21 February 2012

#5 of 2012: Martha Marcy May Marlene

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" begins as the story of a victim's escape from an ongoing traumatic experience.  As more and more information about that experience arises, interspersed with the circumstances of what is purported to be Martha's "recovery", it is clear that the film means to draw comparisons between two kinds of coercion: the kind imposed by a single charismatic leader on a small group of followers, and a traditional culture-wide adherence to self-damaging social behaviors/norms/values/aspirations.  In that enterprise, it is disturbingly successful.

Before I get into the spoiler part of this, I'll start with my favorite visual/aural metaphor from the movie: the crystal clear-looking muffled conversation.  On one of the first days Martha spends at her sister's lakehouse, her brother-in-law takes her out on their speedboat.  They have some beers, it's a little tense, and then he offers to show her how to drive the boat.  Their speech is all but completely drowned out by the motor, and on this sunny day out on the lake, the fact that their "conversation" can be heard but not understood seems to point to a distance not only between us and them, but between him and her.  A second instance echoes this device: while cleaning the outside of a window (with the camera looking at them from inside), Martha and her sister have a disagreement.  They can be heard, but the obstacle of the glass is prominent, and again seems to symbolize the near-invisible but blatant barrier to communication between characters.   The beautiful view is the prioritized product of interactions in Lucy's domain.

Some of the first flashbacks of Martha's life on a rural commune inform the viewer that shortly after her arrival she was raped by the make-shift "family's" patriarch, Patrick, and subsequently told by female companions (especially handler and supposed friend Zoe) that this "first night" is a necessary, cleansing, joyous occasion which they had also experienced.  Once Martha has become a full member of the "family", we get her access to the administration of the commune's goings-on.  This is how we find out that the women not only counsel initiates after they are sexually abused, but also prepare them to be abused, both by drugging them beforehand and by characterizing the impending ritual as a mark of membership in the community ("We've all done it so there's nothing to worry about," Martha tells her charge).  The idea of community-supported rape is a horrifying concept that, through the use of non-chronological flashbacks to tell the story of Martha's commune life, becomes buried deeper and deeper under a mountain of more subtle manipulations, including the changing of women's names.  We see Martha playfully rechristened Marcy May by Patrick, then everyone actually begins to call her Marcy.  Later, in an almost-missable moment, he is introduced to the first girl Martha gets to guide: "Have you met Sarah?" Zoe asks, and with a huge smile he says "Sally" (at this point, I started to wonder what name Zoe was a replacement for).  From his first appearance on, Patrick is full of what could either be scattershot assumptions or educated guesses about Martha's emotional history that nonetheless hit their mark.  Add that to his pseudo-philosophical apologetics and weird winsomeness, you have a classic cult leader.  But this cult is mostly just a commune.  Take out the extremely troubling "first night" that the women go through and the occasional breaking-and-entering (explained through political theory but primarily a mode of putting cash at Patrick's disposal), and the whole thing is like a weird hybrid: conservative rural American gender norms and livelihoods, paired with back-to-the-land anti-materialism.  It's a functioning micro-society on some levels, even though the laws are set by a master opportunist who is also a terrifying presence.

The film's chronological backbone is "the present", as estranged-elder-sister-turned-rescuer Lucy tries to provide a place for Martha to rest until she "gets on her feet".  Problems surface as the depth of the younger sibling's psychological trauma- revealed to the viewer though abrupt flashbacks during conversations, swimming, and sleep, and through behaviors that the camera observes Martha actively covering up- remains basically invisible to Lucy.  Though their family history is largely left undisclosed, conversations before and at dinner give a few glimpses into the sisters' antagonism.  First, out on the steps, the stark contrast between Lucy's polished politeness (while expressing a socially acceptable regret at not having been a better sister, among other things) and Martha's grasping frustration provides a hint as to why she ended up searching for an alternate family.  Then, while eating, Lucy's husband provokes a discussion about "goals and expectations".  He plays the "model acquisitive creative professional" with the attendant ideals about success and responsibility, and Martha plays the "radical anti-capitalist Walden-loving youth", and they both make some good points, until the whole thing devolves into a shouting match during which Martha vehemently defends the better parts of the life she has just left (while spewing some suspicious slogans) in the face of "traditional", somewhat repulsive, work-a-holic, moving-on-up type convictions.  After a few more awkward days of existing nervously around the house, Martha's fear that her commune family may come after her overtakes her.  While houseparty guests mingle, she becomes frightened and is whisked away to a bedroom where she is given a pill that looks and works very much like the one she had helped grind into Sarah's "first night" drink.  After a few more awkward days, Lucy's husband attempts to wake a couch-sleeping Martha up in the middle of the night by (inappropriately?) touching her thigh.  Confused, she flails and runs.  For some reason he chases her very closely (what is he trying to do??) and she fends him off by kicking him down some stairs.  At this point Lucy shows up, gets emotional, and expresses her desire to be left alone to complete her perfectly designed life without the threat Martha might pose to her as-yet-unconceived future child (which she later apologizes for), and Martha makes the brutally honest observation that Lucy will make a terrible mother (which she does not later apologize for).  This completes the picture of their relationship for the viewer.  While it doesn't make returning to the outright abuse and subtle mind-control at the commune seem like a great idea, Martha's "rescue" doesn't offer her a life that she fits into.

