The Catskills. I think about that life sometimes. A life away from the city, out of suburbia, the kind of pastoral life I could find on a patch of land somewhere far from civilization. Anonymity but not the faceless anonymity of urban streets. No, I'd be tucked away somewhere, in a community, living day to day, doing simple tasks like cooking and cleaning and gardening. Quiet nights with guitar-playing and singing. Summer afternoons spent jumping into swimming hole with no clothes on, floating around in the water with other bodies feeling free and unhindered.
This picture of Arcadia is fully realized in Sean Durkin's movie Marcy May Martha Marlene. Every individual part of this Arcadia is present, yet there is something terribly wrong with this commune. At first, what we see of the commune seems merely outdated: the women are dressed in cloth-like sacks, the men in overalls; the house is dirty and wooden, and the women can eat only after the men finish doing so. But the gut feeling that there is something sick and twisted happening becomes increasingly palpable as the movie winds its way through what should be placid, bucolic images. You think to yourself that in theory, asceticism should be purifying, it should be peaceful, but what is asceticism that violates in the most terrifying, gruesome of ways? What is devotion if it it is disgusting and dignity-wrenching? And the quietness of the Catskills is haunting because you know it has the power to dwarf even the most curdling of screams - the scream that is the cry for help, the scream that devolves into a hellish gnawing.
That's what I felt during the entire movie - a hellish gnawing, brought about less by the explicit acts of sexual violence, more by the silent acceptance of it all, and mostly by the indelible nature of memory. Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who is also Marcy May (her name given to her by the leader of the cult-like commune) and sometimes Marlene (the name that must be given when answering the telephone in commune) escapes the cult life and winds up in the pristine lakeside house of her older sister Lucy, whom she hasn't seen in two years. However, Martha's physical escape precludes a true mental and emotional escape, and the movie is a series of scenes that flow seamlessly between the life she left behind and the life she is trying to adopt. Even her name changes from place to place (and in this movie, name signifies ownership), and her sense of self is lost somewhere between the two. How terrifying it is that the most ordinary activities and objects and sounds become nasty triggers for a past-life that was, on the surface, dream-like, and at its essence, nightmarish. Her paranoia feels like delicate glass that is about to crack, and she is always teetering on the edge of reality - mainly because the realities of her past and present are indiscernible. At one point in the movie, Martha asks Lucy, "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if something's a dream?"
The emotional narrative of the movie is complicated by both the juxtaposition of the grotesque and serene as well as the conflation of the two. It seems almost subversive that one can be injected into the other or pass from one to the other so breathlessly. Like cutting from a rape scene to one in which the rapist is singing a sweet folk song for the girl he raped. And how bodies can be so free and unhindered and be so dominated and tamed at the same time. Martha's transition away from the cult is difficult because her memories of the past two years are layered and complex, and there is no gauge for what is truly "normal" anymore - because even in the bourgeois comfort of the lake house, there is something so stifling and strange about "normal" life: the standards that govern propriety and behavior are in some ways more restrictive and narrow than those from her previous life, and so many of the quotidian rhythms: the house chores, the swimming, the gardening - those are all the same.
When you watch Marcy May Martha Marlene you are swept into both a landscape and a mindscape, the former so idyllic and picturesque, the latter so raw and unrefined. Interweaving the two together is unsettling; existing in both simultaneously is absolutely terrifying.
(*Elizabeth Olsen is absolutely magnetizing onscreen. The quiet, glazed-over countenance, the bottling of emotions that want so desperately to erupt, the way her body moves and hangs and flops, how her terror becomes your own - these are all thrilling and captivating.)