Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (directed by Sean Durkin)


Martha Marcy May Marlene was, for me, one of the most surprising films of 2011.  I wasn’t expecting much when I went to see it because so much of the film’s publicity centered on the fact that it starred Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of the Olsen Twins.  Needless to say, we don’t usually associate the Olsen Twins with challenging and mature filmmaking and, even though they had nothing to do with Martha Marcy May Marlene, it was impossible to read or hear about the film without them being mentioned.  For a lot of people, this led to Martha Marcy May Marlene being dismissed by association.  That’s really not fair to the film or Elizabeth Olsen (or the Olsen Twins, for that matter).  Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting and disturbing little psychological thriller and one of the best films of 2011.

Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who, one day, shows up at the home of her older sister and her husband (played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy).  Though the film never gets into the specific details, it becomes apparent that Paulson and Olsen are the products of a dysfunctional background.  Olsen escaped by running away from home while Paulson found her exit by marrying the rather arrogant Dancy.  Hoping to repair their own strained relationship, Paulson agrees to let Olsen stay with them, despite both the objections of Dancy and Olsen’s refusal to say where she’s been.  No sooner has Olsen moved in then it starts to become apparent that she’s not the same person that Paulson remembers. When Paulson asks Olsen if she wants to take a swim in the nearby lake, Olsen responds by stripping off her clothes in front of Dancy and when Paulson and Dancy are trying to conceive their first child, Olsen sees nothing wrong with casually walking into the room and laying down on the bed beside them.  More ominously, Olsen soon reveals herself to be paranoid of strangers.  As Paulson struggles to understand her sister, we see flashbacks of a much more open (and trusting) Olsen joining a cult-like group, led by a magnetic John Hawkes.

Director Sean Durkin makes an assured debut with this film, subtly shifting between the present and the past and filling the screen with beautifully placid images that somehow manage to leave the audience with an unshakeable sense of menace and foreboding.  As a storyteller, Durkin keeps the audience guessing and wondering about both who Martha once was, who she eventually became, and who she’s going to be in the future.  Wisely Durkin doesn’t provide any easy solutions as much as he poses questions and then suggests a possible answer. 

If you’re like and you’re a true crime and/or exploitation junkie (I’m both), you’ll realize immediately that the character played by John Hawkes is pretty blatantly based on Charles Manson and his followers are the equivalent of Manson’s “family.”  What’s interesting is how Hawkes manages to keep his character both threatening and intriguing even after this become apparent.  Hawkes radiates such charisma in the beginning of the film that the scenes where he eventually reveals his true colors are shocking, despite the fact that you know they’re coming.  It’s a performance that proves that Hawkes is one of the best character actors working today and Durkin skillfully contrasts Hawkes’s more subtle form of domination with Hugh Dancy’s more obvious technique with the film ultimately suggesting that both of these patriarchal characters are just two sides of the same coin.

Ultimately, though, the film is dominated by Elizabeth Olsen who gives a performance that is simply brilliant.  Alternatively innocent and calculating, Martha is a fascinating character and Olsen brings her to haunting life.  As a result of Olsen’s brave performance, Martha Marcy May Marlene joins with Hanna and Shame as a great modern film about the search for identity.  This has been a year full of strong female performances and Olsen gives one of the strongest.  The next time some shyster tries to sell you on the idea that Rooney Mara is the actress of the future, tell them to go see Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Quick Review: A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)


Elevated by a brilliant screenplay and some of the year’s best performances, the Iranian “A Separation” is a compelling and complex examination of cultural barriers, religious conflict, and responsibility all set within a simple domestic drama.

   

It focuses on a married couple, Nader (Payman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who start the film off in front of a judge. Simin wants a divorce because Nader will not leave the country for Europe with her. She wants a better life for her daughter Termeh, but he cannot leave his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. When Simin goes to live with her parents out of anger over Nader’s refusal to leave, Nader hires a housemaid, Razieh, to help out around the house and take care of his sick father when he is at work. She is deeply religious and pregnant, though not many know, and when her duties begin to conflict with her religious beliefs she quits though offers her husband Hodjat to take over. He is deeply in debt and constantly abused by creditors. Razieh does not want him to know she has been working for Nader, but when Hodjat misses his first day she steps in. Unfortunately complications arise that result in a messy situation with Nader’s father, causing him to get angry and all the tension that had been boil between them all erupts with tragic results. They all find themselves in the middle of a legal dispute, with both sides making accusations even though they have secrets that could destroy their cases and families. During all this director Asghar Farhadi refuses to take sides, and instead focuses on the internal moral struggles of all parties affected by issues often not within their control; while also making these cultural, judicial and religious dilemmas, although set in Iran, feel universal.

