Tag Archives: martha marcy may marlene

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011) written and directed by Sean Durkin

25 Feb


If I were to ask you to provide some watching material on domestic violence, you might create a list that looked something like this. Once We Were Warriors jumps out as a particularly brutal vision of what a violent relationship means. I expect the majority of the population associate domestic violence with images of women dealt a black eye or worse. The reality is that domestic abuse is pretty much akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has been living for two years under the guise of Marcy May in a commune somewhere. She’s not sure where exactly but she thinks it’s in New York state. We see her running away from it at the beginning of the film. She’s hiding, trembling, clearly afraid, being approached by a man. Recognised, paralysed, then relieved when he doesn’t make her go back – she telephones her sister, who comes to collect her, marking the beginning of Martha’s return to society.

If you’ve ever found yourself living in fear, you might relate to her plight. All she can do is run from the commune, from the brainwashed state, but by starting the process of running away she has also started the process of confronting herself, having to figure out and cope with whatever it was that made her so compatible to this damaging relationship with a cult. She has to work out what segments of her personality are actualised from other people’s values, what parts of herself originate in her own beliefs, like any broken relationship. Only this was a prolonged disfunctional affair with a whole group of people – influenced by the presence of a leader whose power was continually reinforced by their agreement – where she found comfort in losing individuality, losing a sense of identity. But where was the security among that? Where was Martha?

A psychoanalyst once told me that he didn’t think the nuclear family is the ideal state for raising offspring. The appeal of a cult is that as human beings we’re driven towards groups, yet we also need leadership and someone or something to direct us. Otherwise we’re faced with fear of ourselves, disorder, inertia. Being in an individual state, instead of being led, is a frightening state. Martha has found the courage to leave and look her fear of being an individual in the eye. But back in the big bad world she is juxaposed against a background of ‘normal’ and starts to behave like a confused chameleon who has lost its ability to transform the pattern of its skin in order to go unnoticed. She cannot adjust.

Still shrouded in paralyzing fear, she hallucinates, she is trapped in memory, strung out like a fly lured into a web designed by a pain that she has not yet begun to elaborate upon or understand. We learn that when her mother died, her sister and aunt became her only family. We learn of the domination of the cult by the leader, Patrick, drugging the new girls and then ‘cleansing’ them with his cock, at first unacceptable but then her roommate tells her ‘you’re lucky,’ which sparks a path of internalisation. Eventually Martha herself is delivering girls to Patrick’s door.

Out of the cult, at her sister’s retreat house, normal stuff like not getting into bed with two people when they are fucking, or drinking alcohol, or swimming naked, becomes such an intense challenge that Martha flips. She picks up the phone and calls the cult. An eerie girl’s voice answers. But even creepier is the moment she hangs up the phone. It rings right back. It serves as a reminder that you can take the girl out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of the girl.

And that’s how it is with domestic violence and psychologically abusive relationships. No matter how far removed you are, no matter if bruises have faded, it’s stepping back to examine more closely what occurs inside yourself, inside the relationship, so difficult to do, to turn what’s wrong on the outside inside out and cleanse yourself, lead and teach yourself while removed from the problem, while a long way away physically; self-perpetuating, still going through it, still working it through. For the cure to what’s wrong is the same as the poison already consumed.