Writer/director Sean Durkin‘s twisty, emotionally immersive feature debut Martha Marcy Marlene had audiences gasping in the aisles with disillusion and shuddering with apparent disappointment come the curtain call when I saw the movie at the Cannes Film Festival this past week.
Elizabeth Olsen (one of the youngest of the famous Olsen sisters) stars as various unhinged, emotionally unstable paranoid incarnations of the titular character(s), haunted by powerful increasingly disturbing memories after fleeing an abusive farm commune run by John Hawkes creepy sexual aggressor Patrick. She elopes with her rich, prosperous sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and yuppie husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in a lakeside mansion but her confounding temperament and awkward behaviour test the patients of the pair.
The biggest problem with this film is confusion over the title. But I will clear that up by informing you that Olsen changes her name depending on her locale and that the film flips between her past time in the commune and her present time with her sister. Once you get over this confusion you can begin to enjoy a pretty intense, brooding psychological thriller that echoes the likes of David Lynch and Michael Haneke in its sense of palpable creeping dread. The unsettling atmosphere and compelling set design is what gets you in the movie, which is brilliantly orchestrated by Durkin and once again showcases a slew of fine performances. There’s humour to be had in the jarring juxtapositions of the rural confines of the remote sinister commune and the plush open architectural spaces of the lake side residence, with Martha’s social divide and previous bohemian existence clashing with the material expense and moral values upheld by her snobbish sister.
It’s a slow burner for sure but that’s the point of the plot. When we first meet Martha we know next to nothing about her character’s background or her intentions, but these are slowly revealed as the film flips back to the unnerving life of sexual abuse and violence she endured in the cultish confines of the commune. Her social misadventures and sometimes nervous dispositions at the swanky mansion are telling too, moments like when she skinny dips in the adjoining lake or freaks out at a barman offering her alcohol at a party. She both fears and upholds the values of her previous existence and this moral confliction is what makes the mood so ambiguous and unsettling.
After such a remarkable and assured turn here (all the more impressive that this is her feature debut) it will be interesting to see how Olsen’s career develops. Martha Marcy is a slow-building, brooding drama that was one of the talking points at the Sydney Film Festival. Its beautifully photographed, eloquently scored (moody silences conflicting with drones of eerie buzzing ambiance) and superbly performed but may leave you dumbfounded by the jarring denouncement. Nevertheless this is a chilling, emotionally complex cinematic experience.
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