written and directed by Sean Durkin; starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Louisa Krause
screens on Friday 21st, Saturday 22nd and Monday 24th October
"I know who I am," proclaims Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) in rude defiance, decrying not only the concerned eye of her sister but the title of the film itself. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a sharp confusion of a title, one which compounds the collusion of identities that threads lucidly through the film. On first appearance, she is without a name, a silent figure setting a table which she must wait to eat at. Sexist oppression has tired for her, though, and just as quietly she slips out of the house in the dawning light, the camera ever so gradually receding backwards as she slips through the woods opposite. Then, snap; close, breathless, the camera runs with the terrified girl through the forest, wild hand held turns matching her panicked confusion. Martha, Marcy, May or Marlene: whoever she is, we're in this with her now.
Sean Durkin's debut feature is an striking combination of prickly panic and eerie calm. Once Martha escapes her overcrowded abode - which is soon confirmed to be the site of an earthy misogynistic cult headed by the frighteningly charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) - the film establishes past and present not as distinctly separate narratives, but as inextricably entwined, constantly bleeding into one another. Echoes of one repeatedly appear in another, accomplished by quiet tricks of editing and photography. Often shocking but never cheaply utilized, this confusion craftily reflects Martha's damaged state of mind, unable to truly escape what she has run away from, and with a mind unconvinced that she even need leave it all behind.
No judgments are made on what possible benefits Martha might gain from either the cult - which, though a harrowing and abusive environment, seems at least to give Martha a steelier edge, a far cry from the naivety we glimpse of her before her move into the communal house - or the bourgeosie, consumerist lives of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her critical husband (Hugh Dancy). The continual suggestion is that Martha cannot reconcile herself to either world; though, since her personality before joining the cult is only briefly glimpsed, the audience can only guess whether her awkwardness in normal society was always an issue. The possibility that Lucy's way of a life is as damaging as the cult often seems overstated, particularly through Lucy's reactions to Martha's strange behaviour, which are often shaming, outraged chastisements rather than the bewildered concern Paulson otherwise emits so superbly. But fold these shifting reactions into the quiet discussions the sisters have about their pasts, and another layer of mystery is added - Lucy never really knew her sister, so she, like us, can't know how deeply rooted Martha's issues are. It's a clever, frustrating revelation that obscures Martha even further.
In Olsen, you can see the limpid ghost of her infamous elder sisters, her face a construction of ovals; eyes large pools that glass over, a face that sours and turns in on itself when Martha tries to shut her sister out, as if she's trying to remove herself from the room. It's a brave performance that interiorises the pain and confusion, which then bursts out into the film like shards of glass, thrusting into the narrative at awkward angles through the spurring of dark memories, and the shattering clarity of the sound design (a taunting phone, reverberating shrilly in the middle of the night). The teasing final shot essentially leaves Martha as a figurehead for any woman escaping an abusive environment, but due to Olsen's superb work, Martha has become sympathetic through her unknowability - the audience feels for her confusion, her instability, impressed and scared by her barbed tongue and her aloof naivety.
Durkin and his cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes develop a slow, observant style of shooting, using gradual zooms and curving pans to give illusions of perspective and shift the viewer's eye. As the film progresses, camera, edit and sound work with the script to ratchet the tension to a distressing pitch, their weaving of past and present pressurising Martha to unbearable effect. The palpable dread of Martha's situation, and of Lucy's inability to deal with it, becomes harder to watch, since we become increasingly less certain of the people we're watching. Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene - she is all of them, and she is none of them.