Sonic/Temporal Ambiguity as Evidence of Psychosis in Martha Marcy May Marlene
“Where are we?”
“No. How far are we?”
Directed by Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) centers around the damaged psyche of Martha, portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen. Martha is a young woman who, through the time spent living as part of a small farm commune, has lost nearly all sense of boundaries…from social through temporal. I believe “nearly” is the appropriate term, because she leaves the commune in response to certain events. If she had lost all sense of boundaries, that probably would not have happened. Despite retaining this small level of faculty, Martha is lost. The five lines above this paragraph are a conversation between Martha and her sister, Lucy, from early in the film. In my opinion, this is possibly the most illuminating exchange that occurs in the entire piece. Martha wants a description of the distance she’s traveled from a temporal reference point. She spends the film slipping in and out of time and place, pulling the viewer into her fractured perspective of the world.
These time slips are made all the more effective through Coll Anderson’s sound design. The visual edit by Zachary Stuart-Pontier makes use of human perceptual idiosyncrasies to establish an opportunity, but it is the use of sound that draws the viewer into Martha’s flow. In her world, time is not linear…nor is it circular. For Martha, time simply is. The past and the present are concurrent, a state which increases her confusion, fear and paranoia as the film progresses. Let’s take a look at some of examples of how sonic elements help control the viewer’s perception of time.
Our first example picks up where the quoted conversation above leaves off. We hear the work of a person with a hammer a short distance off-screen…perfectly natural for the scene we are watching, and continues through the shot change. The next shot, however, does not take place in Connecticut; where she is staying with her sister. Martha is back on the farm in New York, sitting in the grass and holding a conversation with some of the other residents.
The temporal displacement is repeated at the end of this exchange. We hear a male voice from outside of the frame, “I’m going in. You wanna join?”
Martha responds in this scene from the past (New York), “Sure.”
She stands up, arriving back in the present (Connecticutt). It’s then that we realize the voice she just responded to actually belongs to Ted, her brother-in-law. The visual transition…her beginning to stand up in the past, and finishing in the present…takes advantage of the fact that we tend to accept the temporal continuity of a matching cut on action. The present and the past have blended momentarily. While changes in the visual elements are immediately apparent, sound has the ability to covertly occupy both temporal locations. This sequence and its use of sound is the first indication we have that Martha is trapped between both timelines.
There is another scene, later in the film, that employs a similar approach. Present and past are both taking place in the kitchen of the respective houses. In the present, Martha is assisting her sister Lucy with a meal. In the past, Marcy May (Martha’s name on the farm) is assisting Katie. While preparing the food in the past, Martha sneaks a piece of food and is scolded.
Martha eventually responds, “Sorry Katie.”
The scene holds in this kitchen from the past as we hear Lucy ask, “Who’s Katie?”
Cut to the present, where Martha picks up again, “What?”
It’s interesting to note that, in order to make this exchange between Martha and Lucy work, the film goes in and out of ADR six times here. A lot of careful construction was required for a relatively brief moment in the film. It’s a very important moment though, as it’s one of the key scenes that brings Martha’s fractured perception of reality to the forefront. Sound in this film is a purely subjective element, filtered through the lens of Martha’s psyche. We hear what Martha hears, and that helps cement the viewer in her perceptual world.
But is what she hears real?
There’s a sonic element in the film that appears three times in total; twice in the “present” and once in the “past.” I’m presenting these in quotations, because of the ambiguity that’s inherent when you consider that we’re hearing only what Martha does. Martha hears the sound of something hitting the roof at night. This sound could be considered foreshadow or flashback. It is both and neither, because we are never given confirmation that the sonic event is actually occurring in the present. Is it another time slip that Martha is only experiencing sonically? It could be, as Lucy suggests, only pine cones falling on the roof. The fact that we can’t answer the question ties the viewer into Martha’s increasing state of confusion.
As the film progresses, these carefully constructed time slips reveal more of the events that caused her to flee the farm. The fear and doubt she experiences in the past are mirrored by her increasing anxiety and paranoia in the present. There is a parallel escalation between the two time periods…and “parallel” may not even be the correct description, if we’re holding to the idea that she experiences them concurrently. These time slips would not be as effective in portraying this without the sonic world of one spilling into the other around the transition points. They are crafted to draw attention to themselves, for both Martha and the viewer, but only to do so after the moment has passed. The revelation of the illusion gives it greater weight.
I spoke to Coll Anderson on the phone before posting this article. Everything you’ve read so far is my personal interpretation of the film, uncolored by the conversation with him (excluding the anecdote regarding ADR in the mentioned kitchen scene, of course). I wanted to first confirm that my interpretations were correct and the intended aim of the film’s structure. They were. I also had the suspicion that this use of sound around the time slip transitions/visual edit points was planned from early in the production process. Coll caught me completely “off guard”…it wasn’t. This particular approach to structure was something that Durkin, Pontier and he developed entirely in post-production. Don’t misunderstand, the overall concept of her distorted perception was in place prior to production. The exact implementation, the use of sound versus visuals, is something they developed through experimentation and collaboration. They took the time to explore the material, and crafted something haunting and beautiful out of it. That fact is a credit to Durkin’s creativity and flexibility.
I’ve intentionally ignored several other scenes and sonic elements that contribute to the flow and perception of Martha’s time in this film. I chose to do so in the hope that you will watch the film yourself. There are some truly subtle and clever uses of sound and dialog in this film, and I would not want you to watch it without experiencing at least some of them in a natural state. Check out the film. Find the other points were sound pulls you into Martha’s head. Then come back and share your thoughts in the comments below.