Ranking Our Films In 2018 – V
There’s a saying, all roads lead to Rome. That is exactly how I would describe what led to the production of Martyr (Or The Death Of St Eulalia). Jac and Carmen, better known as Camille, worked on a series of ‘rehearsal’ videos with the intention of producing a film Jac had in mind since his days of controversial documentarist working in Havana, Cuba, in a film about Haiti.
The idea in his head was “The Passion of Maricelli“, the story of a young woman who has martyrdom fantasies and at one point wants them to become real. That story was set in Cuba. It was never done, it might be done someday. But the concept was in Jac’s head and he could not get rid of. He transformed that idea to modern times, and instead of Cuba, he set his story in New York City. And instead of centering the conflict between a domineering father and his rebellious daughter, he place the conflict between a post modern young French woman and her possessive boyfriend who can’t deal with Camille having a strange and intense working? relationship with a fascinating photographer.
As the postmodern world is stormed by an onslaught of religious fundamentalism and resurrected holy wars, Camille, a 21st century young French woman, experiences the passion of a 3rd century virgin martyr.
Camille, a young French woman visiting New York with her boyfriend Julien, a well known French DJ, meets Tadeusz, a fashon photographer and artist who offers her a job. She accepts the offer despite Julien’s objections. In an unexpected turn of events, Camille herself suggests the theme. She wants to pose for a series of photographs, inspired by the crucifixion of Saint Eulalia, the 3rd century Spanish Martyr.
Tadeusz puts aside his more lucrative endeavor with his live-in girlfriend and model Gabrielle and sets the minimalist stage where Camille will recreate, step by step, the prolonged suffering of Eulalia. All the while trying to understand the motivations that drove the saint to confront the power of an empire and sacrifice her life while seeming to control her own martyrdom.
Meanwhile, Julien, prodded by Dave, his American roommate and Iago-like confidant, discovers Camille’s extensive research on the methods and consequences of torture and crucifixion. He concludes that his girlfriend is involved in some kind of hardcore sadomasochistic relationship with Tadeusz and fears for her life. He sets out to rescue Camille from the iron claws, the whip and the cross.
Transformation and catharsis in Jac Avila’s Martyr
Martyr is punctuated by photo sessions which provide the structure of Camille’s transformation, and Camille’s subsequent catharsis. In all of Gabrielle’s shoots, we see the camera, the flash, we hear the clicking of the shutter, and the first of Camille’s photoshoots has these elements as well. But as Camille approaches Eulalia through her work in the studio, the camera seems to fade from view, the click of the shutter is less frequent, we pass through the veil into Camille’s private world, where she is becoming Eulalia, and nothing else matters or exists.
It is here, in that world, where we only hear Camille’s breathing, her agony, her cries and pain, and suffering, that her transformation really begins. She distances herself from the other characters and slips from this plane into one in which she relives Eulalia’s martyrdom. It is beautiful, ugly, bloody, frightening, and sexy all at once.
The Fascination of Fear versus the Beauty of Horror
I found Jac Avila’s film, Martyr or the Death of Saint Eulalia, beautifully photographed and powerfully compelling on many levels. His use of historical images of female martyrdom merged with contemporary reenactments to bring potent reality to past horrors and historical validation to what could have, in lesser hands, become mere exploitation. The film’s interesting and identifiable characters drew me in, a fascinating plot and challenging ideas kept me hooked, then the outcome twisted me around, leaving me staring at myself as if in a mirror. I remember feeling similar emotions while watching Polanski’s Repulsion for the first time. The two films bear little outward resemblance, except that both involve an inner journey. Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion, however, is headed in the opposite direction from Carmen Paintoux’s character in Martyr. Deneuve’s character is dissolving before your eyes, but Paintoux’s is, while seemingly headed in a dangerous direction, in my view heroically pulling herself together by defying her inner coward and embracing urges she had previously avoided, because the more her flesh was tied and tormented, the freer and stronger her spirit somehow became. Both films, however, produced in me a growing fear for the end toward which each woman was headed. How Avila resolved his story was more unexpected than Polanski’s and produced a lingering power that sent me back for subsequent viewings, during which I experienced additional discoveries. I was told by someone whose opinion I respect that this film had the power to change their life. Will it change yours? Give it a try! And then proceed to Avila’s Maleficarum. It has the power to change lives, too!
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