Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011). The debut feature from director Sean Durkin takes a fraught subject and increases its power with shrewd understatement. The film opens as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees a commune-like rural homestead, seeking assistance, with a tone of barely repressed desperations, from her estranged older sister (Sarah Paulson) and her new husband (Hugh Dancy). As Martha’s past emerges through flashbacks, it quickly becomes clear that she escaped from a cult that preys upon young women, and she has cause to be worried that they might come looking for her. Durkin builds the scenes of Martha’s indoctrination into the cult with quiet intensity that never lapses into melodrama. The tone remains as the depiction pivots to show the clear oppression once she’s deeply enmeshed in the insidious contained society. The scenes with the family are equally measured, honestly depicting the ways in which the privileged couple would be tested by the sudden appearance of a wounded individual who won’t share the details of her recent past. There are complex emotions at play throughout the film, and Olsen beautifully channels every tremor of Martha’s inner being.
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016). A mediation on the many ways grief continues to haunt a person, Personal Shopper stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen, an American living in Paris and working in the title position for a difficult model (Nora Waldstätten). Maureen wound up in Paris because that’s where her twin brother lived, and it’s where he died from complications related to a congenital heart defect that Maureen also carries. Holding on to the sort of childhood promise made when mortality looms, Maureen is seeking contact from her brother from the afterlife, a quest that leaves her raw and unsettled, and especially susceptible to anonymous text messages on her phone. Stewart plays the role with an internalized intensity, artfully revealing a woman left aimless and emptied by the loss of her sibling. Director Olivier Assayas gently swoops between arid European drama and spooky thriller, handling both modes equally well.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962). A French singer named Cléo (Corinne Marchand) tries to distract herself for a couple hours as she awaits a medical report that she’s sure is going to deliver grim news. She meanders about Paris, engages in mildly barbed banter with her maid (Dominique Davray) and some professional cohorts (Serge Korber and Michel Legrand), and strikes up a fast friendship — and maybe the first embers of a love affair — with a soldier on leave (Antoine Bourseiller). Agnès Varda crafts the film with her customary genial looseness, finding gentle humor and mundane pathos in the interactions of the characters. She’s inventive with her visuals while always honoring the clarity of the narrative and the film’s emotional through lines. The film brims with wit and offhand insight, always hinting at the fullness of Cléo’s existence outside of the two hour window of her fretful waiting.