Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Lost Girl

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

You know them. Those friendly smiling faces who approach you in the street handing you fliers or little magazines. You are aware they're harmless members of a religious organization. However, their recruiting methods bear disturbing similarities with those of a cult. A lonely sad-looking girl seems to be a magnet for these people. And so I always accept their fliers with no comment because, frankly, I do not have the patience to deal with them. For some eluding reason, I once read one of those fliers and I shuddered at the realization that my many affirmative answers to their questions make me the perfect cult victim. At that moment I thanked my lucky star for being too stubborn in my own convictions and too self-centered.

Martha is a lonely lost girl who falls victim to a cult. Sean Durkin never passes that judgement, though. Martha herself never thinks of herself as a victim.

Her story unfolds in two time zones: the now, with her sister and her husband in this big empty house, and the past, with the cult, on the farm, in a crowded house where everything is shared. "You need to share yourself. Don't be selfish.", Martha is told. Nana also shared herself, and her end was a tragic one. Martha's end, on the other hand, we're left wondering about that.

Vivre sa vie (Godard, 1962)

The choice for the double time zone is not some film school quirk. This becomes part of the narrative, an important element in the process of revealing her internal turmoil and confusion. Confusion about her life with the cult, about her leaving, about the past and the present ("Lucy... is this from the past or is this now?" she asks her sister). Conversations and the smallest of things from one time zone have their equivalent in the other time zone. Even the kale juice with ginseng that Lucy bought for her finds its equivalent in the herbal drink sprinkled with drugs offered to the novices who start their "cleansing".

The cleansing, "from the past and the toxins", essentially means getting drugged and raped by the cult leader, Patrick. Patrick, what an appropriately evangelical name. This is an essential, yet not final, act of stripping her of her identity, a process that started with Patrick re-christening her Marcy May the very first time they met. Marcy May, and Marlene when she answers the one phone on the farm.

The next day after she's raped, it is clear the "cleansing" has worked. Martha is no more as Patrick, surrounded by his admirers, bewitches Marcy with a song dedicated to her. "She's just a picture, lives on my wall" goes the "Marcy Song". She is just a picture for him to hang on the wall, next to the other pictures he collected, next to the pictures that are to be collected.

She's just a picture.

She's just a shadow, when she herself helps with the "cleansing" of a novice. This is the final act of her being stripped of her identity. She is no longer just a victim. She's an accomplice. She's one of them. That shadow on the wall is her former self.

She's just a reflection. Her doubling is juxtaposed to her growing paranoia that they're coming after her. Despite previous moments of doubt, it is clear now that she doesn't want to go back, and at this moment her cult self becomes a mere reflection.

Watching Martha Marcy May Marlene is like that creaking under your step you hope no one has heard. It literally takes my breath away as the anxiety just builds up and builds up. Long minutes after the film is over, I can still feel that sense of threat lingering in the air.

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