"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?"
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)
Watched this without knowing anything about the plot and it turned out to be one of my favorite films of 2011. It's strong in all aspects: stunning cinematography, tight script, killer ending, captivating performances, has gripping atmosphere even in quieter moments and is alternately fascinating and frustrating. I guess what makes it uneasy to watch is this underlying sense of paranoia within the entire film.
The film centers on an emotionally damaged former cult member, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who is trying to escape her past and resume a normal life at her sister's lake house. Opens with shots of Martha's life in the cult (and we never found out what made her join the cult, why did she decide to leave the cult, etc), her escaping the cult and calling her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up. Her increasing paranoia and her odd behavior (e.g. skinny dips, climbs into bed while her sister and her husband have sex, breaks down at a party) makes her living with her sister and her husband (Hugh Dancy) unbearable. She struggles to separate memories from reality and is unable to effectively communicate with anyone— and when she tries, it ends up in a shouting match. We can see the emotional damage done to her during her time with the cult as she goes deeper into madness instead of recovers.
Martha Marcy May Marlene's story is structured through parallel narratives and a non-chronological, fractured timeline. They do an amazing of job of editing the transitions between the flashback/cult life and current/post-cult life, which makes the fragile line between the past vs the present and real events vs imagined events almost indistinguishable. It requires concentration, but not as much as Memento.
Needless to say that Olsen's performance controls the entire film (via a wide range of emotions she delivers). The film deals with topics like the search for an identity, rape, murder, the need for a family, the desire to feel appreciated, mental illness and Olsen believably and brilliantly portrays the state of fear, imbalance, guilt, anxiety of Martha and emphasizes the sense of paranoia that the film creates.
The best parts though: the use of the sound in this film; how the noise becomes faint and goes in/out as the camera goes underwater, as the camera looks at them from the inside as they clean the outside of a window. Bleached out and desaturated pastels color tones with a soft focus; long drawn out, static shots; Patrick's (played wonderfully by John Hawkes) ominous message:
"You know that death is the most beautiful part of life, right? Death is beautiful because we all fear death. And fear is the most amazing emotion of all because it creates complete awareness. It brings you to now, and it makes you truly present. And when you're truly present, that's nirvana. That's pure love. So death is pure love."
Martha is her real name, Marcy May is the name given to her by the leader of the cult, Marlene is the name all the women in the cult use to answer the phone, and this is their story.