Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 05, 2011 5:50 pm 
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This Sundance Institute-assisted film by the very talented young NYU Film School-trained director Sean Durkin begins with its protagonist's dawn escape from the Catskills cult she's been living with for two years. She's followed and approached at a village diner where she's having breakfast by a young cult member called Watts (Brady Corbet) but he lets her leave and she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) on a pay phone. Corbet, of the Funny Games remake, is naturally creepy here; he plays a key minor role in Von Trier's Melancholia. That call is all we need to see this young woman's desperation and confusion. The title is a spread of names, because typically for a cult, its leader, Patrick (indie vet John Hawkes), gives new arrivals new names. She tells Patrick her name is Martha but he dubs her Marcy May. The skill of Durkin's beautifully shot and well-acted psychological horror movie is in the way it delineates Martha/Marcy May/Marlene's confusion in telling her story. When she is taken to stay with Lucy and her ambitious Brit architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in their big rented lake house in Connecticut, she has no clear sense of space or time, and has lost her awareness of social and sexual boundaries as well.

Durkin conveys Martha's blurry, disturbed sensibility by the seamless, sometimes deliberately confusing way the film slips back and forth between the present and the cult experience, in some parts of which she can't distinguish memories from recalled dreams. The film's sly paradox is that though Patrick's commune had become nightmarish and dangerous enough for Martha to run away from it and it has left her fearful and paranoid, it was also seductive and pleasurable for her. Ironically, because Lucy's and Martha's family history is chilly and Lucy and Ted's judgmental bourgeois sense of boundaries leads them to see her as more in need of disciplining than of love and care, the place she has come to isn't warmer and friendlier than the place she has escaped from. Thus as Martha slips back and forth in her mind from the Catskills cult to the Connecticut household, she not only doesn't know who she is or how she should behave, but also doesn't know where the happy place is. No wonder she spends a lot of her time curled up in the fetal position sleeping.

Martha Marcy May Marlene isn't, therefore, a fun watch and isn't meant to be. The pleasure it gives is in the originality of its vision and its success can be measured in how uncomfortable it keeps you at any given moment. It's disturbing to find in flashbacks that Patrick seems seductive and even nice. He perceives that "Marcy May" wasn't appreciated by her biological family and he and the other cult members promise her a new warmer substitute family where everything, clothing, food, sexual favors, is shared; where she is recognized as "a teacher and a leader." Schedules and habits are new. There is only one meal a day in the evening, shared by women together, after the men, whom they outnumber. They seem radiant and happy despite shabby dresses, which they share indiscriminately. They choose their "roles," what work they will contribute. "Marcy May" becomes a good gardener, as Lucy notes when she has escaped. Patrick has sexual control, but his favors are looked on as an honor and delight. He tells "Marcy May" she is his "favorite." Of course all this is woven in confusedly with the present time where Martha says uneasily with Lucy and Ted.

Martha never tells Lucy where she has been or what has happened, and perhaps surprisingly Lucy never comes close to guessing. This is the viewer's situation in the film's early scenes. We don't know much about Patrick's farm, only that there was a big, shabby house, in the painterly images of the beautiful setting, smiling women, kids playing aimlessly and a little ominously outside. Judicious use is made of sound effects to convey disorder, fear, danger at the commune. But later Patrick's seductiveness appears when, before the others, he sings a folk song he has composed for "Marcy May." Eventually the dark side of the commune appears to us through the flashbacks -- darker and darker. Durkin is astute in portraying Patrick's ways of shaping and converting members subtly, never using shock tactics or exaggerating anything, relying on careful study of actual communes and cults -- but also not spelling too much out for us of the details.

There are climactic elements, underlined by the beautiful images of cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and the quietly ominous sound design, but somehow the film feels a little too loosely edited in places and a little too open-ended in its finale.

John Hawkes has the key supporting role in this as he did in Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, and as he has himself noted both indie film breakthroughs featured young unknown female stars of beauty, assurance, and star quality, Jennifer Lawrence in last year's film and Elizabeth Olson in this one. Olson shines in the way she shifts from glowing to desperate, tentative to stubbornly resistant, vividly strange to Lucy and Ted, a motherly helper to newcomers at Patrick's cult, a shivering wreck at the two years' end. At the Connecticut house, she challenges her sister, and engages her brother-in-law's brittle wrath. There are a lot of modes here, and Olson slides into each of them as the film slides back and forth from present to past. Hawkes has an interesting role here too, gong from warm and welcoming to sleazy to scary and creepy from scene to scene.

Martha Marcy May Marlene debuted at Sundance in January 2011 and has subsequently been shown at Cannes, Toronto, and other festivals including the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center where it was screened for this review. It goes into limited US theatrical release (Fox Searchlight) October 21, 2011, UK and France releases February 3 and 29, 2012, respectively.

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