Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

*This is part of my London Film Festival 2011 coverage. Four Films, Four Days …

“If you’re ever going to have a meaningful relationship … you need to let your guard down”


The film was first shown at Sundance earlier in the year, and through positive press from other festivals including Toronto, Martha Marcy May Marlene became a film I quickly became very interested in watching. How can people, in the first instance, join a cult and then become part of it and fundamentatly ensure the cult continues to corrupt others. Martha Marcy May Marlene does capture all these aspects and more – as we also see the contrast this small cult in the Catskill Mountains has with the affluent and consumer-nature of others.

How Does It Happen?

The film presents us with a non-linear story as we initially see Martha (Elizabeth Olson) escape from ‘The Family’ and contact her sister. Initially fearing for her life, she manages to bring herself to meet her sister and go home. It is at this stage the story becomes non-linear as, though Martha is not keen on telling her sister what has happened, we the audience are shown in flashbacks how she initially became involved and was welcomed into the group. Louisa Krause portrays Zoe, Martha’s friend, and it is worth noting how subtle her peformance is – Zoe gently normalises the situation: flattering Martha; the uniqueness of the their world: “You are so lucky!” Zoe says to Martha following the drugging and rape of Martha by Patrick – how lucky Martha is to have lost her virginity to Patrick. But Martha, we see, normalises the situation for the girls who arrive after her – “You get used to it…” as she explains where the girls sleep and where the men sleep, she states “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do”, and yet she follows this by claiming that everyone has a “role” in the family. The teacher and the leader Martha becomes.

Getting in Touch with Nature

I remember in Easy Rider, how the two bikers arrive on people who “live off the land”. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the ‘family’ led by Patrick, equally believe they are self-sufficient. They believe their existence is natural – that they are “above” the materialism and consumerism of the Western world. The arrogance of Martha herself shines through as she passes judgement on her sisters life. Martha mocks the space of their house – and how it is “too big” for “only two people”. This is where there is a fascinating conflict between morals and characters – and it establishes further the reason Martha became involved.

We find out early on that Martha reveals very little – if anything – to her sister. Martha does not recognise her strange behaviour – and does not appreciate her sister’s awkwardness to her behaviour. There is an arrogance and superiority that ensures Martha has difficulty in adapting – we see from her flashbacks that she is unsure whether the cult itself was wrong. The situation that forced Martha to leave is clearly immoral and unacceptable – but Martha remains blissfully ignorant to the relationships, sexual activity and sexist routines that permeate the corrupt nature of ‘the family’.

Haunting and Unforgettable

It becomes a regular occurence that Martha is comfortable with her body – she swims naked, she slept naked in the cult and the vast majority of the time we see her, it appears that she is only wearing a dress or a big T-shirt on her naked body. This forces us to acknowledge the purpose behind this – there is a hint at her behaviour verging on flirtatious as she sets off on a speed boat with her sister’s husband, but we also see that in ‘the family’ it was just accepted and part of life; The women in the house all seemed to sleep in very little and Martha had just adapted to the environment. Her sister has established a ‘get away’ house that provides escapism from the city – but it is false. The true human-as-animal needs no clothes and is completely free – is Martha free? It appears not…

Turns To You

I think this is where the question turns to us – and our judgement on her. Has she been corrupted or has she corrupted herself? It is clear that she is not on the same wave length as her sister – but we can see how such a short period of time can enslave you and completely change your outlook on life. Her choice to walk the slippery-slope to get in touch with her carnal-desires and merely ‘exist’ led to a dangerous and murky place whereby attitudes towards each other change … and you either choose to accept it or rebel against it. For Martha, this short exploration into nature has ensured that she is fearful and looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life – as the demons that she joined and became, will forever haunt her. John Hawke’s character of Patrick particularly unsettles you – you know that, without showing any violence from him, that he will go as far as neccessary to ensure that his ‘family’ remains intact.

And as a viewer, I doubt you will forget this film – it gets under your skin and your thoughts go to others who remain in these environments and the loss of the children raised in this environment. Maybe you do “get used to it” … but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

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