Where do flashbacks come from? Who delivers the flashback to the audience? Is it the same authorial power which delivers the present tense narrative to the audience? And who is privy to the flashback? If the flashback occurs in the mind of a present character, should the flashback be trusted less than the objectively rendered present?
Is the author free to move between the past and the present without warrant and simply by whim? And if not, on what grounds does the omniscient author move into the past? What in the present narrative fairly prompts a move into the past? Human beings tend to be reserved with personal information; we do not quickly divulge our back stories. Does the flashback not unfairly, overly quickly blab the discreet histories of characters who are properly reluctant to speak? Does the flashback not overplay the omniscience of the omniscient narrator?
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a dark tutorial on the metaphysics of the flashback. First time director Sean Durkin splits his time between a couple weeks in the present and a couple years in the past. In the past, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) gets pulled into a New Age agrarian cult of Aphrodite and spends a couple laid back, crunchy free love summers on an upstate New York farm. In the present, Martha escapes said cult and goes to live with Lucy and Ted, her lately married sister and brother-in-law, in a palatial weekend home by the lake in Connecticut. The film moves with an eerie smoothness between the two worlds, two times.
Durkin is patient, so our realization that the sanctuary her sister offers bears striking similarities to the sex ‘n farm cult occurs slowly. At first those similarities might be accidental. Martha is delivered to the farm in an SUV, Lucy rescues her from the farm in an SUV. We see Martha swimming with her fellow devotees, we see her swimming in the lake at Lucy and Ted’s. As we round the corner of the third act, a more significant likeness is formed between the two. While the cultists seem naïve in their unquestioning adherence to a charismatic, David Koresh-like leader, Ted is both baffled and infuriated when Martha asks him why anyone needs to have a career. Ted has his own naïve, unquestioned dogmas. The cultists are simpletons who have been taught to ask vexingly simple questions about social orthodoxies, although they don’t seem to have ever asked a genuinely pious or clever person their questions. Durkin never forthrightly declares that members of a cult are daft, although he suggests cult leaders empower followers by teaching them to ask questions which “no one” can answer (flat earth societies and vapor trail conspiracies are similarly abled; the average episode of Coast to Coast AM is a crash course on how to ask such “unanswerable” questions; I refer to nothing more sophisticated than, say, the theological version of “Why do we park on driveways and drive on parkways?”). While Lucy and Ted maintain “normal” lives, Durkin often shows them to have arbitrarily chosen their big house in the middle of nowhere against Martha’s former big house in the middle of nowhere.
Elsewhere, Lucy and Ted make love in their own bedroom in the middle of the night and Martha comes in silently without knocking and gets into bed with them, surprising Lucy when the two accidentally touch. Later, Martha wets the bed, has no sense of shame about her own nakedness, and throws a tantrum at a dinner party. In short, she behaves like a child. When Lucy tepidly asks Martha a few times where she has been for the last two years, and whether anyone has hurt her during the two years she was off the map, Martha gives evasive answers which Lucy is pathetically willing to accept. In their final confrontation, Martha tells Lucy she will make a terrible mother; the comment is born out of Martha’s own experience. She has sought her sister as a surrogate mother, and that “mother” has failed to recognize her for a child. Nearly every scene in the film either begins with Martha waking from sleep or ends with her laying down to sleep. When she wakes from sleep, she is disturbed by something without. When she goes to sleep, she is simply at a loss for how to respond to the world. She sleeps in protest.
The flashbacks often begin so tightly centered on Martha that we don’t know whether she is at the cultist’s farm or her sister’s place. Durkin disorients us and many scenes begin with the viewer asking, “Where am I?” At his best, Durkin is able to tease us along for several moments before revealing the setting. In this, the narrative eye maintains a coy naiveté, as though the narrator doesn’t know why we can’t figure out where we are… or else the narrator doesn’t believe it makes a difference where we are. The flashbacks are thus not presented as radical, chronological departures from the present narrative, but understandable digressions from a less than coherent narrator. The narrator keeps slipping into the past as though by mistake. Durkin never suggests that Martha remembers the farm better than it was, or worse. Martha’s grasp on life at the farm is more secure than her grasp on life outside the farm. While at the farm, she feels guilt over her complicit involvement in a murder; murder jars with the simplicity and domesticity of her gardening and swimming and laundry and cooking. Outside the farm, morality become vacuous. The manners demanded by her sister don’t have natural, self-evident corollaries with her day-to-day pattern of life. In other words, while life in a neo-pagan sex cult involves occasional bursts of stomach turning violence, at least it’s an ethos.
Durkin resists making hasty accusations against mediocre marriages, though. As Ted and Lucy drive Martha to an asylum in the end, a figure in an SUV begins following them close behind. Martha looks back nervously— although is she nervous the figure is someone from upstate New York come to track her down and gather her back to the fold, or is she nervous it’s not? For all their faults, and whether they know it or not, Ted and Lucy are trying to save Martha from a life of rape and murder. The old institutions of society, through some hidden and ineffable power of their own, can rescue man from the illusions of freedom which always come in the Satanic temptation. That Martha faults her boring, credulous relatives for being unable to articulate how those institutions do so actually makes her more of a rationalist than a starry-eyed idealist.