On Dreams, Suffering and the French Film MARTYRS

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On a Wednesday a few years ago I dreamed about a basement, full of people, but mainly women and children. They were dirty, and pale and scared, although the space itself was sterile, white and clean. I kept seeing flashes of the blueprint of the space, confusing because there was a flight of stairs that seemed to lead to nowhere and an odd space underneath them that had no logical reason to be based on the rest of the plans. There was a glass floor in one of the rooms, and that was where an old man would come to kill the children while the others would watch and scream. Blood. There was so much blood. I screamed and tried to help the child, but the glass floor separated us. All of a sudden, I was outside and the old man was running. I ran ran ran after him, trying to catch this sick murderer who had people trapped in a basement. I ran as fast as I could. Screaming. Because if I can’t catch him, someone else can. And then I woke up.

The dream was so vivid, so real. When I awoke I had absolutely no idea who I was, where I was, or who was the person in the bed next to me. I sat there, soaked in sweat, shaking, in a total panic, no memory of anything in my head save for what I had just dreamed. For minutes I remained in that panic state, scared to move, unsure of what was real, and not even sure if the person in the bed with me was the man I had dreamed of. As I calmed down I remembered: I am Sezin. The man in the bed is my husband Steve, who wouldn’t hurt a soul. I live in Prague. This is our bedroom.

I was not able to get back to sleep, though.

On the Friday two days after we went for drinks with friends and I was still reeling from The Dream. Not just the dream, but my violent reaction to it. I’ve never in my life woken up not having any clue who or where I was, and that shook me to the core. I felt that something had happened to me in the dream, but I had no idea what, and my first reaction was to talk about it.

The next day, Saturday, we turned on CNN to find out that an elderly man named Josef Fritzl had been keeping his daughter prisoner in his basement, raping her and had fathered a number of children with her, some of whom died. They showed a blueprint of the space and my heart froze. It was exactly what I had dreamed just a few days before. My jaw dropped open, and stayed there. The old man I had chased. He killed his children. Kept them locked up. The horror. The blueprint, with stairs that go nowhere (because it’s a basement) and the strange space behind them (which were a part of the structure above): Every time I saw that I remembered the children being murdered, the blood, the screams from my dream. As the story unfolded it turned out that on the Wednesday that I had the dream, Fritzl’s daughter/niece had gone into a coma and they took her to the hospital. Once at the hospital, they had no good explanation for the state of the woman, causing concern among hospital staff who then called the police suspecting abuse.

The Fritzl Dream, as I now call it, was not the first time I communicated with someone in a coma in my sleep, but it was the first time it happened with a stranger. This was one of the most powerful and eerie events of my life to date, and believe me when I say I have quite a lot of powerful and eerie things that happen, mainly because I believe in so many possibilities. I don’t know if I was the only one on the receiving end of what I believe to have been Fritzl’s daughter reaching out through the astral space, showing me (us?) a slice of her brutal life. I doubt it though. The vision was so intense, I could not have been the only one. I also remain convinced that Fritzl murdered some of the babies his daughter bore by him, as I saw in my dream, maybe ones who were too physically deformed from inbreeding to pass as human, even though there was no “evidence” that he killed his own children.

The 2008 French film MARTYRS brought back the Fritzl Dream in full force. This film is probably one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen, and very possibly one of the best films I’ve ever seen in general, in the same way that THE ROAD is one of the most amazing films ever made. Difficult to watch, but incredibly powerful and moving in its social commentary. MARTYRS opens with a young Tibetan girl, beaten and bloody, running screaming down the street. She has been kept chained to a chair with a hole in the bottom for an unknown amount of time in an abandoned warehouse and somehow managed to escape. The girl, Lucie, is feral, won’t speak, isn’t violent unless touched and keeps to herself in the orphanage in which she ends up. Until Anna, a Moroccan orphan in the same institute, connects with her and they become friends/sisters. Lucie is haunted by her past and manifests cuts and bruises all over her body, although she says she didn’t do it.

