Sunday 31 October 2010

Haute tension / Martyrs

These reviews are meant to be read after watching the movies they discuss; in this case, the spoiler warning is particularly relevant since the element of surprise is essential for how they work. 

About thirty minutes into Martyrs, I realized that there is nothing in my life so far that has prepared me for a critical review of this film. I know almost nothing about the conventions of horror films (at least not of those that take themselves seriously) and my repertoire for writing about violence or religious themes is also very limited, considering that opting out of religion in school was one of the things that I thought defined me as a person. So Martyrs, or at least the turn the movie took halfway through, is an inaccessible black box for me, an assortment of images that I can not decipher because the necessary code is missing.

By comparison, Haute tension is conventional: apart from the last ten minutes or so, it’s a conventional female empowerment and revenge movie (the kind that in 2010 doesn’t easily escape an comparison to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, although it predates even the novels of the Millennium trilogy) – two students intend to spend the time before their exams at the remote home of the parents of one of them, and, after the film establishes a base line of normalcy, terror intrudes in the shape of a dyspnoeic man whose face we never quite see. He slaughters the family while Marie (Cécile De France) hides upstairs. Since she is, in a way, an intruder herself, she escapes the killer, but sneaks into his van to free her friend Alexia (Maïwenn Le Besco), who the killer presumably intends to rape and kill elsewhere, as he may have done several times before (an assortment of family photos glued to his rear-view mirror suggests that he has been doing this for a while). Marie is unrelenting in her pursuit and, which adds a welcome relief to the building tension, either slightly incapable or just very unlucky. The point is: she grows with the task. She grows stronger. She proves that she is resourceful, and finally achieves her goal: she kills the murderer and saves her friend (with the help of the weapon that is also the “iconic” image connected to the movie, a fencing post with barbed wire wound around).
Then, the movie relies on a completely unnecessary twist: Alexia seems even more panicked now that she is alone with Marie than she was before. Some minor details get a new meaning: Marie (short-haired, tough, thumb-ring wearing) watching Alexia shower, hidden in the shadows of the family garden. The killer saying: “does she turn you on? Me too”, just before she finally manages to get rid of him. As it turns out, Marie is the psychopathic killer; she is chasing herself (in the beginning of the film she describes a dream in which she is running after herself in the woods), because obviously, nothing is more original than a psychopathic lesbian killer who is obsessed with her best friend. It is still an incredibly well-acted movie, but impossible to enjoy (in retrospect) if you don’t turn it off ten minutes before the very end.

Martyrs seems to begin on a similar note to Haute tension, but then evolves into something that I can’t find any comparisons to. It starts with a sequence that is set in a different time than the movie itself: a girl, escaping from a warehouse in the 1970s, growing up in an orphanage and still carrying the signs of trauma, until she finds a caring best friend who believes her stories about torture and abuse, who helps her through the horrible fact that she can not identify whoever did this to her. The movie then jumps into a completely different setting: a family breakfast, incredibly uplifting apart from one odd detail, that is then suddenly brutally interrupted by a hooded woman who kills everybody, including a little girl and an eighteen year old son, with a shotgun. The film takes several surprising turns in the course of its run, and it is impossible to predict what is going to happen – in that regard, it resembles David Slade’s Hard Candy: we find out that the woman who committed the murders is Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), the same girl who fled the warehouse years earlier, and she has convinced herself that the two adults she shot are the people who were responsible for her torture. The viewer can not trust her: she is plagued by a terrifying creature that hurts her whenever she deviates from her quest for revenge, and we don’t even know for certain whether that creature only exists in her mind, since a horror movie has to reveal its rules to us before we can judge whether something is real or not. After completing her task, she calls Anna (Morjana Alaoui), her friend, who has apparently followed her loyally for years now, despite the fact that she is horrified by what she finds in the house. They start to clean up, but before they can complete the task, Lucie is once again attacked by the creature and dies (or, from Anna’s perspective, commits suicide). Anna, now completely alone, discovers a secret underground chamber, a set-up that resembles what we have seen of the place in which Lucie was kept as a child; inside, there is a woman who has clearly been tortured for a very long time, barely alive.
Haute tension and Martyrs also share that both have female protagonists who carry the film mostly on their own. Marie, in Haute tension, carries the baggage of oh-so-many female heroes in conventional horror movies on her back, and, for the most part, transcends it because her motivation to save her friend is much stronger than her sense of self-preservation. In Martyrs, Anna does not articulate her motivations; we do not  know the source of her devotion to Lucie, but when we see her take care of the woman she finds in the basement, who seems too far gone for any kind of rescue, there is a hint that helping and sacrificing herself for others might be her most important character traits. She is selfless even before the movie turns her into a secular Leidensfigur.
The direction of the movie is revealed in a monologue towards the end of the movie: suddenly, a group of heavily armed men intrude the intimate play (the house is an equally stifling setting as it was in Hard Candy, despite or because of its modernity) and kidnap Anna after shooting the nameless woman. She ends up where she found the woman: in the basement of the house, in the clinical chamber, opposite a stranger who is only called Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) and explains the objective of her secret organisation which as operated for thirty years now: it is about a look, a moment caught on photographs, in the eyes of tortured women, who transcend being a victim and become martyrs, and, in the moments before their death, experience some kind of absolute truth about what lies ahead. Death, the film argues, is even more terrifying for those without religious faith, because there is no certainty. The organisation is trying to recreate this moment artificially, by subjecting women to inconceivable physical and psychological torture, but so far, even those who have reached the final stage have been unable to communicate what they have seen. These terrible, obsessed people hunger for a kind of truth to find a meaning in life, and Anna has already proven that she might be perfect for this task because of her selfless devotion that we have witnessed.
Finally, with all her nerves exposed, she becomes one of the figures Mademoiselle has shown her on pictures, and she whispers a truth into her ear, a truth the viewers naturally can not hear, and the members of the organisation hungrily await for the knowledge to be imparted on them, but, and this ending is far more consequential than the apparently unavoidable graphic terror of seeing a person that has been flailed alive, some truths can not be shared. Mademoiselle, the only person Anna has talked to, kills herself after saying "doute". The only way to be certain about death is to experience it, and that knowledge can never be shared; those left behind can only question and doubt, there are no short-cuts.

Haute tension (2003), directed by Alexandre Aja, starring Cécile De France, Maïwenn Le Besco, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea. 

Martyrs (2008), directed by Pascal Laugier, starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne, Juliette Gosselin, Isabelle Chasse.

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