted. She violates the moires of the nuclear family, after all. She murders nice white teenagers who have a bright future. So it makes sense that this crazy woman of colour who sees demonic hags, who is “insensible to ethics,” cannot be trusted. When she tells Anna that she knows that she has found her victimizers, that she cannot forget their smell or their voices, we would rather believe that she is wrong––that her experience of the world is flawed––and accept the values and viewpoints represented by the nice, white family. We cannot blame Laugier’s with-holding of the truth until the revelation of the secret passage on the viewer’s unwillingness to accept Lucie’s word over the values of the nuclear family; Lucie has told the truth from the very beginning. Rather, there is a desire to hold onto that privileged space as something that represents normality, a normality irrevocably fractured by Lucie’s violent entrance. Thus the viewers want the wounded mother to escape, leaping out of their seats when an angry Lucie appears with a hammer to beat her torturer to death.

At the same time, however, the spectacular violence of teenagers being shot and middle-aged mothers getting their heads smashed in with hammers does appeal to the horror audience; this sort of violence always appeals to horror fans, even if they dislike the violent agent. Indeed, the fact that Lucie may possibly be delusional––and that she is closer to the traditional serial killer disrupting family sanctity––is what makes the horror audience jump and cheer at the butchery. The possibility that the violence produced by Lucie disrupts law, or manifests in spaces beyond law and against the law-abiding innocent, is what makes her actions supposedly transgressive and thus exciting. According to the reactionary trend in horror, described at the outset of this paper, that which is most fearsome and terrible is that which violates social stability. Horror fans, obviously, celebrate the fearsome and terrible.

What possibly makes Lucie’s actions disturbing to general horror fans, however, is the chance that they are justified. For if her violence is justified, if the stable nuclear family that also symbolizes normative western society is the true evil, then so are those violent acts that disrupt the lives of those of us who enjoy the privilege of capitalist society. If Lucie’s actions are somehow generated by the determining violence of status-quo society––and this society is her target––then the lives of many audience members are also targets, even if they are bystanders like Lucie’s teenager victims. In this way she is an apparition of the terrorist, of the suicide bomber, of the hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.

Here we must recall Ward Churchill’s scandalous claims that the terrorist attacks were a justified response to imperialism, indeed a quite small and measured response. (Churchill, On The Justice of Roosting Chickens, pp. 1-25) Churchill’s statements caused an uproar, making the American public far more uncomfortable than they were with pseudo-scandalous conspiracy theory arguments. The very idea that Western society itself is sick, and that terrorism is often a response to this sickness, makes those who accept the terms of Western society feel very uncomfortable. Lucie’s spectacular violence, therefore, fits the conservative horror paradigm if it remains taboo, a transgression against our stabile society that we would never want to see as justified, let alone as manifesting in real life. We would not want a Lucie to show up in our home, just as we would not want to be accidentally killed by a suicide bomber.

The audience’s possible complicity with imperialism, however, is ultimately revealed in the long drawn-out sequence of Anna’s torture at the hands of the new domestic guardians. Yes we want Anna to escape, but what we are watching is what we already accept because of our privileged position in global capitalism. Anna, a racialized Arab woman, is now a cipher for all the Arab women and men who are beaten into submission by imperialist adventures. She is a symbol not only of tortured prisoners, but those bombed and shot who die to maintain the affluence of the imperialist centres of world capitalism. Normally we are not forced to watch this horror; we can easily ignore the horrific violence inflicted on over two thirds of humanity. In Martyrs Laugier makes us contemplate it for nearly half the film.

Instead of asking why Anna is not permitted to escape, we should be asking why it is impermissible for the starving masses, the wretched of the earth, to escape. Although I agree with Totaro that the uncomfortability of Anna’s torture is partially produced by Laugier’s choice of pacing, tone, and refusal to provide catharsis, I believe that the large part of this uncomfortability comes from the dissonance between the audience’s desire for Anna to escape and its unwillingness to wish for the same escape when it comes to the millions of faceless Annas whose experience of global capitalism is symbolized by that subterranean room, the humiliating force-feedings, and fists that endlessly batter the body.

When I first watched Martyrs at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program in 2008, I was struck by a third of the audience’s response to this prolonged and slow segment of beating. The man beside me, initially excited by elements he could interpret as conservatively transgressive, grew increasingly agitated. His clapping and cheering, his satisfied chuckling at Lucie’s bludgeoning of the mother (how shocking, what a truly demented and evil woman!), eventually acceded to disturbed mumbling and whispered complaints. When the film concluded he, along with many others, declaimed the film by booing. I believe that his rejection of the film’s deployment of violence came from his experience with the dissonance I described above: Martyrs veered into territory too close to real life, suggesting that the horrific was not that which violated our accepted and valuable reality, but that our acceptable reality is the horrific.

Frantz Fanon, at the conclusion of The Wretched of the Earth, writes, “for centuries [the Western world has] stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience.” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 311) In Martyrs the violence that lurks beneath the nuclear family––the Mademoiselle and her entourage––is indeed stifling its victims in search of a spiritual experience. In the end, this spiritual experience is represented by Anna’s flayed body, finally cut away from race and thoroughly civilized by its reduction to meat. This body, the racialized woman cleansed by violence, is the last shot of the film; we are swallowed by her gaze. When the body disappears, we are shown the dictionary definition of “martyr” and told that it means “witness.” For Anna is the witness who symbolizes the faceless and forgotten masses, the martyrs of modern capitalism. And if the Mademoiselles of the world were honest about what they were doing––were able to understand that their “spiritual adventure” was nothing more than a “permanent dialogue with oneself and an increasingly obscene narcissism” (ibid., p. 313) ––then their revelation should mean suicide.


