When we hear the term “cult film,” the first thing that comes to mind is something along the lines of an old John Waters film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, or perhaps the quintessential cult film Rocky Horror Picture Show. So when we hear that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a “cult film,” the first question we may ask is, “Do I have to stay up until midnight to see it?” and/or “What did I do with those old fishnet stockings?”
Martha et al., however, is not that kind of cult film but is instead a film abouta cult—and, rather than midnight, it will be screened at the Saratoga Film Forum Thursday and Friday, January 19th and 20th, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, January 22nd at 3:00 p.m.
Films about cults are surprisingly few and far between, at least beyond those TV “movie of the week” tales common in the 1970s and 80s about brainwashing and deprogramming. Dramatically, 1981’s Ticket to Heaven was the product of a late 70s/early 80s “cult mania” as the Moonies, Guyana, and others were in the news at the time, while 1999’s Holy Smoke!(starring Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet) takes a more Eastern route.
Martha et al. takes a different approach, and becomes much more of a psychological—perhaps even existential—thriller than a cautionary tale about brainwashing. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen) stars as all three title characters: her proper name is “Martha,” while “Marcy May” is the name bestowed upon her by the leader of the cult she has found herself a member of, and “Marlene” is the generic name all the women use when they answer the phone. So right off the bat you can see there’s a bit of an identity crisis in the making.
Martha was led to join the cult—which is based in the Catskills—because of things that had gone wrong in her earlier life, although we don’t really know a great deal about what those things might have been. All the women in the cult are damaged psychologically in some way, and those kinds of damages are often what lead people to join cults.
The other thing that lures impressionable people—particularly young people—into cults is a charismatic leader. Let’s face it, few cults would be successful if they were run by complete shlumps. So Patrick (John Hawkes) is the charming Svengali, playing the guitar, extolling a seemingly appealing countercultural philosophy, and knows how to push all the right buttons of impressionable young girls (and a few boys).
We only see the workings of the cult in retrospect, and in pieces. Martha has escaped the cult and fled to the home of her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). It’s not the most comfortable of reunions, especially since Martha is silent on where she had been and what she had been doing; for all Lucy and Ted know, she just ran away from a boyfriend. However, as she readjusts to living with Lucy and Ted, she has flashbacks to her life in the cult, triggered by everyday activities. Her experience of cult life was at such an impressionable age, she is now unsure how “normal” people behave. To wit: in the cult, sex was a communal activity, and at one point Martha freaks out Lucy and Ted by, um, joining them. Awkward, to say the least.
Martha Marcy May Marleneis the sister film (so to speak) of director Sean Durkin’s 2010 short film “Mary Last Seen” which, like Martha et al., also played Sundance and Cannes. The two stories, while related, evolved together. Said the press notes for the Cannes screening of Martha et al. (via In Contention.com):
The script for MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE took time to evolve. “I started in 2007 and was writing for a couple of years before we started to think about making it. It takes place in the summer and we wanted to shoot it in New York, so we had a three to four-month window. We tried to get it going in 2009 and the script wasn’t quite right. I had never done anything as a director to show people, either. I’d made a student short but it wasn’t something I wanted to show people since it wasn’t representative of what the feature film would be.”
Durkin decided to shoot a short instead that summer, MARY LAST SEEN, casting actor Brady Corbet in a role that he would reprise for the feature film, as a cult member who becomes Martha’s boyfriend. “I wanted to direct a short that was related,” recalls Durkin, “but I didn’t want it to be about Martha. I had all this rich material about how people get involved in cults, but that’s not what the script was about. I knew Brady Corbet was going to be playing Watts [in the feature] and wanted to do something with him as the same character. That’s where the short came from.
What makes people join cults and, perhaps more importantly, why do they (usually) stay, often to live in ways that are at odds with conventional morality—or even legality? Why do cult members give themselves over so willingly to their leaders (if Jim Jones comes to mind, well, he should)? I have never been a member of a cult, so it is only through movies such as Martha Marcy May Marlenethat I can get some idea. But as unusual (or horrific) the cult’s actions may seem to us as outsiders, think about how our normal activities may seem to someone who has been so conditioned by a cult. What is “normal” anyway?