Matchup of the Day: Martha Marcy May Marlene vs. Safe
Today we have two films about women who join cults – Martha Marcy May Marlene vs. Safe
In the New York Times review of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the author compares it to Safe, saying both films are “in part, a psychological case study of someone whose inner life is permanently out of reach, if it even exists at all”. Julianne Moore’s character, Carol, in Safe, is a housewife who leads a mundane and unfulfilling existence. She appears to be going through the motions of performing her domestic duties with few interests or desires of her own. Her husband shows little awareness of her needs. Carol eventually starts showing symptoms of an illness that neither her doctor or psychiatrist can explain. Carol’s health worsens when she sees a flyer at the health club that suggests that her symptoms are being caused by contaminants in the environment. She becomes allergic to makeup, her new couch and pretty much everything else she comes into contact with in her day to day life. Carol ends up living at the compound of a self-help cult with other people who suffer the same malady.
The film never totally makes clear how much of Carol’s illness is in her head and how much is actually caused by the environment. Because the first hour is spent establishing how empty her existence is, it could be argued that the sickness is her way of taking control of her life. It gives her an identity and a purpose. The director, Todd Haynes, has said that Carol’s illness serves to open up her eyes to the problems in her life. For a time, her stay with the cult gives her a sense of belonging. But, according to Haynes, the cult just turns out to be another prison. A rambling birthday speech Carol gives toward the end indicates just how confused and out of place she is.
Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a young woman with a troubled past that is not made entirely clear. At the beginning of the film, she is shown fleeing the cult she belongs to. She calls her sister, who she has not spoken to for two years, to come pick her up. Throughout the movie flashbacks gradually reveal that the cult engaged in sexual abuse and criminal violence. Martha is psychologically scarred and unstable due to the experience, which causes her to behave strangely. Her sister’s husband resents Martha for disrupting their affluent tranquility. In some ways, Martha feels less sat home with her real family than with the cult. This also seems to be the case with Carol in Safe.
The film’s title refers to the Martha’s real name and the names she was given as a member of the cult. Like Carol, Martha is not really sure of who she is. The endings of the two films are both vague as to what will happen next. With Safe, the implication is that Carol achieves a false sense of self-actualization and is no better off than before. Martha’s erratic behavior causes her sister to decide to send her away for treatment. The final scenes in Martha could mean that she is becoming more unstable, or that her involvement with the cult is not over. In either case, her life has not improved.