(Warning: plot and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail)
Pascal Laugier's 2008 horror film deserves respect for taking the challenge presented by American torture porn (The Devil's Rejects, Hostel 1 and Hostel 2, the remake of I Spit In Your Grave) and upping the ante considerably.
The film is composed of a prologue and two parts. Prologue opens with a twelve-year-old girl whimpering as she hobbles out of a warehouse; the girl--Lucie--is picked up, treated for her wounds, taken to an orphanage where she is entrusted to Anna. All seems fine only Lucie is tormented by a shadowy creature who assaults her and cuts up her skin.
Part one takes place fifteen years later. An upper middle-class suburban family is enjoying breakfast in their upscale home when the doorbell rings father answers the door and a hooded figure with shotgun blows him (and the rest of the family) away. This is Lucie as a young woman (Mylene Jampanoi) and she has come for bloody vengeance.
Older Anna (Morjana Alaoui) arrives later. She's horrified that Lucie who was supposed to only reconnoiter brought a weapon; worse she's not sure Lucie's right: is this the woman who abused the twelve-year-old long ago? And how did that monstrous creature that haunted Lucie in her childhood follow them here?
Here's the paradox: first half I find carelessly shot and edited and wretchedly written--Laugier (who also did the script) provides zero motivation for the two girls to remain in the house. Clean up the mess? Hide the bodies (in the bathroom?)? Fight off Lucie's creature? Certainly Lucie Has Issues and Anna (staying by Lucie's side) is hardly a poster child for coherent thinking but--two days? And no one bothers to come to the door check on them?
Logically that first half is ridiculous; morally it's not indefensible--or at least no more indefensible than other examples of the genre. When discussing home invasion films (yes it's a thing) I'd say the gold standard is Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a deadpan perfectly paced black comedy of a horror where a pair of youths enter a wealthy home and proceed to wreak high holy hell on the not unsympathetic family--difference being Haneke's youths are refreshingly motive-free (other than suggesting a monstrous sense of entitlement), more clever about hiding their presence from neighbors, employ the minimum amount of gore necessary to have you flinching (out of fear or embarrassment or--worse--shame) for the victims. With nary a shaken cam and surgically precise editing Haneke builds a sense of dread and claustrophobia far more unsettling than anything Laugier is able to muster.
But Haneke's superbly executed Games is merely that, a game, implying little more than what it actually shows. It's perfect on its strictly limited terms--submit that it achieves perfection only by limiting itself to said genre.
Laugier apparently has other ambitions--hence part two.
Anna is captured by a mystery group of which the upper middle-class suburban parents are apparently members; they take her down to the high-tech antiseptically clean dungeon (more like a medical facility) hidden under the house (Lucie was right after all) and explain their motive for tormenting women: that throughout history martyrs have been created through suffering, that in extremely rare cases martyrs (young girls apparently make the best candidates) are able to see beyond their pain into the world beyond, and that the group is dedicated to finding out what these 'witnesses' (the meaning of the Greek source word) can see.
The filmmaking in this second half is much better, the images thoughtfully composed, the interminable beatings and ultimate atrocity committed on Anna faultlessly paced and edited, as deliberate and inevitable as a march up Golgotha.
What I question is the film's ostensible message. Transcendence through suffering is an old idea, one of the key concepts of Christianity and familiar to the Greeks (the film puts a modern spin by referencing photographs used by Georges Bataille). Skeptics would call this a sop for pain; believers of various faiths (or at least those skeptical of the purely rational) would say there's something there but difficult to describe (What words can you use to represent something that transcends reality?).
I'd say it's possible; cinema if anything is uniquely positioned to capture the moment feeling whatever. In faithfully recording surfaces cinema can (if the director knows what he's doing) suggest the shape of the substance beneath, the nature of the meat if you like tightly covered by skin. Robert Bresson built a career out of indirect even wayward suggestion; Martin Scorsese attempts something similar in Silence (2016) about a pair of Jesuits tortured by Japanese authorities into surrendering their beliefs. Scorsese emphasized textures and surfaces--the rough grain of wood the unyielding stones the relentless pounding of waves. He created in the viewer (the ones listening) a consciousness of sound or its absence, in a vast land against which the priests persistently posed their questions (Are you there? Are you listening? Why do you let these people suffer? Do you even care?). The film suggests that if one concentrates closely enough one can hear a whisper of an answer--or is one being deluded, presumably by the sheer effort involved? Scorsese refuses to affirm definitively either way.
Silence I'd say succeeds where Laugier attempts and fails; key difference can be found in the way each film poses and answers the question "Why?" Anna just happened to be there; anyone would have served and if a choice failed they would have picked another. Arguably Anna's love for Lucie (Laugier gives the two A Moment) is sufficient reason but what's this love made of? Fifteen years of Anna constantly caring for and covering up on behalf of Lucie--but we're only told that; we don't see the women interacting in everyday life, in the business of waking eating working falling asleep. We see them together in extremis, right after the family's massacre; we don't know who they are what they aspire to what faith they believe in (if any; even atheism would be something).
Scorsese's Jesuits hope to bring the faith to the Japanese; said authorities in response focus on these beliefs--not out of some vague desire to unearth secrets but because their sovereignty is threatened by what they see as an invasive foreign power. We know who are involved and what's at stake; helps that film and novel--by Shusako Endo--are based on an actual episode in Japanese history, the plight of the 'Kakure Kirishitan.' In Martyrs what exactly is at stake--the flimsily sketched love between two women versus the ambitions of some mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld organization? On the whole I'd say I much prefer the Scorsese.
First published in Businessworld 10.20.17
Thank you, that a great critique because you tied the film in with others in a very interesting way, not pursued by many critics i might add. I don't like Funny Games because it is strictly about wanton cruelty even if superbly made. He loved the theme enough to do an American remake. Now WHITE RIBBON was more nuance thus more effective.
True that re: Funny Games. Not a fan but superbly made, even the remake. I liked White Ribbon but I think his best work is either Amour or Code Unknown.
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