It has taken a while, but the favourite film of Sundance 2011 finally made it to Dutch cinemas last april. And finally I have been able to see it too. Sundance favourites are an odd bunch of movies. The famous festival of independent American cinema has been the breakthrough for filmmakers as different as Quentin Tarantino and Kimberley Peirce. Sundance films are not a genre. They share nothing but success at one specific time and place. You never know what you’re gonna get.
So what do we get with the impossibly titled Martha Marcy May Marlene? First of all it is director Sean Durkin’s first film. And for a debut it is incredibly confident. A fragmented narrative and essentially unreliable narration make sure that the audience is never certain what to believe. The extremely confrontational nature of the events shown, furtermore, lead you to never be at ease with the film.
This is one of those films of which you do not want to read too much about the plot in advance. So a quick set-up. Early in the morning a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) leaves a farm full of people. A little later she calls her sister. Her sister picks her up and lets the young woman stay with her and her husband. The young woman, Martha, never quite settles in, haunted by memories of things that may or may not have happened in that particular farm, under the guidance of the creepy Patrick (John Hawke).
Three elements in this film stand out. The first is, quite obviously, the acting work done by Elizabeth Olsen. The younger sister of the (in)famous twins is a really talented performer, who gives an incredible tense and unsettling performance in this film. It is really her breakthrough, like Winter’s Bone (a Sundance favourite in 2010) was the breakthrough of Jennifer Lawrence. However, unlike Lawrence, who made herself a proper movie star with films such as X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games, Olsen seems to be more comfortable in independent cinema. Of her upcoming films a Therese Raquin adaptation seems the biggest title, besides a small supporting role in Rodrigo Cortes’ (Buried) new thriller Red Lights.
The second outstanding element in Martha Marcy May Marlene is the cinematography. Durkin has turned Martha’s memories of the farm into an ambiguous shadow or parrallel reality, by triggering them through visual echoes and impossible continuities. The first few of these are unsettling and can be experienced as frustrating, but when you choose to accept them and go with them, they are an incredibly effective narrative tool.
A final thing worth paying attention to is the excellent soundtrack. With little music and many strange and estranging sound effects the soundtrack is an equal partner to the images in this film. If the soundtrack is the guiding element in the narrative rather than the visuals, Martha Marcy May Marlene is almost a horror film.
Why would I say almost? Martha Marcy May Marlene is a horror film. And a really good one.