originally posted on Nov. 11, 2011
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (USA, 2012)
The gist: This is Sean Durkin's debut feature and technical triumph centering on a lost girl suffering from delusions. It particularly excels at editing, cinematography, and sound design. Elizabeth Olsen delivers.
Girls in trouble aren't a rare sight in theatres. They are an enticing subject for filmmakers and offer a multitude of intriguing narrative possibilities, especially in the realm of psychopathology. In those narratives, vulnerable girls are placed into situations beyond their control and forced to fight not only extrinsic misfortunes but inner battles. To delve into their states of mind, most films of this kind seem to prefer a thoroughly point-of-view approach, and handheld shooting has been a typical choice to present the characters’ insecurities up close. While Durkin’s first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is also told almost entirely from the protagonist Martha’s perspective, he doesn’t rely solely on the conventional shaky cam to illustrate her struggles. Instead, he first forms a dingy, murky mood, encloses Martha in nebulous surroundings, and then slowly presses in on her, whether in a cramped, communal cult or in a luxurious, spacious house.
For all their stark contrasts, those two environments wherein Martha entraps herself share a few elements: smothering milieu, patriarchs, and their accomplices both deliberate and involuntary. The film begins with a string of questions such as, “Why is she running away?” and “Why did she leave her family in the first place?” but leaves some of them unsatisfactorily answered or unanswered altogether. Dependent on Martha’s recollections of her past inserted fairly chronologically, the narrative indeed takes an investigative form, but it focuses on conveying her mental states rather than fulfill the audience’s curiosity. She suffers in both the abusive cult and the comfort-inducing home; she finds equally intimidating the cult’s leader Patrick and her soon-to-be brother-in-law Ted; and she fails to find comfort in living with either her cult companions or her sister Lucy. Her anxiety and loneliness are forever ingrained in her; she tries hard to dissipate them, get a hold of herself and become a teacher and a leader in her own life, but to no avail. The camera watches her tread water, try to keep her head above water, only to sink gradually.
Martha Marcy is Durkin’s technical triumph in efficiently depicting a lost soul’s confusion and delusions. Its slow pans and zooms could have rendered the film sluggishly paced, but the director/writer enlivens it by connecting the flashbacks with the present-time scenes so seamlessly that the blurring boundaries between past and present themselves become a metaphor for Martha's paranoia. Also commendable is his use of sounds and images to create motifs and smooth transitions. Martha’s stint in the cult is linked to her present life at Lucy's through tapping, chopping and hammering sounds and glasses of water/kale and ginseng juice. Most viewers will, however, leave the theatres most impressed with Elizabeth Olsen’s subtle delivery of Martha’s troubled mind. Though mostly implicit throughout, the film has one (and probably only) shot where Martha stares daringly into the camera, as if to confront the eye of the observer who’s been complicit in subjugating her, calling her by any name they want. As if to yell at him, “Don’t call me crazy. You don’t know me.”