  1. I stumbled across your blog and although a number of your posts seem quite interesting (particularly this one on the film Martyrs) I have to admit I find them quite difficult to read. This is not due to matters of content, language or philosophical differences, but merely of graphic design: white text on a black background simply causes way too much eye strain to read anything at length.

    So I would offer a polite suggestion that you rethink your colour palette -- unless of course it is your intent to make the texts abstruse through concrete means.

  2. No, it wasn't my intent to make the texts abstruse... Thanks for the suggestion. I'm now experimenting with changes in layout colour(s).

  3. Brilliant analysis. You got right to the crux of the film.

  4. I didn't understand the film until reading this. It rings true to the director's intentions and untangles why it was that horror fans were upset by it.

    I found the violence so intense that it made the film hard to think about.

    Thanks for writing it! Now you have to get it published in a widely distributed journal or magazine.

    What I really liked about your analysis is the connection of martyrs as a symbol of the faceless masses that suffer for our middle class normalcy.

  5. I was reading up Martyrs after having watched it, and just happened across your blog. Your analysis is really insightful even if I don't quite agree with your defense. Anyway, I figured I'd give you a heads up, since I quoted you on my own blog post about the film. You're now bookmarked.

  6. I actually found this article due to the above mentioned blog. I'm glad I took the time to read it.

    This is a remarkably well-reasoned and spirited attempt to interpret a willfully difficult film. I appreciate what you're positing, as best as I'm able, and by and large agree. While you may be reaching a bit occasionally, you've captured something about the subtext that I didn't quite get when I watched it. It's certainly a more interesting proposition than simply measuring it by how extreme the gore/brutality is in relation to other genre films.

    Interestingly, in the early scenes of domestic life, the mother is in the garden working in the hole that is to become here grave, and if I remember correctly her work has something to do with the sewage or septic tank. While I certainly couldn't articulate it as ably as you, I don't think this is insignificant and somehow supports what you are suggesting about this early section of the film.

    Well done.

    PS - Yeah, white on black is hard going for long prose.

  7. This is roughly what I got out of the movie as well! I mean, at first I just thought it was an interesting and pretty damn accurate portrayal of the effects of abuse, and of psychological disorders (Lucie's "self"-harm), but that all changed when Mademoiselle entered the picture.

  8. Overall, a good analysis of the film but with some serious flaws.

    For example:
    The imperialism angle really doesn't hold water since imperialism (like slavery) pre-dates its Western European variety, and has been practiced by all races, for thousands of years.

    Likewise, presenting Arab women as victims of White Westerners is disingenuous. Arab women have been first-and-foremost victims of their own oppressive patriarchal native societies. Societies that refuse to grant them even the right to an education.

    1. 1) Imperialism under capitalism is a different type of imperialism than its pre-capitalist version, just as the slave trade that was practiced under the period of primitive accumulation was different than the slavery of antiquity. Capitalist imperialism is about the export of capital, where militarism is a secondary but necessary aspect, not about expanding a tributary empire. Slavery also was significantly different. To claim these two periods were identical is ahistorical.

      2) Your comment about Arab women is orientalist and eurocentric. Arab societies, at this historical conjuncture, are oppressed nations victimized by imperialism and this universal contradiction structures interior oppression. And those radical forces on the ground that have actually been fighting for womens' liberation have not only understood this fact but have also been largely anti-imperialist.

      Before popping unto this site and trying to educate me about history, which you clearly have a reactionary understanding of, read the comment policy. I have little patience for a failure to understand history scientifically, and less patience for reactionary ideology.

    2. Sorry if I touched a nerve!
      Right and Left, I seem to have a knack for doing that.

      Many thanks for the "scientific understanding of history" line.
      The thought of History as even remotely a science really gave me a good laugh.

    3. The nerve was touched because your comments were: a) banal; b) historically inaccurate, whatever you might feel about my statement regarding "science"; c) comments about imperialism and slavery I've heard from thousands of racists, or from my first year university students who learned this from poorly written U.S. highschool textbooks, who think they are making a profound point when they really aren't. For example, what does it matter if imperialism and slavery predated modern imperialism and slavery, even if you ignored the fact that the phenomena is different now than it was in the past? Your "arguments" here, first of all, would have nothing really to do with this article that you appear to be "critiquing". Secondly, would you be claiming that because these phenomena have "always existed" that current imperialism is okay, that modern slavery wasn't a big deal? Or just that nobody is to blame for these things because everyone is doing it anyway––this is usually why the "slavery was always around" argument is used, mainly by white Americans who don't want to critically engage with the present legacy that the slave trade has presented them with.

      The fact that you laughed because of my use of the word science is also not a very good argument, and something of a fallacy. It really doesn't matter if you laugh at terminology that could be factual; its truth value is independent of this. When I use the term "science" as an academic, I use it in the way that it has been traditionally understood as a definition, from the enlightenment rise of the new sciences, and not in the simple pop cultural manner that seems to imply "only the hard sciences are scientific". This definition, that you appear to be operating under, isn't really a definition because it simply defines a concept according to what people immediately think of when someone says the word "science". The actual definition of science that emerged during the enlightenment, and that is still in operation for philosophers and historians of science, is to "provide an account of natural phenomena according to natural causes", the corollary of which is to have explanatory depth and produce general categories of knowledge. This can be done with history, if there is a law of history's motion, as it can be done in multiple disciplines; the problem is the importing (as psychology does these days, which makes it lean closer to a pseudo-science) categories from other sciences. In any case, if you are confused about this because you don't seem to understand the general definition of "science" (i.e. your definition is simply "the sciences are the hard sciences" which is something of a circular definition) then feel free to read up on the matter. I did write at least one post about the definition of science, and what I mean in this context when i use it.


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