“What’s going on?” someone asks, concerned, at strange behavior in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
And the only answer that suits arrives straightaway: “Who the fuck knows?” Elliptical and elusive, capable of seeming both very real and simply hallucinatory, “MMMM” is one of the year’s most immersive narratives. Sean Durkin’s writing-directing debut premiered at Sundance 2011, and its central role of a woman who’s physically, but not mentally and emotionally escaped from a cult, is fiercely inhabited by Elizabeth Olsen.
The storyline is divided between her memories of the alternately bucolic and harrowing events at a rural retreat lorded over by the gaunt, seductive John Hawkes and her attempt to return to the larger world while at the weekend home of her sister and her well-to-do husband. (Benign, patrician neglect is revealed as possibly contributing to Martha’s dilemmas: families come in all forms and temperatures.) Confinement is the subject: in open spaces and closed bedrooms, in the present, in recollection. Olsen’s commanding, physical performance is key: it’s always “now” when she is in frame.
The thirtyish Durkin and his equally focused cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes lace the tapestry with green herrings: the rustic countryside is a place of little but omens and the underfurnished weekend home of her sister and her husband is a place of forbidding, plain spaces. The two zones are linked at one point by a dive into water; the descent into the lake of privilege, through a sudden cut, becomes the mingling of nude young bodies skinny-dipping directionlessly below the surface of a rural creek. Martha runs away at the beginning of the film, and a simple shot is as suggestive as minutes of montage. The camera pulls back from whispering trees in a stand of green. A voice calls out as she disappears from sight, “Martha! Marcy May!” (The mystery of who “Marlene” is will be revealed late in the film, in the quietest and most frightening of ways.) The shot is lyrical, the camera’s move gentle on a simple frame yet suggestive and rich with multiple sensations, suggesting poetry, omen, even horror. This green space is not healthy. Tossed-off lines like “I’m actually not going to drink for a while, I think it’s good for me,” resound without underlining.
The imagery is concrete in content, but elusive in meaning. A scene where Martha wipes at a sliding door has her washing at transparent nothingness: you can’t see it, but you can’t make it go away. As she looks into place, she seems not lost to thought, but lost in time. And around her, details quietly accrue: A key, violent scene features a painting like a smear of Francis Bacon. An American flag droops, plays gauntly from two angles outside a diner after Martha escapes. It never finds the wind. Accompanied by bustling, teeming sound design, the hyper-real becomes the hyper-horrific.
Durkin and Lipes’ imagery suggests a conversation with contemporary photography as well as painting—there are echoes of Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 “Christina’s World” and the way Gerhard Richter frames women in close-up, their profiles, their necks—yet Durkin grins and shrugs. In a recent conversation with the writer-director and Olsen, he was markedly unpretentious and nonspecific about his very particular filmmaking. “I have one idea. Then she has other ideas—,” he tells me, as Olsen chimes in, “I have other ideas—” and Durkin says, “She has her own ideas, because we’re doing different things. I have to make my choices, but for me the only thing that’s important is that it’s an experience that you’re following, that it’s a character you’re following, so if you watch it, you think one thing, someone watching it thinks another thing, and on another day, that switches, that’s all great stuff. I think that’s all great.”
When I broach the subject of influence from painting and photography, Durkin says, “I’m not extremely knowledgeable, but it’s possible. I see stuff, and I studied some in college, but I don’t know there’s anything I could speak about.” I show them images of Richter and Wyeth on my laptop, compared with frames taken from “MMMM”‘s trailer. They lean toward them. “Very cool. No idea. Maybe Jody.”
“We never talk about ideas,” he says of his collaboration with his able director of photography. “We talk about the overall approach, obviously, and the mood we want to create.”
Olsen adds, “You have a very specific idea of what should be in focus and what should be lit—inside a house, or outside a house—”
“Yeah, we set overall decisions about how we’re going to light and very specific about focus, it was very collaborative, key moments when she would step into focus or we would hold focus on one thing, and not another. I don’t know about any larger ideas.”
Durkin doesn’t seem coy saying this, merely practical. Is it what’s going to look good at a given moment? “Not really looking good. Actually, I always complimented him on that, he’s not a DP who—he’s obviously great at making everything look amazing, but he’s not someone who’s focused on that. I think he has a desire to make a film that’s really rugged and doesn’t look good. He’s really thinking about story first and performance first.” Olsen smiles, nods, far from the intensity of her onscreen performance, but equally enigmatic.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” opens Friday at River East, Landmark Century and Evanston’s Century Cinema.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.