Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Martha Marcy May Marlene

This is a disturbing drama about 'self' and identity. It is written and directed by Sean Durkin and establishes him as a major player in the vibrant American Independent Cinema genre. It won Durkin Best Drama Director at Sundance 2011 and the film was nominated at the same festival for the Grand Jury Prize. This film was made with a budget of less than $1m and shot over just 24 days. The lighting and editing, along with the soundtrack are all first class.

It is impossible to deal with this film without discussing its story - but I don't necessarily think that this would significantly diminish its impact if you've not already seen it.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young twenty-something when she arrives at a farmhouse in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains. The farmhouse is home to a commune called the family led by Patrick (John Hawkes). The family are seeking an alternative lifestyle and are trying to develop the farm to be self-sufficient. Patrick is given to spouting a kind of Marxist/Buddhist philosophy with a very dangerous and subtle psychological twist. He is able to manipulate and control the members of the commune to the extent that the women become his, and all the other men's sex slaves. We are shown that it is really only the women who do any work around the place and they prepare the daily meal which is first served to the men and then they get to eat anything that is left. Patrick leads by instilling terror and fear which is backed up by sexual, psychological and emotional rape. All of this causes the (female) members to lose their sense of self and any notion of individuality.

On arrival, Martha is renamed Marcy May by Patrick and thus begins the process of stripping away her identity. When any of the women in the commune answer the phone, they do so using the name Marlene - an additional way of diminishing a view of self. Clearly it appears from the outset that Martha does not have a strong sense of self-identity which is not helped by the fact that she had recently lost her mother. Her father abandoned the family early on and her only surviving relative is her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson).

Quite near the start of the film, early one morning Martha plucks up the courage to leave the commune and although she is pursued she manages to escape. In a wonderfully emotionally charged scene, laden with the psychological angst and confusion she is experiencing, Martha phones her sister with whom she has had no contact for more than two years. Lucy agrees to come and pick her up.

Lucy is recently married to a British Architect Ted (Hugh Dancy) and they have just begun their summer vacation on a rented lake house in Connecticut - a chance to get away from New York City. From the outset Martha's behaviour is at odds with the neat and angular expectations of Lucy and Ted. Such has been the effect on Martha's psyche that she is unable to distinguish between dream and memory, fiction and reality.

In a constant series of flashbacks that cut between the two contexts - the farmhouse and the lake house - seemingly triggered at random, Martha's story and her experiences in the commune are slowly unfolded. The editing is so clever that you are never quite sure which context you are seeing until it becomes clear thus mirroring the confusion in Martha's mind.

The tension in the story and in the relationship between Martha, and Lucy and Ted builds throughout the film and it becomes increasingly clear that Martha needs more support and help than Lucy and Ted are able to offer. As is sometimes the case with this kind of film, the ending is not what you would expect - or necessarily wish for. It leaves you to carrying doing analysis and thinking about the final images.

This film is not comfortable viewing or family entertainment. It is however very well conceived and executed and explores a dark and difficult area with integrity and without being over-dramatic. It offers a chance to discuss the two sets of values embodied by the commune and by Lucy and Ted. It also offers an opportunity to explore the relationship of self-identity within community and how our experiences and contexts help to shape and reshape our understanding.

Moreover, this film shows what can be achieved with talent, creativity, imagination, a small budget and in a short time frame. I'm sure we will see lots more from Sean Durkin. I'll give 8/10.

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