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Entries in elizabeth olsen (1)


In Which We Flee The Cult Of Our Dreams

She's Just A Picture


Martha Marcy May Marlene
dir. Sean Durkin
101 minutes

In a scene from Sean Durkin’s psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, charismatic cult leader Patrick (played by John Hawkes) plays a song he has written for one of his followers, a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). “Oh she’s just a picture/Who lives on my wall,” he sings, as the camera lingers on Martha’s lovely, nymphic face. As the song continues, the camera focuses also on Patrick’s face, his intense, smiling stare. We understand in that moment that we are seeing Martha — or Marcy May, as he has renamed her — as he sees her.

The question of whose eyes we are looking through, whose picture we are seeing, is the mystery weighting the center of this complex story. Martha Marcy May Marlene follows the traumatized Martha as she escapes from the cult’s commune to her older sister’s upscale Connecticut lake house. What we know of the cult is shown through flashbacks, so Martha’s past and present unfold simultaneously. As Martha grows more paranoid that members of the cult are pursuing her, the past looms more dangerously and invades the present more violently. Fear distorts her experience, so what is really happening (and what has happened) are ever more uncertain.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is obsessed with doubles and doppelgangers — places from the past and present mirror one another, and people represent and replace one another. The wooded area surrounding the cult’s farm resembles the wilderness near the lake house, and the lake house also recalls the large houses the cult members burglarize to support the commune. Martha and her yuppie older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) are an imperfect reflection. (I don’t mention that Olsen’s real-life older sisters are famous duplicates.) It’s no wonder Martha is often confused: “Is this from the past, or is this now?” she asks Lucy.

A more sinister multiplication exists among the women of the cult, who are essentially interchangeable. The women are active in assimilating new members — we see them leading Martha around the commune, explaining the workings of the farm to her. And their participation goes far deeper than that: after a drugged Martha is raped by Patrick, the other women comfort and reassure her. “I know you’re feeling like something bad happened in there, Marcy May,” one woman tells her. “You have to trust me, that wasn’t bad.” Another admonishes her not to be selfish. “You have to share yourself,” she says.

When a curly-haired and youthful girl named Sarah joins the commune, Martha is assigned as her mentor. We watch as Martha mimics her own initiators, showing Sarah the eating and sleeping quarters, even repeating verbatim what one of the other women told her: “It takes time to find your role in a new family.” When the time comes, Martha gives Sarah the drug-laced drink she has prepared; “This is your special night with him. Enjoy it,” she glows. When Sarah is led away to be raped by Patrick, Martha sits in the same chair where she herself sat, horror-stricken, after her own rape. Martha is “one of them,” fully complicit in the cult’s crimes.

In this way, the most important doubling in the film is of her past and present selves, Martha versus Marcy May. Marcy May is Patrick’s creation, and she has been fully indoctrinated by him. Although Martha escapes Patrick’s influence, she does not rid herself completely of Marcy May. At the lake house, she seems to have forgotten social norms, to the horror of her conventional sister — after saying she’s going for a swim, she strips on the pier and jumps naked into the water. Martha wanders into her sister’s room while Lucy is having sex with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), and curls up on their bed. Martha is bewildered by Ted and Lucy’s anger. “It’s a big bed, and you guys were on the other side,” she explains.

Martha also finds herself speaking to Lucy and Ted in the cult’s rhetoric. “People don’t need careers. People should just exist,” she tells workaholic Ted. When she grows frustrated with Lucy, it seems Marcy May comes out: “I don't need your guidance now, and I didn’t then. I’m a teacher and a leader,” she says, exactly echoing something we hear Patrick tell her. Clearly, her role in the cult still influences the way she sees herself. Martha’s internal fissures cause the fissures that open up in the film’s present.

And so, on the one hand, Martha Marcy May Marlene is largely shot and structured in sympathy with Martha’s experience. We see her memories as she has them, and as her fear grows, we take part in that fear. Often we share in Martha’s confusion about where and when she is, whether this is from the past, or this is now. Martha’s swimming in the lake transforms seamlessly to her memory of swimming with the members of the cult. We see long, dreamy shots of naked bodies as the camera moves in and out of the water. Like Martha, the scene floats between two states of being, present and past, emerging and submerging.

The film’s audio particularly manifests Martha’s perception — when Patrick and the male members of the cult confer, they are often visible but inaudible, reflecting Martha’s lack of access. The white noise in the film is frequently stifling, as Martha’s mental discord seems to mount over the rest of the action. In one remarkable scene, Ted and Lucy attempt to subdue a hysterical Martha after she thinks she spots a cult member at a party they are hosting. The broad, static frame takes in Ted and Lucy’s bedroom, Martha thrashing and crying, and the others attempting to restrain her. The sound is overwhelmed by loud, harsh violins. As Martha’s terror subsides, the music quiets, and the picture slowly fades to black.

In the last scene of the film, one of the members of the cult clearly runs across the road in front of Ted and Lucy’s car as they are driving Martha to a psychiatric facility, and we are ready to disbelieve what we see, to imagine that it could all be in her head — because “her head” is the space where the film purports to take place. But there is evidence that the film does not solely record Martha’s perspective. When Martha is shot through a doorway or window, who do we imagine is looking through its frame? Why would the camera so often follow her like a specter down a dark hallway? Martha is being watched, and the gaze that is trained on her is dogged. The camera is fixated — the frame will stay focused on her face even when the dialogue is taking place between two other people. We often watch her sleep.

When Martha scrambles through the woods in her escape from the commune, the camera pursues her, jumpy and desperate — she resembles an animal fleeing a predator through a path in the trees. In one scene we follow Martha’s torso and legs down the hallway to her bedroom. Then she is lying on her floor, camera on her ass and legs as pee soaks through her dress. The frame stays still as she stands, wipes the pee from her legs and stuffs the dress under her mattress. This feels more than predatory. It’s lurid. It’s unforgivable.

One possibility is that Martha has so internalized Patrick’s objectification of her that she participates in it, that it is how she sees herself. Maybe. But I think it’s also possible that Martha Marcy May Marlene can’t help but agree with Patrick — if only a little — that Martha is primarily something to look at. She’s just a picture. We watch her in bed through a cracked door, a conversation between Ted and Lucy playing over top. As she listens to them discuss her, she moves her head and stares into the camera for several unsettling seconds, her eyes meeting the gaze that has been aimed at her. In this film, where everything contains its undoing, the picture looks back.

Alice Bolin is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula, Montana. She tumbls here and twitters here. This is her first appearance in these pages.

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