It's All in the Mind

in 49th Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Vasco Camara

“Martha, you look like a Marcy May”, says Patrick, an enigmatic cult leader (John Hawkes). Martha (a showcase for the amazing, wild, presence of Elizabeth Olsen) also answers to the name Marlene. She tries to reclaim a normal life after fleeing from the abusive cult, but finds that she is incapable of escaping paranoia… Very much like the young heroine who assumes several identities during the film, the viewer also has to make adjustments while watching the film. Trying to recognize what kind of film it is, one attempts to match one’s memories of different “genres” to what appears on the screen.

Is a Connecticut house by the lake (like in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven or in a Douglas Sirk melodrama) or a farm in the Catskills a fitful set for a “psychological horror film”? On the other hand, the disquieting passivity of the girls hypnotized by the guru echoes images we might have seen in television reports about Charles Manson and his gang…

That is to say that Sean Durkin is subjecting the spectator to a ghost dance of constructed memories. Nothing is obvious here — “reality” is always on the verge of revealing itself to be unrecognizable and unreadable. It rhymes with the several possibilities in the title — Martha Marcy May Marlene — the names that this girl, coping with the loss of her identity, assumes in several situations.

As we need to stop distressing and make up our minds about the genre, we conclude that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a “horror film” (in a sense). “Horror film” or “psychological thriller”, that’s it. We can now feel secure, but there will be no rest for the heroine.

Sean Durkin is one of the partners in Borderline Films, a production company that is starting to affirm itself as a corner of what is relevant in the American indie scene. Durkin produced Antonio Campos’s Afterschool, and Campos in return produced Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both filmmakers share an affinity to Stanley Kubrik. Whereas in Afterschool there are echoes of “science fiction” in the mode of 2001: A Space Odyssey; in Martha Marcy May Marlene, created by a fan of The Shining, one can witness an evolving structure of fear.

It’s all in the mind.