Wednesday, October 12, 2011

LFF Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene


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.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Woody's Witching Hour

Colour me surprised that Midnight in Paris burst into UK cinemas a mere five months after its US release, but then you'll all have heard by now that this nostalgia piece by one of America's most prolific and speediest directors is his most financially successful film ever. Earlier this year, on the delayed release of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, I wrote this piece on Allen's last two films, closing with the question, "... will he ever recover his talent for funny, perceptive human insights, or even the romantic visual sense that was once so palatable?"

You've been waiting with baited breath for the answer, and, since it was rather fittingly released into the darkening twinkle of autumn's beginning, you didn't have to hold your breath and go red and collapse with exhaustion in the meantime. Midnight in Paris is Woody's best film in years; certainly his most vibrant since Match Point, and unlike that arch and slightly morbid exercise, this feels like classic Woody. It isn't, don't get me wrong, because he's still lost his touch at writing personable, funny, truthful female characters and in the final event, Rachel McAdams' shrill fiance almost sinks the entire ship.

You'd never be able to tell they're not really in love.
But if we put that aside - and, after so many years experiencing the same (and probably worse) from him, I have to, or I'll never enjoy anything ever again - Midnight in Paris is a film that sparkles with the romance and spirit of the city its set in. Again, a revelation - Woody's managed to capture the essence of a city again, after so baldly missing anything special in Barcelona and consistently misrepresenting London. The bizarrely prolonged montage of shots around Paris that begins the film worried, then relieved me; it was as if Woody was exhausting himself and the audience of all these generic shots, before approaching his real depiction of the city through the nostalgia trip that is the basis of the narrative. The imitation of such major historical cultural figures is so daringly brash that he pulls it off, the clearly fictional imaginings lending a joyous vibrancy that reflects off the walls, the steps and the pavements. The restraint he shows in shying away from any of the iconic buildings means that, even though it's a city chased down a hazily nostalgic rabbit hole, it comes alive because the central character is so in love with the setting.

They're looking at each other. I'd say that's a good first step towards romance.
And in Owen Wilson, Woody's found a substitute for himself who really works (whatever works won't do after all), and ensures that this feels more like one of the classic Woody-starrers than the past fifteen years of his back catalogue have. He's aloof and slightly rude without being unsympathetic, his foppishness subbing well for Woody's reediness. As perhaps befits the plot, the modern day cast are of little interest (though Michael Sheen has predictable fun as a pretentious pedant), but the players of '20s Paris shine, particularly Corey Stoll as an uncompromising, darkly charismatic Ernest Hemingway. And Marion Cotillard is just a shimmer away from undoing the damage McAdams' character does - winsome, elusive, though ultimately just a little too idealised.

To return to my months-old question, I'd be hard-pressed to say that there are any particularly revelatory human insights to be had here. That's a shame, because once upon a time, Woody Allen was one of those writers who could start a scene with a joke and end it with a revelation. Woody the scribe is still stuck in convention, ending the film with a message that's far too bluntly delivered, and rather at odds with his entire career of late. Does Woody actually recognise his own situation - a writer in need of a Gertrude Stein - in Wilson's? Doubtful. But Woody the director has livened up again, and the final point is this. Midnight in Paris, for the first time since, oh, Everyone Says I Love You (just fifteen years ago! ...), is a Woody Allen film genuinely alive with the sense of its title. It might not be Woody back on his unchallenged classical form but it's a Woody who seems to have recovered a sense of the magic of cinema, of the discovery of a troubled character's ventures, and of a sense of romantic purpose. The clock has struck, and I can spy Manhattan down the street. (B-)