Martha Marcy May Marlene – is this the most difficult to remember title for a film ever? It takes a real effort to get it right. More than I’m prepared to put in. I’ve been abbreviating it to ‘Martha etc’, and I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me making do with that here.
Faintly irritating and promo-negating as the title is, it’s also clever in its resonances. See, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a damaged young woman whose identity is under threat. She’s as confused about who she is as we are in trying to remember her alternative names in titular order. Early in the movie she flees a cult in which she’s become enmeshed, seeking refuge at the lakeside summer house of older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). And of course, as soon as we become aware of the cult, the title slots into place as a signifier of blurred identity.
Reptilian cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), a none-too-subtle composite of Manson and Koresh, has renamed Martha ‘Marcy May’ (“you look like a Marcy”). This is but one of multiple ways he strips his followers of identity, refashioning them according to his own design. He also has commune members sharing meals out of the same bowls, sharing clothes, sharing each other sexually.
This sort of subjugation of the individual to the cult community – and therefore to the cult leader, whose identity is projected on to the group – is standard practice in cults. The despotic godhead seeks to erode individuality in order to control his subjects as a unified group. Thus, the will of the leader becomes unchallengeable law that replaces all others, and the wildly perverse is normalised. Always fascinating stuff.
The narrative zigzags between past (the cult) and present (the summer house). Thus, bit by bit, the workings of the cult are revealed, along with the dysfunctional, psychologically precarious state in which it has left Martha, who manifests some very odd behaviour back in the ‘normal’ world.
For example, she has been deconditioned to taboos such as public nudity, stripping off in front of Ted to go swimming. She asks inappropriate questions of Lucy and Ted (“Do married people still fuck?”) and enters their bedroom while they are having sex. Her motivation is not to demonstrate disdain for mainstream society values, and she is not acting on voyeuristic impulse. Rather, intruding like this on a copulating couple is within the realm of the ordinary for her, and she seems bemused by Lucy and Ted’s understandably outraged reaction.
Cue flashback to cult setting, in which sex is not private, and orgies are routine (albeit watched over by the snake eyes of Patrick, who sits on the stairs overseeing proceedings as his subjects go for it). Mmkaaay…
Deconditioning of broad society mores is typical cult strategy, but it beggars belief that Martha’s sense of propriety could have been so completely demolished in the relatively short time she was in the grip of the cult (she is shown happening upon the commune as a young adult, and is still only in her early 20s when she escapes to her sister’s). This is one of several plausibility issues.
Another is the cult itself. All the cliches are there: love-bombing, group coercion of wayward members, desensitization to deviant communal values and practices, and of course unconditional subjugation to the leader. Fine. Cults is cults. But this one is built hollow. There is no ‘ism’, no idealistic vision to cement the group.
As leader, Patrick walks the walk and superficially talks the talk. He’s an evil, misogynistic, narcissistic tyrant who has set things up very nicely for himself. Men eat first, while women watch on dutifully awaiting their share of whatever morsels the men leave in their bowls. On the evening of their initiation, new female members are given a sedative by another female commune member who promises them the most wonderful night of their life. Patrick rapes them as they sleep – although to give him his due, savagely enough to wake them up. Lest they harbour reservations about the wonderfulness of the occasion, next morning he showers them with tender attention.
In Martha’s case, he composes a song for her, which he performs as a serenade as the commune sits adoringly at his feet. This was, for me, the high point of the movie, because the scene is most adroitly constructed to contain within it the contradictory essence of the cult – of any cult.
The song is melodically strong, beautiful even, but its lyrical hook is chilling: “She’s just a picture.” Oblivious to the sinister implications of the line, Martha visibly blooms as the song ends. The initiation rape has been transformed into a ‘cleansing ritual’, the rapist into a father-protector/lover and guru with the collective will of the commune in thrall. This is an astute and pithy depiction of the dynamics operating in cults, and the punishment-reward cycle that cult leaders use to devastatingly successful effect.
The problem is that Patrick is a vacant cult leader, powered by charisma alone. Manson and Koresh preached master plans and grandiose agendas. Even the unlikeliest of cult leaders – eg: The Little Pebble – compellingly present a pseudo-coherent belief system that functions to bridge any initial credibility gap for prospective converts and create an illusion of ideological substance. Organic vege farming and initiation rape under sedation ain’t gonna cut it for Patrick, no matter how charismatic you accept he might be in the flesh. Especially when his only purpose seems to be to explore how far he can manipulate the members to his own sick ends. This is a major flaw in the character and film that I couldn’t get past. Ferchrissake, who’s going to be drawn into a cult with so little to it?
Even more problematic is Patrick’s extending the cult’s activities beyond the safe harbour of the commune. His ultimate challenge appears to be to demonstrate his stranglehold over the commune’s collective will by manipulating them into committing random motiveless murder. In the aftermath of a violent attack on the lone occupant of a nearby homestead, he comforts an anguishing Martha by declaring that death is beautiful, a passage to awareness not possible in life. That’s it, folks. Gimme a fn break!
Despite the glaring and unacceptable weaknesses in the Patrick character and reservations over the plausibility of some instances of Martha’s post-cult behaviour, I was hooked on the intrigue of the piece even while suspecting I was being suckered. My hope was that either the narrative would progress to an ingenious resolution (it didn’t) or that the Gordian Knot of Martha’s psychology would be at least partly unravelled (it wasn’t).
By the end – which was infuriatingly vague and confusing – I was left feeling resentful at giving the film 101 minutes of undivided attention when it all came to so little. “Pointless” was my grumpy duo-syllabic summing up when probed for an assessment by my companion as the credits rolled. That view remains intact.
Elizabeth Olsen as Martha
To finish on a positive note, the highlight of the film is Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as Martha. She makes good of a difficult task, shackled by a script that confines the psychological portrait of her character to broad impressionistic brush strokes (ludicrously, Martha never mentions the cult or her experiences therein, even when her sister pleads with her to open up after a climactic meltdown towards the end of the film). Hopefully, Ms Olsen’s next film will give her more room to move. A talent to watch.
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