OH, I should say, graphic image warning, sorry. The deranged, disturbing beauty of the shot above comes from the 2008 French extreme picture Martyrs, in which (spoilers incoming, and throughout) a cult of some sort repeatedly kidnaps young women and subjects them to the most extreme varieties of pain in the hope of inducing a state of spiritual transcendence. Why they have to be female isn’t explained, and many of history’s famous martyrs, from Jesus Christ to Thích Quảng Đức, have been male. Of course, the term “martyrs” as used in Martyrs doesn’t carry the exact same meaning as our understanding of the term, but those two candidates along with many others would seem to qualify according to the rules the film establishes, wherein an experience of religious ecstasy and enlightenment is generated from the act of martyrdom.
Is Martyrs‘ provocative philosophical content just an excuse for the 40 minutes of unrelenting brutality which close it (after a first half that’s no picnic either)? Or is that brutality itself a necessary vehicle for what Martyrs attempts as art? The arguments have been endless, and I’m not even sure where I come down in the end. Certainly Martyrs is a gruelling experience, but it’s also a commanding and unforgettable work of art, something which can’t be said for a number of torture flicks more limited in their ambition. Then again, my favourite film in the genre, Audition, manages to use graphic torture sequences both intelligently and sparingly, with only about five minutes towards the end and a couple of brief, say 30-second, scenes before that in what is largely your standard romantic comedy-drama-detective-ghost-story.
And I really hated The Passion of the Christ, which I thought used religious worthiness as an excuse for truly sadistic scenes of a degree of gratuitousness that none of the Saws or Hostels come even close to matching. I don’t even like Hostel very much, but despite a shallowness and nastiness to its tone, it’s more a standard rape-and-revenge picture, albeit with a genderswap and with “torture” replacing “rape”, while the original Saw is a cleverly-executed little locked-room mystery. Even the far gorier sequels focus more on inventive types of ironic punishment than they do on the actual mortification of the flesh. I’ve always thought that “torture porn” is a misnomer for these kinds of films, because the torture isn’t in there for people to get their jollies to; for that, see slasher movies, which feel much less nasty because of their fun tone, but are much more callous in the way they encourage audiences to cheer on the deaths of drunk horny teens (hypocritically: the films are just made for enjoying a beer with, and almost all feature the tits of attractive young wannabes) while turning their killers into advertising mascots, plush toys, “chibi” figurines, keyrings, TV anthology hosts and rap stars. Meanwhile in torture films it’s the opposite; they’re supposed to make you uncomfortable, to be hard to watch, and it’s certainly the victims you’re rooting for, which is how Hostel and Irréversible both get to treat cold-blooded murders somewhat sympathetically, by allowing you to see the horrific ordeals that drove those characters to murder their tormentors. OK, so The Jigsaw Killer is the closest thing to a modern Freddy or Jason. But he’s remained cold, callous, and intimidating even as his screentime increases in every new instalment.
Actually I wonder whether Jigsaw himself would sympathise with the cult from Martyrs. His morality, his methods and his motivation are all entirely secular but both share a belief in the ability of pain to induce transcendent experiences. In Jigsaw’s case, he hopes to make people better, help them overcome their personality flaws, their mental health issues, even just their general complacency. The cult in Martyrs aren’t doing things for the benefit of individuals, but for all of mankind, because doesn’t the temporary suffering of a few hundred or thousand individuals pale in comparison with gaining an understanding of humanity’s destiny?
The bad guys of Martyrs are also shown to be correct within their movie’s fictional universe, but it’s hard to imagine that Jigsaw could ever have the positive impact on anyone’s life that he sees his antics resulting in. Despite what Nietzsche tells you, torture can profoundly damage who you are as a person. Perhaps the most realistic of these spooky pain-worshippers is the ridiculous Illuminati spokesman from the ridiculous Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation: “This… all this… It’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincere apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.” Writer/director Kim Henkel strikes much the same tone: “Of course, it does produce a transcendent experience. Death is like that. But no good comes of it. You’re tortured and tormented, and get the crap scared out of you, and then you die”.