Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Girl with Three Names

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, USA, Sean Durkin)

Sean Durkin’s remarkable debut feature manages to mix beauty with a disturbing and haunting undertone. The style ensures that a viewer is never completely comfortable with the material even when things look normal. In fact, the film plays with the concept of normality as it invites viewers to drop their guard. The first few minutes of the film appear quite welcoming as the camera shows a peaceful paradise like countryside where men and women are leisurely at work. We then observe the men having their dinner while the women patiently wait outside the room for their turn to eat. This segregation of men and women at dinner does not appear to be sinister but instead seems to be a customary ritual in this paradise. We get a hint that things are not what they seem a few moments later when young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) secretly tries to leave paradise. Martha walks quietly and clearly appears to be resisting the urge to bolt away from the house. Her body language indicates her nervousness but she tries to maintain a calm exterior. She increases her pace when she enters the forest just as a male voice calls out her name. The male eventually catches up with Martha at a nearby diner where the two appear to act normal. Yet, one can detect a hint of cold terror underneath. This invisible tension then haunts every single frame of the film from thereon and only manages to disappear for a few seconds near the end before reappearing just in time for the final fade to black.

The cold tension evokes the work of Michael Haneke yet Martha Marcy May Marlene manages to stay one step away from morphing into a full fledged Haneke feature. The many scenes of normality attempt to lull the viewer to believe that happiness is around the corner yet the film’s tone tries to psychologically prepare the viewer to anticipate violence. Interestingly, the film also splices the present with plenty of flashbacks to further blur matters as the violence is always shown in the past. So when the film switches to the present, one expects that the pattern of past violent acts will find their way into the present. Yet, no violence takes place in the present causing those past memories to unhinge Martha and making it impossible for her to relax in her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted’s (Hugh Dancy) spacious vacation home. Martha’s inability to cope frustrates Lucy and Ted who cannot understand why Martha is acting the way she is. Martha does not discuss her past at the cult where she spent two years after she ran away from home nor does she speak about the sexual abuse inflicted on her by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) as part of her initiation ritual at the cult.

The film’s title comes from the three identities that Martha has -- Martha is her birth name, Marcy May is her mother’s name which Patrick rechristened her with and Marlene is the name that every single woman uses to answer the phone at the cult home. The names represent the confusing identities that Martha has to live with at each step of her life. On one hand, she is trying to return to her pre-cult life but she can never escape her cult identity nor can she erase her “Marlene” tag which signifies a surrender of her individuality as part of the full fledged cult membership. By getting each woman to answer the phone with a single name, Patrick has erased individuality. He is the authority and everybody is supposed to live by his rules and speak his words. Martha tries to channel Patrick’s words constantly which leads to conflicts with Lucy and Ted. Ted is especially angered when Martha ignores his advice by calling herself a “teacher and a leader”, a title bestowed onto Martha by Patrick. These words further annoy Ted as he is no mood to be lectured by someone he considers to be an irresponsible woman. It is these conflicts that alienate Martha from her family. Martha grapples for help and in a moment of desperation makes the mistake of phoning the cult home. Even though Martha does not identify herself, the damage is done and Martha will never be able to go through life again without constantly looking over her shoulder. The open-ended nature of the film ensures that Martha will continue to struggle with her past and her identity for a lot longer but one hopes that she can return to her true home one day.


Sam Juliano said...

Your use of word economy in this piece is truly astounding Sachin, but by any barometer of measurement it's a magisterial review of a film that has been critically praised by teh vast majority of critics. I am sorry to say I am not on the band wagon with it, and am both willing to listen and even to give it another go, either in the theatre or on DVD. I don't question the performances, but I had a major problem with the main protagonist holding back pertinent information vital to the story's thrust. The filmmaking style is certainly at times arresting, though, and it's resonated with many.

Again, this is a superlative piece of writing!

Sachin said...

Thanks a lot for this wonderful praise Sam, especially since you did not take to the film as much. At times I wished
Martha should have made things easy by telling her sister the truth. Perhaps that showed a reserved side or distrust of her sister. I did think the two were never close so maybe that was it. Her silence only ensured that any chance of help for her was slowly extinguished.