What is truly remarkable is how he holds all these layers together with intricate but not blatantly obvious details put into the exposition. Asghar Farhadi’s handling of at times controversial subjects and the characters involved results in a fluid and consistently absorbing story from start to finish. Add onto that some of the more destructive yet quiet, emotional but subtle and complicated performances of the year and you get a film that cannot be ignored. A definite must see.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Melancholia (dir. by Lars Von Trier)


Let us take a moment to consider the career of film director Lars Von Trier.  Is Von Trier a visionary?  Is he a genius?  Is he an artist who forces us to look at the world in a different way?  Is he one of the major voices working in the world of cinema today?  Or is he just full of crap?  This is the debate that always seems to come up whenever one talks about Lars Von Trier and a pretty good case can be made that the man is both a genius and an idiot, an artist and a charlatan.  How, we ask ourselves, do we reconcile the fact that this man who has directed so many memorable films is also the same man who goes to Cannes and hints that he might be sympathetic to Hitler.  As a result, Von Trier’s films seem to act as both aesthetic statements and as evidence in the never-ending trial to determine whether or not Lars Von Trier is worth all the trouble.  Melancholia — which is currently both playing at theaters and available OnDemand — is the latest exhibit in a long trial.

Melancholia is both the story of the relationship of two sisters (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, who deservedly won best actress at Cannes for her performance here) and the story of what happens when a new planet called Melancholia appears in the sky and then promptly starts to move closer to the Earth.

The film is divided into two parts.  The first part takes place over the course of one long night.  Justine (Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard who looks so amazing in a tux) attend a wedding reception at a mansion owned by Justine sister Clare (Gainsbourg) and Clare’s well-meaning but condescending husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).  While Justine and Michael, at first, appear to be the perfect couple, it slowly becomes apparent that the truth is far more complex.  The first part of the film takes its time establishing the characters and how they relate to each other but it never drags, largely because of the chemistry between Dunst and Skarsgard but also because Von Trier proves himself to be far more subtle director here than he’s usually given credit for being.  The first half of the film is full of details — some small and some not — that make us believe that these very familiar actors actually are the characters that they are portraying.  While Von Trier never explicitly show us what’s at the heart of Skarsgard and Dunst’s trouble relationship, he includes enough details that we, as the viewer, can figure it out.  Under Von Trier’s skilled direction, even such little things as Dunst’s constant struggle to keep her dress up take on an added and poignant significance.

In the second half of the film, a depressed Dunst is now living in the mansion with Gainsbourgh and Sutherland.  Despite the fact that Dunst is nearly catatonic, Sutherland has little sympathy for her and makes no secret of the fact that he’s not happy to have her living in his home.  However, things change rather quickly once it is learned that the new planet Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth.  While Sutherland insists that the two planets will not actually collide and Gainsbourgh panics, Dunst starts to find herself oddly rejuvenated by the prospect that the world might end…

If you were dismissive of Von Trier before this movie came out, I doubt watching Melancholia will change your mind.  In many ways, this film epitomizes everything that people tend to hate about his movies.  However, I loved Melancholia.  Visually, it’s beautiful and the film student in me loved the film simply for the many homages to Last Year at Marienbad.  Von Trier gets excellent performance from the entire cast but really, this is Kristen Dunst’s film and she proves that she’s capable of a lot more than just being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  Speaking of someone who has battled depression all of her life, I have to say that Dunst gets it right, capturing not only the pain of permanent sadness but also the odd moments of clarity that seem to come with it.  Finally, this is a unique film and it’s unique because Von Trier is a director that’s not afraid to be an egocentric asshole when it comes to telling the story that he wants to tell. 

I could spend hours debating what exactly Melancholia means and I’d probably change my mind several times during the conversation.  However, one thing is for sure: Melancholia is one of the best of films of 2011.