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TIFF11: “Martha Marcy May Marlene” Is a Challenging, Harrowing Work of Art

TIFF11: "Martha Marcy May Marlene" Is a Challenging, Harrowing Work of Art

“She’s just a picture,” Patrick (John Hawkes) sings to Marcy May (or is it Martha?), a smooth articulation of this brilliantly dangerous film’s darker thematic thrust. It fits well with another of his stark declarations of control: “You need to share yourself. Don’t be selfish.” This is a movie about psychological collapse, to be sure, but it’s got a very specific tinge. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is broken down by two worlds dominated by a distinctly masculine form of power and abuse. As sharply confrontational as anything by Catherine Breillat or Elfriede Jelinek, Sean Durkin’s feature debut is a dark meditation on gender politics that grows more potent and disturbing the more you think about it.

The basic plot of the film is fairly simple. Martha has escaped from a commune/cult somewhere in upstate New York, only to find herself at odds with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). The story is told in parallel timelines, jumping between the present and Martha’s initial falling in with Patrick’s ilk. In no small part due to Olsen’s absolutely magnificent performance we can see every degree of this tragic young woman’s descent into mental illness. And in no small part due to Durkin’s bold and thrilling filmmaking we learn the brutal truth behind this psychological break.

DP Jody Lee Lipes’ commanding framing places both the more clearly wicked cult leader Patrick and the initially much less threatening Ted in towering stances above Martha. The two men have drastically different philosophies, but that doesn’t seem to matter. I hesitate even to call the strange and eerie commune in the woods a “cult.” There is no mention of dogma, no evidence of specific belief. This is something much more primal, sinister and symbolic.

Patrick and Ted inevitably exhibit the same anger and the same desire to control their surroundings, their families and the livelihoods of the women around them. The one difference seems to be that Patrick is simply better at it than Ted, much more capable of balancing smooth seduction and emotionally violent power. We assume at the beginning of the film that Martha will find safety and comfort with her sister, yet it becomes obvious quite early on that nothing is so simple.

The damage that burdens Martha as a result of all this brutality is evident in every aspect of the film. Her perception of time and place has been disrupted, and as the narrative takes apart the boundaries between present and past we follow her into this instability. Saunder Jurriaans and Daniel Bensi’s throbbing score sets the tone for the persistence of emotional collapse, and when coupled with the claustrophobic darkness of the images we are left in a state of disconcerted shock. The whole film pulsates, evoking perhaps impressions of a “Black Swan” as written by Flannery O’Connor. Yet the implications here are much more bone-chilling.

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