Martha Marcy May Marlene Review
Although it’s his first feature as a director, Sean Durkin was involved as producer on Antonio Campos’s striking independent debut Afterschool (2008), and Martha Marcy May Marlene shares similar preoccupations and a filmmaking sensibility that is clearly influenced by the work of Michael Haneke and other European filmmakers. There is a similar interest in the area of middle-class social breakdown, a mistrust of the values of the family unit, and a sense of the alienation of the individual within these social constructs. More than being interested in a similar subject matter however, or finding a way to relate these issues back to their own experience within an American context, it’s the skill and means by which both filmmakers project that underlying sense of unease and the ever-present threat of violence erupting unexpectedly at any point, that is the most effective and disturbing aspect of their films.
It’s interesting than, and not a little unsettling, that for all the use of flashbacks and scenes eliding into one another in Martha Marcy May Marlene, we never quite go back as far as to find out just how Martha – the young woman at the centre of Sean Durkin’s debut film – came to end up in a self-sufficient, alternative-lifestyle rural community that has all the hallmarks of a cult. It’s even more unnerving that, over the course of the film, we find out very little about Martha’s life prior to joining the small close-knit community, but that’s not through any gaps in the script or flaws in the filmmaking technique, rather it’s a means – and a highly effective one – of allowing us to see the situation through the eyes of the principal character.
It’s not long before we discover that the film’s title and its unconventional narrative approach comes from the same fractured sense of identity that afflicts its main character. It’s when she is introduced to Patrick, the charismatic leader of a small group of young people living in a large house in isolated rural farming area, that she is called ‘Marcy May’ for the first time, because Patrick thinks “you look like a Marcy May”. It seems a charming affectation, but it’s soon evident that it has other disturbingly sinister implications that effectively strip the young woman of her identity and impose a sense of ownership that seems to say – I’ve named you, you belong to me. It’s no wonder then that we learn nothing of Martha’s earlier existence. As far as she is concerned – and it’s through her eyes that we view the world – it’s been wiped out. There no longer is any Martha.
Having made her escape from the “cult” through a phone call to her sister Lucy, who picks her up and brings her to the holiday home by a lake that she is sharing with her husband Ted, we gradually discover exactly what has led Martha to flee from the community in her attempts to deal with her experience that bubbles up in her memory as she tries to reintegrate with a “normal” world based on values that seem strangely alien to her, and likewise consequently to the viewer. The affect is particularly effective in that it allows the viewer the opportunity to understand how a damaged, traumatized person sees the world and lets them sympathise with behaviour that, to an outside eye, and certainly to her sister Lucy and the less tolerant Ted, would appear to be willfully disruptive, attention-seeking and just simply “not normal”.
What is wonderful about the technique employed by the filmmaker is that it manages to present this subjective viewpoint without it ever being at the cost of narrative clarity. Martha’s slips into her memory are undoubtedly influenced by and sometimes directly sparked off by her new surroundings, but they adhere to a linear format that incrementally fills in the details of her experience. The viewer may occasionally be temporarily confused by what “reality” they are in, but this reflects Martha’s mindset and things soon fall back into place.
On the other hand, there are still gaps and moments when we have to question Martha’s memory of events, but even more intriguingly, we also have to question whether certain aspects of the reality that Martha is experiencing in the present are real or whether the memories and trauma she is reliving are affecting her grasp on reality, and whether she is starting to project those fears and anxieties out onto the world. Like the influence of Michael Haneke then, where the viewer is necessarily implicated in what they are watching, the subjectivity at the heart of Martha Marcy May Marlene proves to be its most powerful force, all the more so for being even more deeply involving and, consequently, for putting the viewer in a rather frightening place.