Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Words by Hiba Akmal
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
You may most recently remember Elizabeth Olsen as the leading lady of Marvel's Wanda Vision, a dazzling supernatural heroine who uses her powers to sustain a magically engineered world. In Martha Marcy May Marlene however, Olsen proffers to her audience a dejected and paranoid victim whose escape from a modern Manson-family styled cult is revealed one harrowing flashback at a time.
The two-hour film, set in the past & present, intersperses between Martha’s prior and current identities. The nightmarish flashbacks of her time in an agrarian family cult and her sister’s New York lake house to which she fled. The contrast is extreme and its disparity we piece together the fractured parts of Martha’s identity. The dissonance between lake house and commune conveys her struggle or resistance to habituate comfortably in one identity or the other, convulsing instead towards affirmation in the extremes and on the fringes.
A younger Martha is introduced to the cult located somewhere in the secluded terrain of New York’s Catskill mountains early on in the film. At first sight, the community evokes a picturesque lifestyle where man tills the land by day and shares the meals his work reaps at night. But with each passing flashback, this image of harmony and material transcendence gives way to a primitive kind of horror.
Following the austere communalism which the family preaches, everything is shared - from clothing to sexual partners. Except for meals, which are prepared by the women to be eaten first by the men and only then available for the women's consumption.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the cult is its inversion of ‘normal’ sexual mores. Patrick is both the ‘father’ of the family and the (entitled) sexual partner of each of its female acolytes.
From the moment he casts his eyes on the tender young Martha, we see carnal domination set alight. Immediately he christens her ‘Marcy May’ effectively erasing her previous identity.
Throughout her gradual integration into the family, Martha is passive. Never a converted and resounding advocate of a movement, just a compliant and accepting receptor of a rule-based order.
But the cult and Patrick’s thirst thrive on this docility which makes Martha the perfectly pliable adherent she is, allowing the family to spawn new members, one dejected soul at a time.
But permanent belonging in the family comes at a price, through a sexual sacrifice to show dedication. “If you like things here Marcy May, you have to belong” warns Patrick
And how does one seal their spot? Through the ritual of purifying sexual consummation, administered by none other than Sinewy Patrick himself.
Established female members prep and prune the new entrant through a sedative herbal concoction, ensuring no resistance will hinder Patrick’s penetrative duty. Not only do we see Martha undergo this ordeal, she later assumes the task of preparing the brew for the next young entrant.
But fleeing to the seemingly beautiful, relievingly normal refuge of her estranged sister’s integrated life is not is not presented as the perfect ending or conclusion to this nightmare.
Martha almost struggles to, or bitterly refuses to enjoy the modern conveniences and relative luxury of Lucy’s life. Her relationship, too, outwardly appears the picturesque model of petit bourgeoisie success. Two engaged professionals with thriving corporate jobs in the urban metropolis of NYC and quiet, quaint lakeside retreats for weekends away. In contrast to the communal attire of the cult, Lucy enjoys a personal wardrobe replete with different outfits for every degree of formality, change of season and type of occasion.
But the perfectly arranged civility of their lives triggers something unstable and resistant within Martha. She is indifferent to Sarah’s attempts to dress her in flattering outfits. Martha scorns the idea of Lucy attempting to create her own family and at the dinner table, Ted’s (Lucy's fiancé) probing remarks spark Martha’s vitriol and she ensues with an attack on their lifestyle, their achievements of success and happiness.
Although Martha may have left Patrick’s perverse teachings, that inner embitterment towards the mores of the mainstream rages on within.
At first thought, the title for the movies seems quite tedious and cumbersome: Martha Marcy May Marlene. But after watching you realise these seemingly excessive alliterated variations of a similar name serve as an emblem of the protagonist’s own splintered self.