Cults, it seems, have made a comeback these last couple of years: after Martha Marcy May Marlene got Elizabeth Olsen some under-the-radar awards buzz last year, 2012 sees the high-profile release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, his first since instant classic There Will Be Blood came out in 2007. In the same vein is the smaller-sized Sound Of My Voice, an indy co-written by rising star Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij that premiered at SXSW. Like Martha Marcy, it’s driven by the charisma of its cult leader (John Hawkes in Martha, Marling here) and by its spinning top of an ending. With these movies, as with the cults that they emulate, success is a game of teasing and ambiguity, giving you just enough to begin to believe but not so much that your doubts are assuaged.
Shame has been making waves ever since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, mostly for its insistence on raw sexual honesty, if ‘honesty’ is taken to mean ‘nudity.’ I’m not sure, though, that its NC-17 rating is anything other than a way to draw attention. Could this movie have been made without showing us Michael Fassbender’s penis? Frankly, yes. Though given that Shame is an exploration of sex addiction, McQueen may have known he was going to get slapped with the NC-17 anyways and figured he might as well get his money’s worth.
Regardless: the movie follows Michael Fassbender’s Brandon, a thirtysomething New Yorker working in a generic job at a nameless Manhattan corporation; Brandon attends meetings in glass-walled conference rooms where borderline-businessy terms are bandied about. Brandon’s focus in these meetings, though, is scoping out his attractive co-workers, and he spends his days at work seeking titillation via online pornography and masturbating in the bathroom. His life away from work is much the same, a succession of partners picked up in bars, prostitutes called in, porn and video chatting when neither of those is available.
The arrival of Brandon’s sister for an extended visit makes this lifestyle more complicated, and prompts some sort of existential crisis: Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, is Brandon’s mirror image, mildly promiscuous but ultimately more grasping for affection and emotional connection. There is some unnamed trauma in their lives, hinted at in dialogue and through their behaviors, though we know nothing about their pasts except that they are from somewhere in New Jersey. Sissy, McQueen seems to suggest, demands affection to fill some void within herself. Brandon has that same void, but his solution is to distance himself from emotion and connection completely: sex is a form of alienation, and an exercise in self-loathing, a way of reducing both himself and his partners to their most objectified states. This is not pleasure but self-abuse, in every sense of the term; never has sex been made so clinical, or so repulsive.
This would all be more powerful if there were any specificity to it whatsoever, but — as in the psychological traumas explored in a different way in Martha Marcy May Marlene — the characters remain cyphers from beginning to end. Indeed, everything in this film has been reduced to a template: we don’t know what Brandon’s job is or what his history is, while his apartment is spartan and bare, empty but for his piles of porn magazines, an old record player, and a bookcase full of albums. We learn a bit more about Sissy — she is a singer, she doesn’t know how to drive, she has lived in Los Angeles for some period of time, she likes vintage clothing — but these tidbits tell us nothing about how she has become who she is.
McQueen, I am sure, would argue that there is no need for any of this, that what matters is the relationship between his characters and the pain that they undeniably feel. Yet it is precisely the relationship between Sissy and Brandon that is so opaque, and that should motivate any power that the film is to have. Their pain, we are led to believe, is the same, and this fact defines both their relationship and their compulsions. But no pain or person or relationship exists apart from its own history. We understand that their is some trauma, that, as the title suggests, Brandon and Sissy are defined by their shame, that somehow this shame is the source of the crisis that will come over both of them by the movie’s end. Without knowing how or why, though, is it any surprise that this film left me cold? We are as alienated from Brandon as he is from everyone else. We see that he is in pain, but in an abstract, studied sort of way. Any sympathy we have is distant and impersonal.
There is something here, something primal, that McQueen is trying to get at. Nonetheless, shame, his declared subject, is the most visceral, ugly, devastating emotion of them all. Alienation is a logical solution, and the one that Brandon adopts. In leaving his audience equally removed, though, McQueen denies us the opportunity to feel, as well as see, Brandon’s pain. To me, that means that it only accomplishes half of what it needs to.
CORRECTION, 12/13, 2:45PM: In the original posting of this review I referred to the Carey Mulligan character as ‘Marianne,’ which one disgruntled reader rightly pointed out was in fact the name of the film’s other speaking female character. The character’s correct name is ‘Sissy,’ as it now appears in the review.
The narrative that Fox Searchlight has fashioned for Martha Marcy May Marlene is that it’s a ‘star-is-born’ vehicle for Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley. That makes sense in the grueling in-or-out fall movie season, where everything is either some sort of Oscar contender or falls totally off the radar; FS is doubtless looking to secure a Best Actress nomination for Olsen to propel the movie’s box office performance in the same way that Charlize Theron did for niche crime drama Monster back in 2003. Still, it has the unfortunate effect of obscuring what the movie is actually about. Based on the alliterative title, I settled in expecting some kind of souped-up Jennifer Aniston comedy.
As it turns out, Martha Marcy May Marlene is preciously short on comedy. Olsen plays a young woman who variously goes by all the names in the title. Martha is her birth name, the one she is known by to her sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband Ted. The other two (‘Marcy May’ being a single name) are given to her by a cult she has become involved in, and which we see her escape from at the beginning of the film. After that escape, Martha goes to live with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s new husband.
Unfortunately, it is easier for Martha to leave the cult behind than the figurative scars it has given her. The film moves back and forth between her time with her sister and her time in the cult, employing match cuts to keep us guessing as to where we are narratively and to suggest Martha’s confusion on the same question. She clearly fears and reviles the cult, which uses rape as its initiation ritual and which is entirely subject to its leader, a slight but menacing man named Patrick. At the same time, she has trouble escaping the norms that it has given her over the course of her two years in its clutches. At one point, she wanders into Lucy’s room while her sister is having sex with her husband; at another point she decries Ted’s attachment to material possessions as “not the way to live.” When Ted challenges her to tell him what is the right way to live, though, she has no answer. All the while, Martha slips deeper and deeper into a paranoid terror that the ‘Michaels’ — the name that the male members of the cult adopt when they answer the phone; the women call themselves the titular ‘Marlene’ — know where she is and are looking for her. We’re never quite sure whether she’s right or whether she’s imagining it all, which allows the movie to end on a note of unresolved menace.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is at its best, I think, when read as an exploration of psychological misshaping, of how those experiences that we seek to escape still affect the way we act and respond. (The Debt had a similar theme, though I think MMMM is more successful.) That also throws light on just what people have found so astonishing about Olsen’s work. We have to believe in Martha as a single character even as she goes through an astonishing set of transformations, from wide-eyed innocent to cult member to damaged sister to unstable paranoiac. Strangely, making Olsen’s performance the center of the movie’s appeal makes it hard to appreciate that performance, because one is so busy trying to decide whether or not she lives up to the hype to see how her acting makes the movie tick. It also undersells a performance that I actually enjoyed more, in John Hawkes’s quietly steely, charismatic portrayal of cult leader Patrick.
In any case, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a triumph for Olsen, because she’s good, yes, though also because everyone is falling over themselves to anoint her a star. Still, I’m not sure how far that goes. I keep trying to say more and finding that I have little to say; there is something opaque here, something that defies analysis, and I suspect that that thing is Martha. We never really know who she is, only how she reacts; we know there are some family issues in her past, but they are never specified. But who is the ‘original’ Martha? And isn’t that the missing piece to the puzzle that this movie presents us with? Without ever really knowing where she starts, it’s hard to decide what it means that she ends up the way she does.