*SPOILER ALERT* (Though I think judging by the level of violence in this film most of my readers will never watch it, and may be bothered even by my description of the action, in which case, skim to the @)

Flash forward 15 years: We meet a typical (white) French family. Papa, maman, fille et frere. Sunday breakfast. The doorbell rings, “Who could it be?” Lucie, with a shotgun, who proceeds to shoot each family member. Once she’s finished, she goes to the mother, falls apart and starts crying, “Why?! Why did you do that to me!?” Like in Ariel Dorfmann’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, Lucie has identifed her torturer as the portly maman in this household. Anna, doubting her friend’s sanity, arrives to help clean up the horrific mess.

As a gun crime survivor, these scenes were brutal to watch. I fucking hate guns. But I also fucking hate torturers of children. It was disconcerting because Lucie does seem crazy, schizophrenic, she sees things that are not there, she hurts herself, she is fully traumatised. You don’t know what is real, and the bodies of the entire family, including the children, made me feel sick, and confused. Lots more weird stuff happens and Lucie kills herself, whatever is going on inside her will not stop otherwise. Anna, still trying to clean up the mess and now grieving for her best friend starts to hear a moaning screaming sound from inside a cupboard. In one of the most tense moments ever in cinema, Anna approaches the cupboard, opens it, finds a doorway into a metal, sterile hallway. She follows it, there is a basement below the house with framed images of tortured men, women and children on the wall. There is a woman chained in the basement, naked save for a metal cap nailed over her head and eyes and a form of chastity belt nailed to her midsection. Anna, (and I), realising that poor Lucie was right all along, freaks out, returns to her dead friend, aplogising over and over again. This is when I started to cry and cried for the rest of the film.

The torture ringmasters, whose headquarters are situated deep under the “typical” French family’s home, arrive and decide that Anna is a ripe subject for their sick plan. But this is not a so-called torture porn film. It’s more like PASSION OF THE CHRIST, whereby the ring attempt to put an individual through the worst horrors in order to get them to a point where they can see the Other Side while still alive and speak of it.

I’m going to tell you what happens because most of you Dear Readers will never see this film, it’s too hard to watch even though most of the torture takes place off screen: The final hurdle for Anna is to be skinned alive, which miraculously she survives. The Ringleader, an old French lady with white hair and Jayne Mansfield-style eyeliner, comes to Anna, who whispers something we can’t hear into the old woman’s ear. The old woman listens, her eyes widen, she goes upstairs and then shoots herself. The end.

@ So many aspects of this film resonated with me. The production and cinematography were fantastic. The direction and acting were brilliant. The idea that we can literally be haunted by horrors done to us. MARTYRS is about suffering. It is about how our suffering can drive us crazy, or we can transcend it to find some kind of truth beyond. Or death, the end of our existence in this wounded body.

But more than that, the presence of these non-white French girls as the main stars, put through the wringer by a group of white torturers speaks to the underlying racism not only in France but throughout Europe. Unlike America, where the violence and racism are way out in the open, in Europe the violence and hatred bubble under the surface, like Fritzl’s basement and the subterranean compound the torturers in MARTYRS ultilise. With the exception of events here and there, for the most part European prejudice is not witnessed in carjackings, or violence on the street. It is seen in hiring practices, it is seen in the distrust of foreigners, the inability to accept those who are different in more subtle ways. However, violence and racial violence is ever present here in Europe especially if you are not of the majority.

I don’t know if Pascal Laugier intended for this film to be a social commentary on race and violence in France (and by extension Europe), but seeing that all of the victims are clearly non-white is provocative. Here in the Czech Republic I hear many more accounts of open violence against the Romani and other dark-skinned nationals than in other parts of Europe, especially Western Europe.

The most striking thing about MARTYRS that has stuck with me is the truth that most of Europe likes to keep their prejudices underground. And when the prejudices to arise, like with the headscarf ban in France, they are disguised under the promotion of culture, not because of discrimination.

