Getting an ‘A’ for ambiguity

by Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

2 December 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene 

It’s no exaggeration to say people went nuts over Michael Haneke’s 2005 thriller, “Caché.” Steeped in paranoia and cloaked in enigma, the film centered on a Paris intellectual (Daniel Auteuil) whose life goes seriously out of whack when a videotape is delivered mysteriously to his door. And then another tape, and another. Someone has been watching, stalking, filming, plotting ...

But what really drove people nuts was Haneke’s ending: Majid’s son standing on the school building’s steps, talking to the kid while the credits roll! What’s going on here? Who was sending the tapes? Was anyone sending the tapes? Had it all been been some big, delusional, guilt-fueled dream? A sick joke?

Ambiguity with a capital A.

Sean Durkin, the writer and director of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” counts Haneke among his key influences (along with Robert Altman and Roman Polanski), and his amazingly accomplished first feature — naturalistic, nuanced, restrained — shows it. In theaters now, “Martha” et cetera stars Elizabeth Olsen as a vulnerable woman who flees a cultlike commune in the Catskills and seeks shelter, and support, with her sister and her sister’s husband in their lakeside Connecticut home. Durkin intercuts flashbacks and jolting reveries with the here-and-now in ways that leave the audience disoriented, uncertain — just as Martha is. She’s been shaken by trauma, scarred. She’s fragile, she’s broken.

After a scary, paranoid freakout at a party, Martha’s sister and brother-in-law decide she can no longer stay with them. They’re on their way to a facility, the three of them in a car, and Martha looks back. The brakes scream. A man in white, blurry but familiar somehow, climbs into a car and starts following behind them.

Cut to Martha. She looks around, and then looks back over her shoulder at the car. Is that panic in her eyes? Fade to black. Roll the credits.

Is the man from the cult? Does Martha know him? Or is he just a stranger whom the brother-in-law almost hits, by accident? Is it a portent of bad things to come, or just a happenstance?

Ambiguity with a capital A.

I can’t tell you how many e-mails, phone calls, and conversations I’ve had, people asking me to explain the ending, as if my interpretation is any more valid than theirs. (It’s not.) But people want resolution, they want things wrapped up neatly with a bow — it’s a natural urge, a need for symmetry and reason — and when it’s not forthcoming, it can be maddening.

Or inspiring.

There are two other epically disturbing films out right now — “Take Shelter,” from director Jeff Nichols, and “Melancholia,” from that famous troublemaker Lars von Trier — whose endings are arguably less ambiguous. (“Take Shelter’s” is open to debate.) But like “Martha,” they both explore the mindscapes and emotional terrain of deeply troubled souls.

In “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon plays a blue-collar Midwestern family man who becomes spooked by apocalyptic visions and nightmares; he is sure something terrible, something cataclysmic, is about to happen. His friends, and his wife (Jessica Chastain), look at him with mounting worry. Shannon’s Curtis is losing his marbles, big time.

Or is he?

And in “Melancholia,” the irony is that Kirsten Dunst’s character, Justine — depressed, distant, a bride who wanders out from her wedding reception to have sex with a virtual stranger — is the one who gains a semblance of control and clarity, while the more grounded and ostensibly normal people around her start losing it. Big time.

Why? A new planet has appeared in the sky, and as it looms closer and closer to Earth in the weeks after the nuptials, there are scientists who predict it will pass by, but others who are forecasting the end. Dread and doom fill the fancy castle where Justine’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her family live.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Take Shelter”and “Melancholia,” different though they are in style and sensibility, all reflect the profound sense of unease and anxiety permeating the land, the planet, right now. Financial crises. Government paralysis. Revolution. Terrorism. Global warming. Droughts. Floods. Occupiers. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries ... What’s going to happen to us?

In von Trier’s film — and this is a SPOILER, I guess — it all does come to a fiery finish. There’s no ambiguity in that climactic image of Dunst’s Justine, Gainsbourg’s Claire and her little boy huddled together beneath a magic, makeshift “cave” outside on a green hill, as two planets collide and everything blows up into nothingness, into smithereens.

Take that, Michael Haneke. Take that, Sean Durkin.

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