Screening Log #52: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, and John Hawkes





Perhaps the most insidious aspect of anxiety is the way that it feeds on history and memory, the manner that is abstracts the self from the present. Anxiety is rarely rooted in the events of the moment, but in a simultaneous projection into the future that is predicated on past events; anxiety represents an erasure of the actual self under the weight of the future’s potential based on previous states of being. In the face of anxiety, the present self is vacated, it abdicates authority to anxiety. The keystone to this predicament is the fact that memory and speculation are intrinsic properties of the human psychology.

The nature of memory, and the anxiety its seamless intrusion into the present can create, is at the heart of Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Elizabeth Olsen, the heretofore unseen Olsen sibling, is the multiply eponymous Martha, a young woman who emerges from a pastoral commune and escapes into the forest before frantically telephoning her older sister to collect her from an ambiguous location in upstate New York. This sister, Lucy, Sarah Paulson, brings Martha to the cabin that she is renting for several weeks with her architect husband. Martha and Lucy have not had contact in years, their relationship strained by the death of their parents and the old wounds of sibling guilt and resentment that tie them together beneath the surface of a relatively genial, if strangely circumstanced, reunion.

The film moves fluidly between the present with Martha at her sister’s cabin and her past at the commune led by the magnetic Patrick, John Hawkes. The film’s transitions between past and present hinge seamlessly around activities, sounds, gestures, and sights, with statements and actions that begin in one frame being carried through and completed in another. The film acutely captures the multivalenced properties that these fragments of experiences may have, how a scent or phrase can immediately transport an individual to a location in their history through the agency of memory. Durkin employs a relatively narrow focus in how he films scenes, the backgrounds washed out into rich green and stark whites, also highlighting the manner that memory is at once immediately available, yet also entirely hazy and susceptible to misinterpretation and change.

As the film progresses, Martha’s behavior with her sister and her husband begins to fray and show itself as being erratic. She climbs into bed with the couple while they have sex and sleeps on the floor of her room, barring the door with a chair from the inside. Simultaneously the film moves back to flesh out a portrait of the commune that moves more toward a perversely patriarchal cult, rather than an institute built on equality and shared labour. Patrick presides over the people there as a pleasantly tyrannical Adam figure, giving new names to the young girls who come into the group and slowly reprogramming them to reject the outside world while embracing their new family. He sleeps with each of the new women, the other female members framing this activity as something special, and psychologically manipulates their sense of identity, predicating their worth on his esteem rather than how they were perceived, or perceived themselves before their joining the group. Martha’s paranoia and anxiety result in her having a panic attack at a party that her sister and her husband throw. The cause of Martha’s exit from the cult is revealed in a perhaps overly dramatic fashion that underscores Patrick’s hold on his “family”, while perhaps undermining the credibility of Martha and the rest of the group as characters.

The end of the film, its final moments, provide what is perhaps its strongest commentary on anxiety, even if liberally owing – intentionally or not – to the final scene of The Sopranos. Martha Marcy May Marlene ends not with any real sense of closure for the character, but rather with a gesture that implicates an immanent future of uncertainty and continued paranoia. Durkin limits the viewer’s focus to Martha’s face, observes her and the events that unfold behind her. By restricting the viewer’s ability to gather information about the situation outside the reference of Martha, Durkin positions the viewer and their anxiety in line with his character’s in an explicitly direct fashion.

Ultimately an effecting evocation of the anxiety of memory and the legacy of trauma, Martha Marcy May Marlene constructs a gorgeously shot, and strongly acted, portrait of a young woman whose feet are astride a yawning chasm of uncertainty. The film’s ability, however, to manipulate its audience’s perspective perhaps belies more than a small measure of similarity to its charismatic antagonist and his methodology.



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