For me this film was incredibly cathartic. My mother always tells me that I shouldn’t watch scary movies, especially taking into account my own personal experiences of trauma. However, when I see a film like this one, so meaningful, so powerful, so beautifully done, I feel a small part of my own pain and suffering are exorcised. I sleep like a baby. The few nights a year where I don’t have horrible nightmares akin to the Fritzl Dream are the days after seeing cathartic films like MARTYRS. The art heals me, a little bit each time.

The most terrifying thing about the film is the fact that you cannot trust what you see on the surface. What monsters lurk beneath the European psyche? And if the beasts of prejudice and hatred lurk beneath the surface then how can we eradicate them? Do they need to arise? And if they do arise, what damage will they do in the meantime before they can be stopped?

And what of those people who are at the receiving end of these subterranean prejudices? Like Lucie, are they crazy, seeing things that are not there…or are those very real things only visible to them? And what of people whose horrible traumas lead them to do very bad things?

What then?

©Sezin Koehler

P.S. I wrote this piece after seeing the film only once. I have since re-watched it and while there are some misperceptions about the action in my synopsis, I have left this review as is because I feel as an initial reaction to this movie my response was visceral and honest. The second time around was much easier to watch because I knew the truth, and wasn’t so baffled by the layers of subtext. Although I wouldn’t write this review the same way after seeing the film a second time, my initial assessment is far more encompassing and so I’m leaving it at that.

P.P.S The new Lady Gaga video for ALEJANDRO, which came out yesterday, reminds me so much of this film, and I find it quite a strange synchronicity. The video is also about things under the surface rising up as well as the religious overtones of martyrs. The closing image of Lady Gaga’s face is exactly the same as the closing image of Anna in MARTYRS. Spooky, no?

4 Responses to On Dreams, Suffering and the French Film MARTYRS

  1. Sezin –

    What a great review/interpretation of the film. I too was very disturbed by this film. I didn’t know about the underground prejudices in Europe – but reading your review has brought a new aspect to this film for me that I would not have seen before.

    That’s really crazy that you had that dream/the events the followed. You are a very strong/brave girl to be able to not only endure those type of dreams/your past – but also to be able to talk about it openly.

    Much love and respect to you, my dear.

    xo,
    Nikki

    • Hi Nikki,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, it’s a tough post to read and the film is brutal to watch. I would say that the only aboveground prejudices in Europe are against the Romani, or Gypsy, peoples. Europeans across the continent make no secret of their hatred of the Romany and in fact just this week France rounded up hundreds of them (who are actually French citizens no less) and is trying to send them back to Romania even though many of them and their children were born in France. Can you imagine?

      Yes, that dream was one of the most powerful and horrible things to happen to me in my sleep. I will never forget how I felt, but after writing this post and seeing Martyrs I think about it much less. Another example of the healing power of horror at work, right?

      You are also a very strong and brave person to be following your dream of being an actress and putting yourself out there for the universe to help you along. I admire you so much and I hope for you all the successes possible.

      Love and respect to you, too, my Sister Scream Queen,

      Sezin

  2. Sezin, your work is so compelling! Thank you for your intensity, your willingness to ‘go there’ with these incredibly tough subjects, especially when you have personal trauma in your past. What a cathartic way to deal with it – your courage is inspiring. Keep it up! XO – C

    • Catherine! Brave woman! I’m amazed that you were able to read this and even comment. I’ve heard from a few people that even my dream was upsetting and they couldn’t even get to the film description and analysis. If there was a “KUDOS” button I would have pushed it several times already for you. 🙂

      Thank you for thanking me for sharing. So much of how I process and work through trauma is through writing. And also watching these films. While I do get unnerved and frightened, nothing is as scary as witnessing my friend’s murder (although this film came pretty darn close, man!). In this moment, here in Prague, so much of what I write, tough subject or not, comes from a me that is comfortably and safely installed in my home, and I feel secure enough here in the world I’ve made to venture to those dark places and see what’s going on.

      I’m trying to enjoy this feeling safety and security while it lasts, especially since it took 2+ years to find it here, because eventually we will move and who knows what I will be strong enough to watch/remember come that day. At least for a time.

      Thank you for reading, for always commenting, for being you, for being there.

      xoxo
      Sezin

Thoughts?