“Woman as victim” is so much a trope of modern cinema that it’s barely worth pointing out: it’s an oxymoron. When it comes to the stories meant to entertain us, Woman = Victim (read: powerless, weak, and abused) so often that it’s only notable when this is not the case. Women are presented in such a wide range of victimhood, from a sexless and lonely “victim” of a high-powered career in a rom-com to a physically brutalized survivor (or not) of violence in a drama to the physically brutalized collateral damage that inspires a man to respond in an action flick. This is often the case even when women are the central characters we’re meant to identify with, as if we couldn’t possibly imagine a woman who isn’t suffering, wounded, and in need of rescuing. (Contrast with how male characters can be on the receiving end of violence or can be flawed in manners of their own making without being denigrated as helpless “victims.”)
It takes an extraordinary film to turn the notion of woman-as-victim on its head… and an even more extraordinary film if it does posit as its central conceit that its protagonist has unquestionably been victimized. One huge difference that makes Martha Marcy May Marlene stand out: the protagonist here is not a pawn in a man’s story, is not pitied by the filmmaker, is not denied her full range of human dimensions — up to and including her rage at those who have mistreated her, and her right to fight back against those who would abuse her — and is not at the mercy, when we finally meet her, of her wounds, though they do cut her deeply. She is fighting those wounds.
If there were more movies about people — men and women — coping, actually coping, with the aftermath of cruelty done to them, it would hardly be a thing to highlight. But it’s the rarity of what Martha attempts — and succeeds wildly at — that makes it so enormously satisfying, if disconcerting. It takes back the idea of survival as a struggle that one must fight for oneself. There is no easy rescue here. There is no revenge.
We’re not even sure, when we first meet Martha, if she is a victim, or what has may have happened to her. Something is clearly wrong with her, though. Something is making her jumpy and evasive and skittish as a kitten. Screenwriter-director Sean Durkin, making his feature debut, walks a marvelous line here in playing with our expectations of cinema’s Pretty Young Victim: Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the famous twins, and making her own very auspicious feature debut) is young, submissive, luscious, the very picture of what we’re used to seeing women look like onscreen — she is, on the surface and at first glance, kittenish. This is misdirection. Our movie-fueled ideas about women-as-victims are about to get a jolt: this is what victimhood really looks like. It is not sexy. It is scary and demeaning.
For Martha’s submissiveness instantly takes on an uncomfortable angle: we see that she’s living on some sort of rural commune, cut off from the outside world, and here she is cooking and serving food to men while she (and a passel of other equally submissive young women) stands aside and let the men eat first. This is not a “normal” sort of passivity. It’s weird and creepy.
So our sympathies are automatically with Martha as she runs. Something is powerfully wrong with her situation, though we will not come to fully appreciate the scope of it for a long while, and she recognizes this, at least on some level. More intimately, we see how Martha reacts to finding herself outside the weird, creepy situation, which had become normal to her and now informs every way she interacts with the world.
She calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson: The Spirit, Serenity), which is clearly a difficult thing for her to do, and asks for help. (She asks for help. In another film, this might be a sign of weakness. Here, it’s an indication of strength.) Yet she has been so inculcated into the aberrant lifestyle of her commune that she now behaves very inappropriately around Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy: Adam, The Jane Austen Book Club), without even realizing that’s what she’s doing. It’s distressing for us, too, because we’re not always sure how to take her behavior. Is she just a selfish jerk? How patient should we be with her?
Alternating flashbacks to Martha’s life on the commune — led by a palpably sinister and mesmerizing Patrick (the always amazing John Hawkes: Contagion, Miracle at St. Anna) — and her attempts to reconnect with her sister and the outside world, Durkin crafts a slowly but inexorably escalating sense of the harrowing: what looked at first like escape gradually reveals itself to be yet another sort of prison. Martha’s psychological condition is so self-protective — which is what one would expect from an otherwise healthy psyche — that she does not present herself as a victim needing anything more than some hugs and a few good nights’ sleep… and so Lucy and Ted are confused and upset by her, and later infuriated. As we learn more about the subtle depersonalization Martha was subjected to at the commune, and the dependency that was programmed into her, we begin to see that she is having trouble breaking free of that, to the point of a paranoia that infects us as well. We’re never quite certain if some of the things happening around Martha are real or imaginary, or perhaps somewhere in between as the fear tinges actual events.
The paranoia and the depersonalization are inherent in the title of the film: Patrick, we discover, had gently and seductively insisted that Martha looked like a Martha May, and so that’s what he called her; “Marlene” is the name all the women at the commune were instructed to use when answering the telephone. As the film both opens and closes, Martha is still Martha Marcy May Marlene. She is simultaneously herself and others’ ideas of who she should be. She is still looking over her shoulder, both figuratively and literally, at the life she left but hasn’t yet figured out how to leave behind. We never know if she will make it. The final shot of the film is hugely disturbing in what it says about the very long and undefined road Martha has in front of her.
That may be the most compelling and original aspect of Martha Marcy May Marlene: it reclaims surviving as a process, not a plotpoint, and one with no clearly demarcated finish line. And it retrieves the personhood and the agency of the victim, especially the female cinematic victim, as an active participant in her own life.
viewed during the 55th BFI London Film Festival