Martha Marcy May Marlene


Powerful, complex and difficult, Martha Marcy May Marlene had the audience booing so loudly during its final 10 seconds that you’d have thought it was a remake of Joe Dirt and not the finest film of 2011. Staggering out of the darkness, I heard one bitter woman turn to her companion and snarl, That’s it?

I’m afraid so and at the risk of sounding patronizing, you shouldn’t go see Martha Marcy May Marlene if you are a fan of Law & Order, enjoy reading guidebooks more than visiting the exotic locations they describe or need a scratch ‘n sniff to tell you what an orange should smell like. Because unlike the last Woody Allen rehash, Martha Marcy May Marlene is, like, hard and stuff.

The story of a young woman’s psychological and emotional voyage out of a cult and into her sister’s bourgeois world, Martha Marcy May Marlene will never satisfy you like a good romance novel or soap opera. Its main character (Elizabeth Olsen) is conflicted and opaque. She doesn’t have the good graces to explain her motivations, doesn’t guide us by the hand to a happy resolution.

Told through a series of flashbacks, Martha Marcy May Marlene explores a mystery at the wild heart of the American experience: Cults. Why do they flourish in a country that prizes individual freedom? What in our national character explains Charlie Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh? And why do these charismatic men seem at attract young women willing to die and kill for them?

The unnamed cult seems a clear alternative to late-capitalist America. Its charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) tells Martha that the farm is as much hers as his own. The small group shares the workload at a farm that lies in the heart of the Catskills. Although they still sell rugs in the nearby village, the cult is on the verge of sustainability, relying mostly on food grown right in their own backyard.

Patrick is virile and sinewy, bred of the old American stock that has given us zealots of every stripe, and his rhetoric will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1960s or seventies. “It takes time for people to find their role in a new family,” he tells Martha after renaming her Marcy May. Later he chides her that she cannot hide her light and that in order to have deeper relationships she must learn to share herself more openly.

Eventually she does fit in at the farm. This means accepting the contradictory egalitarian dreams of a community that shares the work as well as its leader’s bed and holds a cultural perspective that segregates men from women in the dining hall. Sitting at Patrick’s feet, Martha (now Marcy May) listens as he defines her new role in a song or confirms that she is now a teacher and a leader.

Equivocating and apportioning, Patrick has the power to name things in the cult. He defines the social fabric of the farm, sees what is invisible to others, but there is a violent secret to the life they share. At its heart, the community is founded, not on egalitarian principles, but rather on ritualized rape, home invasion and murder.

When Martha finally flees in the night, she has nowhere to go but to her estranged sister. She lives with Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) at a big house on a lake. Her sister tries to understand her by bringing home organic groceries, granola and exotic smoothies – that is the bourgeois equivalent to what she perceives as her sister’s hippie tastes – but Martha seems torn between the two worlds.

There are many uncomfortable similarities between the farm and the big house on the lake. In both situations, men define the roles women must play, determine “normal” sexual relations, and set limits on what is appropriate. We imagine that the cult’s influence is what drives Martha to want to break the confines of her sister’s tight-lipped bourgeois home, but it is, in fact, Ted’s narrowly defined worldview.

Ted (like Patrick) stands in for the father than has abandoned the sisters. In the absence of that father Martha has sought out a cult leader and Lucy has found a substitute in a husband who is happy to define household roles. Both the cult and the family are constellations of the oppression of the masculine gaze, but neither world makes sense (or can make sense of) Martha.

In the cult, Martha’s secrecy both intrigues and frustrates Patrick. He can’t read her the way he can others and at a critical moment understands that his definition of her doesn’t hold. She is just not the person he thought she was, and this uncertainty is a strange and exciting experience to a megalomaniac who feels justified defining life and death.

For Ted, Martha is a threat to family stability. Where he has the power to define his wife forever with childbirth, but can do almost nothing to make sense of her batty sister who persists on living a life outside of the margins. She has no place in the world he has built and he lashes s out one night when she crawls at the foot of his bed when he and his wife are having intercourse.

“It’s a big bed … you guys were on the other side,” Martha cries, misunderstanding that not only does she not belong in that bed, but she doesn’t below in that world, either.

Incorrectly constituted both by the bourgeois worldview and the counter cultural perspective of the farm, Martha literally falls out of the drama around her and the audience echoes the frustration of the male protagonists. We want her to choose which world she belongs to – to accept a master that can once and for all define her for us – but she seems to prefer to exist in the nowhere between Martha, Marcy May and Marlene.

The girl is unknowable and the film remains in this circle uncertainty, defying us, telling us that we must live with ambiguity, that all we do is exist in a place between memory and dream.


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