The simple photographic approach of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

I finally saw Sean Durkin’s Sundance standout MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and I too found it absolutely deserving of the awards and accolades it has recently garnered. It’s a wonderfully compelling flashback narrative, the likes of which we really haven’t seen since SHINE, wherein the dramatic tension comes from the audience discovering the past and watching its inevitable collide with the present. But even more interesting than that, the film is lean and beautiful in its simplicity, specifically in the way in which it’s covered, or filmed from different angles.

Ang Lee says that being on the set is really a form of shopping, collecting shots in your cart, to be used later to rewrite the film you thought you were making. This is clearly not Durkin’s method, because unless there’s just a mountain of footage on the cutting room floor, each scene is more or less comprised by three shots or less. This is a very spare approach. He often shoots the entire scene in a master that slowly creeps forward, an almost imperceptible dolly that boosts the overall uneasy tone. If there is a close up or two shot cut with the wide, it is less-than-classically composed, meaning the subject is on “the wrong side” of the frame, or it’s slightly canted, or the speaker is out of focus, or it’s an extreme close up, not just a regular old standard one.

This approach, paired with this material (the story of a girl making a difficult break with a cult) is absolutely effective. Scenes are short, often paired with a simple activity, and at times feel just on the edge of acceptability in terms of lighting — characters’ faces are often barely perceptible. This is bold shooting! And refreshing.  Jody Lee Lipes is a major new talent to watch as a cinematographer, bringing a simple elegance to this footage that compliments an extraordinary performance by Elizabeth Olsen. Check it out!