Friday, December 16, 2011
“Martha Marcy May Marlene”: What’s in a Name?
Martha is the Christian name of Elizabeth Olson’s title character. Marcy May is the name given her by the manipulative cult leader (John Hawkes), whose New Age hogwash allows him to control the minds of his minions and especially the bodies of the lost girls who find their way to his farm and into his clutches. Marlene is the name Martha / Marcy May is instructed to assume anytime she answers the phone in the farmhouse so as to maintain a cover for the cult.
The New Yorker’s rave review will tell you all you need to know about the quality of writer-director’s Sean Durkin’s 2011 Sundance Film Festival award-winner. It is amazingly well made: eerie, terrifying, as complex psychologically as it is precise in its details.
The official trailer of the film will get your guts churning.
As The New Yorker notes, this is a cult movie, not because it has an underground following like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Harold and Maude,” but because it’s about a cult.
But it is about something broader, it seems to me. Our names are our identity, our I, the ground of our being. Since the meteoric rise of cults, spiritual communities, and New Age philosophies in the 1960s, we have abandoned our Christian names, many of us literally. We have given up our ground.
I am now “free” to name myself, to define myself however it pleases me, and this sets me adrift, a prey equally to “benign” cultural currents and demonic cult leaders. If my name is up for grabs, if I am unsure who I am, then any magnetic man or movement can name me, make me, eviscerate me and use my flesh for his purposes. We can all be Nazis if we want.
There is only one song on the soundtrack of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” It is played on a guitar by the cult leader to the heroine on the morning after he has raped her for the first time. The central line of the lyric is, “She’s just a picture, that’s all.” As he sings, his latest victim looks up at him with adoring eyes.