Most of what I’ve read about MMMM has focused on one of two areas: the structure or Elizabeth Olsen’s performance. Both are fine topics, for sure, and I may touch on them here, but I want to talk more about Durkin’s shot selection and the cinematography.
You should know the plot from this one with the amount of press it’s received. Elizabeth Olsen plays the title character(s), called by different names depending on the scenario. Having run away from a cult led by Patrick (Sundance staple and the rangy John Hawkes), she is taken in by her sister and brother-in-law. The film unfolds in flashback structure as Martha’s (which I’ll call her for the sake of this post) paranoia threatens to unravel her reality.
There are a few immediately noteworthy things about director Sean Durkin’s chosen coverage. First, it’s very minimal. Second, the shot-length is longer than average. I didn’t count during my viewing but I’d guess that the average scene is made up of 3-4 shots and that the average shot length (ASL) is about 12-15 seconds. Durkin also zooms a lot, something you don’t normally see unless it’s hidden or a homage/snap-zoom/overtly stylistic trait (it’s not here).
Most of the time Durkin’s sparse camera movement and edits really enhance the scene. Consider a critical, enigmatic moment late in the film when, at a party, Martha thinks she spots a cult member posing as a bartender. Durkin’s camera stays at a distance, barely (and not fully) revealing the bartender’s face, keeping both he and Martha framed in profile and in medium/medium-wide-shot. Standard coverage dictates using something akin to this as your master shot and then cutting into shot-reverse-shot to a) click the pacing along and b) reveal the true character/emotion on each face. By not doing so Durkin remains cagily ambiguous (his MO on this film), leaving us as much in the dark as Martha and her family as to this man’s true identity/intentions.
Not all of the scenes use few shots for this exact reason. Many times the goal is simply to remain with Martha as much as possible to stress her internal workings and journey (and her point-of-view), that the camera simply lingers on her and what she looks at (which, in flashback, is frequently Patrick). Other times the camera seems to stress environment and body – nude bodies swimming, the lake surrounding Martha’s sister’s house. The environmental fascination is understandable – as AO Scott notes in his NY Times review, one of Durkin’s goals seems to be to compare Martha’s past and current surroundings. Further, there’s always an implication of an unseen threat – one that is introduced at the very beginning of the film when Martha simply disappears into the woods during her escape, and is reinforced at the ending which cuts away abruptly. The open spaces are ironically claustrophobic, intimating that even a few hours drive isn’t distance enough to keep this woman safe.
The shots that dwell on bodies are another story, and though frequently beautiful, do at times feel like a voyeuristic, classic, male gaze. Sure, they amplify the sexuality (and rape) within the cultish environment, but many of these moments are so separate and overlong that they begin to feel like Durkin’s POV and no one else’s.
The cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes is grainy, inky and monochrome. The film was shot on 3-perf 35mm, which by my understanding allows for more of the negative to be used, and it clearly went through much digital processing to attain the ultimate look. There are moments in the film that feel underexposed. Other times there seems to be a thin veneer across the lens, as though we’re looking through something just barely transparent. There’s also an effort, as with the production design, to make the two environments – cult and lake house – look both different and similar. These visuals can be contentious. I liked them. They add an air of folky, murky mystique – as beautiful as they are darkly dangerous – much like Patrick and his cohorts.
The zooms are an odd choice. Often slow and centered, they push the space into flat compositions. I mentioned this usage in positive terms when talking about the film Lourdes. I think that there is a similar effect here in MMMM: flatten the space to make it claustrophobic. The problem with the zooms, and with this aforementioned reasoning, is basically that there are too many. Nearly every scene creeps slowly forward to the point where any attempt at form/content claustrophobia seems outdone by its pervasiveness. At times, despite the welcome, slow pace of the film, the zooms strangely make the production feel rushed, as though there wasn’t time to get the necessary coverage otherwise. One scene sticks out for me which, if you’ve seen the preview for MMMM, you’ll recognize. Martha sits with a small crowd on the ground in a barn watching Patrick strum his guitar and play a song he wrote for her. The entire scene is made up of exactly two shots. The first shot starts behind the crowd of people, not singling any out, and framing Patrick in a wide-shot as he takes the guitar, sits, and starts playing. This shot, intercut with the second shot, also slowly zooms into a medium close-up. The second shot in the sequence is a reverse of Martha watching Patrick. The simplicity of the shot selection here is a prime example of Martha’s POV as more important than any surrounding character, and in this case, as in much of the film, it works. The zoom, on the other hand is problematic. Not only is it, as mentioned before, overdone, but it also brings us further away from Martha’s true POV. Now granted, this sequence is not set up as a true POV in the first place, and much of the film intentionally tries to move away from that (see the scene where Martha swims and sees a man watching her on the opposite shore), but that’s a fault in the direction. The scene would be stronger with a true POV, even with an exaggerated POV – that is, cutting from WS to CU of Patrick. As it is the zoom into him is an exaggerated POV, but its power is lessened by the simple fact that we see it move. Two cuts here would have skipped that intermediate sense and heightened Martha being drawn into his world. The zoom/movement prolongs (or better: delays) that moment and in essence provides an unnecessary buffer between her watching him (wide-shot) and her accepting him (close-up).
One quick note on the structure. I like the structure, and ultimately I quite like this film, but I’m surprised to read much on the blogosphere about how a) this is a unique structure and b) it points towards a dream interpretation. The flashbacks work here to gradually unearth Martha’s psyche, but they are no more revolutionary than any other non-linear film out there. The dream interpretation is a bit more unsettling. The only “evidence” of this read is when Martha mentions that reality sometimes feels like a dream. Everything else is presented logically and obviously (not to a fault). This interpretation feels like fishing and over-complication to me.