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Probably not the smartest choice for a Christmas movie

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I could definitely have picked a better get-the-whole-family-together movie for Christmas than Martha Marcy May Marlene. It wasn’t as if there was any lack of alternatives. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the new Sherlock Holmes film would surely have entertained everyone, including my teenage daughters and the accompanying boyfriend. But we went for the movies with the four M-names, which I’ll call it from now on (I’m afraid I’m incapable of learning those four names, no matter how I try), since it was the only one that we all could agree about, the girls thanks to the trailer, the parents because of the theme, the general buzz and the good reviews.

Throughout the showing I noticed the boyfriend changing position in his chair every 30 seconds or so and I took it as a bad sign. Admittedly the chairs are awful, at least compared to the ones I’ve tried in US and UK, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was more at play than sheer discomfort. He clearly spent more time watching my daughter than the screen. And as we walked towards the parking, everyone in my company but me was complaining loudly:

“I don’t like it to be so unclear”. “It only put questions, but we got no responses”. “What’s that with the ending, I didn’t get what that was about”. “It was so vague”. “She was just so ANNOYING. Why couldn’t she just tell what she’d been through?”

I said quietly: “I thought it was really good”, but decided not to argue further against them. If they’d made up their mind so firmly, it wasn’t likely that I could say anything to change their minds.

My company was annoyed by the elusive nature of MMMM, while I was rather stimulated by the same thing.

It could so easily have become yet another standard escape-and-recover-from-a-cult story.

There were quite a few of those some years ago. I can’t name any of them straight away, since the news, documentaries, novels and TV films melt together into a blur. But I think you remember. They contained the testimonies about the dreadful conditions at the cult, and you’d always meet ex-members who told about their escape or relatives who had kidnapped their daughters/sons, now restoring them back to sanity through deprogramming treatment.

MMMM while clearly showing how dreadful the existence in a cult can be and how damaged you get by it, doesn’t go the easy, dramatized, predictable, frequently threaded path. It requires the viewer to think, to embrace the silence and the long takes with very little action, to fill in the gaps and make her own conclusions.

Jumping back and forward in time we get to see how Martha (or Marcy May or Marlene as she’s also called, depending on the situation) becomes a member of a small following of a guru in the countryside, whose teachings we never get a full picture of. We get glimpses of the life she leads there; we see her transform into a full-fledged sect member who lures in new members and learn about an event which might have contributed to her decision to leave. As a parallel to this we see what happens in her relationship to her sister as she after two years of absence from the real world turns up at her place, since she has nowhere else to go.

It takes a while, but eventually it starts to dawn upon us that the experience has had so deep impact on Martha that her sense for reality has been damaged and she can’t distinguish what is real and what is a dream or imagination. Since we see everything through her eyes it also becomes harder for the watcher to figure out if the things you see actually take place in reality or are merely Martha’s hallucinations.

Ambiguous ending
I’d give my daughters right in that we don’t have that much to go on as we’re putting the story together, rearranging the fragments into a point A-point B timeline. There is no obvious explanation for why she joins the cult in the first place (apart from that she probably looks for a father figure and John Hawke’s character is charismatic and knows how to put the words right to snare a young woman.) Nor is it clear exactly how she takes the decision to leave it or why she’ can’t bring herself to inform her sister about the truth, apart from the general idea that she’s too damaged to be able to do even that. And the end is far from clear. If you truly hate movies with ambiguous endings, this one is probably not for you.

For my own part I thought it was surprisingly subtle, insightful and interesting, a fresh take on a topic that has been turned into movies before. It’s even more impressing that this is a debut movie that is made under the harsh conditions that the independent film making provide. (To get more details about this I can recommend listening to The Q&A podcast’s interview with the director (who also is the screenwriter) and the producers of the movie.)

But I’ll think twice before I’ll try to bring the entire family to this type of movie. Even Happy Feet 2 would probably have been a better choice to make everyone feel united in a state of Christmas movie happiness.

MMMM is something you probably better enjoy either in company with other film geeks or on your own.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, US, 2011) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

December 29, 2011 at 1:00 am