Oct 23, 2011

REVIEW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Most filmmakers misunderstand depravity, which is a shame because they sure like to film it. Ask a director like Oliver Stone to show you Hell's innermost circle and he whips the screen into an orgiastic blur of strippers, mescalin and birds of prey. Ask Darren Aronofsky to show you the heart of darkness and he merely gets out his double-ended dildos, or — if he really wants to blow the doors of perception off their hinges — girls kissing girls. (Girl-on-girl action is honestly the worst thing he can imagine. The thing waiting for us all in room 101. The sight that will cause Western Civilization to hoist it's pantaloons and run shrieking from the room.) But look to David Lynch's Blue Velvet for a reliable guide to what lies beyond that final veil: the eerie stillness of Pussy Heaven, where Dean Stockwell gently sways, lip-synching Roy Orbison, and two giantesses sit on the couch, guarding what lies in the room beyond the whole scene as outwardly still as an opium den, a drug deal, or a pervert's beady transfixion. I found the whole of Martha Marcy May Marlene to be like that. It's a real mesmeriser, casting an opiate spell from its first frame to its last, hitting the spot that last year's Winters Bone — with which it shares much, not least a girl-in-peril theme, and a terrific performance form John Hawkes — seemed to for so many people. I was a little thrown by the way the plot circled back on itself, via a character Witholding Crucial Information, rather than pressing on deeper into the mysteries of that forest. Martha takes that plunge, courtesy of a story whose beautiful ellipses would send a shiver down the spine of Ian McEwan (the trailer, as sharp and stealthy as a paper-cut, is the best I have seen this year). I don't want to say much more about it: this is one of those films that deserves complete purity of audience reaction, not least because it is about the despoiliation of a young girl's innocence. I've the odd niggle: two years does not seem like a sufficiently long time to have forgotten basic social niceties like "don't climb into bed with people while they are having sex." And when leading another young girl through the initiation she once endured, it wouldn't have hurt for Elizabeth Olsen to have let show just a flicker of misgiving. Otherwise, she is very good: an unusually sombre actress, with a low, intelligent voice and a broad moon face, like Lillian Gish's, that seems to catch and absorb everything happening in the frame. In many ways, these slices of rural American-Gothic are The Perils of Pauline for the indie-arthouse crowd. Director Sean Durkin, here making his debut, works up a bruising sense of threat in the corners of his frame, places Olsen somewhere left of centre, like Wyeth, and allows the resulting electromagnetic hum to power his entire picture. Wonderful. B+


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