Martha Marcy May Marlene ****
Sean Durkin’s debut feature is a subtle and genuinely disturbing look at the effects of a cult on the mind of a young women (Elizabeth Olsen, in a genuinely amazing performance that, perhaps in another year, may have gotten an Oscar nomination).
Taking place in a present haunted by flashbacks, Martha (Olsen) tries to adjust to the normalcy of her sister’s household after spending two years in a rural cult ruled with loving menace by Patrick (John Hawkes). The cult’s methodology becomes more apparent over the course of the film, as does the obvious mental and emotional damage that has been wrought on Martha.
To say anything more of the plot would definitely be to the film’s detriment; what’s worth knowing if that this is an extremely accomplished work by someone who obviously has a lot invested in their subject matter (Durkin’s short film Mary Last Seen was shot at similar locations and involved a woman and a young man on their way to joining a cult; in essence it is the prequel to this feature). The cinematography is intimate and revealing, concentrating so intently on Olsen’s features that it would be impossible for her to get away with anything inauthentic in her portrayal, but there’s no fear of that: she never takes a wrong step, and Martha’s confusions are clear to us as they are desperately detrimental and terrifying to her.
Hawkes is in his usual, excellent form as the cult leader Patrick, and Sarah Paulson is very creditable in the difficult role of Martha’s sister Lucy. The Connecticut and upstate New York locations are well used, and the end result of the whole experience is very disturbing. You’d never call this a horror film; if you had to put a label on it, you’d probably reach for “psychological thriller”, but it’s powerfully original, and well worth seeing.
The Artist ***1/2
Now freely being regarded as the film to beat for Best Picture at the coming Oscars, Michel Hazanavicius’ silent film bears the heavy burden of hype pretty darn well. I can only imagine how delightful it must have appeared to those people who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival last year, especially those who, hopping from screening to screening, may have had no idea of what they were in for. The more surprising the film could be to a viewer, the more likely it would be that the result would be wonder and delight. As it is, if you haven’t seen the film by now, you’ll much more be likely wondering just how a silent film is going to keep you entertained for one hundred minutes than anything else.
The answer is with a simple storyline and extremely appealing performances. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo play a couple of film stars in the late 1920s, one whose star is falling with the advent of talking pictures, one whose star is rapidly rising. They sort of cross paths in the middle, and a long-simmering relationship develops – one that is fairytale sweet, with some classic bitter along the way. The premise has been seen before (most memorably in Singin’ In the Rain), but the telling of this story of silent to sound by using silence to sound is a clever one, and extremely well done. While not always aping the style of films from the period (there’s a tracking shot of a running dog that seems a little too advanced for the late twenties, and another, a reflecting shot of Dujardin, that simply hadn’t been done yet), it certainly evokes the style with great respect, down to the style of the acting (Missy Pyle and John Goodman in particular could have stepped right out of a 1928 “backstage” picture).
It’s really a director’s film, and Hazanavicius deserves all the accolades coming his way. He’s done something bold, and he’s pulled it off with aplomb and grace. If the slight story may not have worked in a more “modern” telling, it’s perfectly suited to the chosen form here – an occasion when style really does triumph over substance.