Thankfully, these aren't the only two options for most people, or even for Martha, probably (though who knows, in the end).  What "Martha Marcy May Marlene" achieves by showing them intercut with eachother is recognition of the important fact that bad situations don't always look bad, that deep dysfunction might take some effort to uncover.  A "normal life" isn't necessarily more healthy than a "crazy life".


JESS!CA said...

just starting to read, but i gotta say i really disagree with "begins as the story of a victim's escape from an ongoing traumatic experience."

i didn't think of her as a victim till much much later in the movie, nor was i sure it was escape and psychological trauma didn't really enter the equation.

sure if you'd seen the trailer.

and that first guy at the resturaunt was definitely intimidating. but i felt her perspective was portrayed as ambiguously dependable at best, throughout the film, but in the opening scenes especially

JESS!CA said...

"(at this point, I started to wonder what name Zoe was a replacement for)."

lol no kidding!

JESS!CA said...

also..."the cult is mostly a commune" if you take out sexual abuse? you'd still have like...in addition to breaking and enterings, murder and uh kinda female/white slavery.

man i am so much more okay with the other kind of coercion. for me, and maybe this will get elaborated upon in your post, but to me it's like...
the coercion of a country like north korea (i.e. all for the benefit of one narrative/leader in a way that utterly crushes/effaces the individuals and funnels/brainwashes them into this narrative) vs. the coercion of commercialism, america, where everything you're surrounded by is projecting messages at you that mostly come down to You Aren't Enough, You Need More.

I think I'm okay with the latter because at least there are escapes and ways you can shut it out...like...within that system. Choices you can still make.

Also...less rapey.

JESS!CA said...

I think I mostly take issue with/would argue strongly against the notion that anything about the farm was "functional." Like...dude they were living in abandoned properties without running water. All the women slept on porno mattresses on the floor of the living room. I felt the movie did a pretty decent job of depicting the farm/commune as pretty dysfunctional. Quite a bit more so even than Lucy's marriage!

Lol my captcha includes the word

Ewsad is how I felt about the farm.

JESS!CA said...

Last comment:

I also feel like the whole movie hangs in the tense, unreliable, ambiguity of Martha's disassociative mixture of fear of but also missing the commune. In the way you can get stockholmed and join your kidnappers, you might well miss your abuser when you are no longer being reassured that you are a teacher and a leader, someone's favorite.

GOOD REVIEW. I recommend WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN if you haven't watched it yet. Would love to leave you many late night comments regarding your thoughts on it, etc.

mandibles said...

i'm def willing to concede that some of my statements are stretching it in an attempt to reeeeaaaally focus on the parts of the movie which made me second-guess the "obviousness" of how terrible the commune was i.e. as much as i don't agree with women eating only after men have had their fill, that is how some "functional units" work. also, seems like they had running water/telephone. also, shared clothing, work, and sleeping spaces seemed perfectly functional. there is a scene where martha is clearly taking sexual initiative with the weaselly second-in-command guy, and while this may not be your average healthy expression of love or desire, i think it throws in an important complication. and i don't think the movie made clear to what extent the extortion and theft supported the farm. though i don't think it would be unreasonable to assume that it was a significant or even primary source of funds, there is an extremely effective omission/avoidance of information that would be necessary to make any clear cases. i do think that what you are saying constitutes a perfectly reasonable and logical reaction, but i did want to try to play devil's advocate with this one. especially because deep down, i'm not really sure which kind of coercion is worse: the kind that allows us to offer ourselves as objects of abuse (the "north korea" of your analogy) or the kind that encourages us to abuse- torture and maim through production-slavery- invisible, distant others for the sake of our own quality of life, which is damaging to us in it's own subtle ways (commercialism). that, though, is not necessarily in the "scope" proper of this movie.

JESS!CA said...

"there is an extremely effective omission/avoidance of information that would be necessary to make any clear cases. "

ultimately that's gotta be my absolute favorite thing about the story-telling of this movie. just perfect in the balance of that.

you love playing devil's advocate :) and the torture you mention that goes on in other countries for the commercial machines is definitely an important AND ACTUAL abuse that...i definitely feel like can't ever be totally avoided. though you can make choices to avoid it. and certainly could avoid it altogether but maybe only IF YOU WERE ALREADY WEALTHY ENOUGH to get around things like needing a phone etc.

but yeah, the middle ground you talk about in the final wrap up: i hope for a future with even more of it.