1 year ago
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".