Is it possible for a cinematographer to be considered an auteur even more than the directors for which he works? On the basis of his work on films as disparate in subject matter, style and tone as Afterschool, Tiny Furniture, and now Martha Marcy May Marlene, one could make such a case for Jody Lee Lipes, the phenomenally talented 29-year-old cinematographer who shot all three of them.
The stylistic tics are remarkably similar in all of those films: prolonged takes, carefully worked out mise-en-scène, a penchant for wide shots within a 2.35:1 frame. Obviously, each director uses these signatures for their own purposes, psychological dread in the case of Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene, wistful deadpan comedy in Tiny Furniture, but the style is so consistent that, in some ways, all three films can be considered just as much Lipes's as they can their directors'. At the very least, one can't help but wonder what subsequent films by Antonio Campos, Lena Dunham, and Sean Durkin, respectively, will look like if they choose not to work with Lipes.
In any case, the Lipes touch is put to especially effective use in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin's unnerving examination of the mental state of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a recent runaway from a cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes). Lipes's camera seems to dissect her every move with each long take; the settings are lit in ways that lend a consistently ominous, chilly air to even the most mundane of proceedings; the omniscient feel of each shot and cut feels almost Kubrickian in its near-clinical precision.
That's not to say that Durkin doesn't contribute to the film's shattering cumulative effect. Durkin, who wrote the film's screenplay, settles on a narrative structure that goes back and forth between her time in the cult and the tenuous aftermath of her running away. That seems like a gimmicky approach at first, but the juxtapositions betweens Martha's struggles to readjust to normality and her life as a blissfully ignorant cult member begin to reveal connections between current and past behavior, suggesting just how deep her brainwashing has gone. And, of course, Durkin deserves full credit for his direction of the actors, all of whom ground a potentially sensationalistic scenario in psychologically realistic characterizations; even John Hawkes's cult leader is portrayed as a charismatic flesh-and-blood human being, even if his aims are ultimately insidious in nature.
Olsen, of course, will get the lion's share of attention for her lead performance. The praise she has already garnered is indeed well-deserved, but perhaps not for the reasons one may expect. With the exception of one effective freak-out she has toward the end of the film (involving a figure who may or may not even be real), Olsen's performance is mostly notable for its fragile delicacy and subtlety—which is appropriate, because Martha intentionally remains something of a mystery throughout Martha Marcy May Marlene. For instance, how much of the anti-consumerist rhetoric she angrily spouts during a dinner she has with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy's boyfriend (Hugh Dancy) does she truly believe—or is this merely a result of her cult indoctrination? The scene disturbs mostly because we don't entirely know; Olsen's line readings and chilly facial expressions in the moment expertly suggest either possibility. Not even Lipes's camera, for all its probing brilliance, can quite penetrate the enigma that is Martha's fractured mind. Besides, if the film's final daring cut to black suggest anything, she may well be too far gone to be ever able to successfully assimilate in “normal” society again.
Camille (Lola Créton), the heroine of Goodbye First Love, is far less of a mental case, thankfully. The only stress on her psyche is, well, adolescence and the growing demands of adulthood in general—things we can all surely understand, in our own ways. Camille, though, has the added burden of dealing with crushing heartbreak at a young age when her childhood sweetheart, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), suddenly and unceremoniously ditches her to try to forge his own path abroad in South America.
It is a sign of director Mia Hansen-Løve's humane vision that she treats this young love not as a source of condescension, but with warmth and sensitivity—as if she were saying to us, “Don't you remember the first time you fell in and out of love when you were an adolescent? And didn't you feel like your life was going to end?” Camille is indeed inconsolable for a while afterward—but, in her grief, she becomes drawn to architecture as a way of channeling her energies. Over the span of eight years, with the help of an older professor (Magne Håvard Brekke), she develops her skills in the field and gradually works out of her depression, growing as a person as a result—at least until Sullivan suddenly re-enters her life.
Goodbye First Love is essentially your standard coming-of-age tale, but Hansen-Løve handles it with the same wisdom and emotional insight with which she treated the struggles of a broken family in her last film, The Father of My Children. And in Créton—an actress many of us might have last seen as a potential victim in Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard—she has a stunningly poised, confident young actress who exudes an unusually vivid alertness to her character's mercurial shifts of mood, from deep despair to soaring passion. Perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of this exceedingly lovely film is that a young woman's maturation is rendered in a way that, for once, feels genuine and hard-won.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.