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"Shame" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" starring Elizabeth Olsen captivate audiences at Philadelphia Film Festival


The Philadelphia Film Festival is getting pretty dark this year. Sex addiction and abusive cults were among some of the featured films these past few days.


Shame doesn’t deal with cults specifically, but it does also address the idea of individuals losing themselves in a dark world. That desolate place in this film can be found in the dangerous effects of sex addiction, the focus of this intense character study.

carey mulligan shameShame follows successful businessman Brandon (Michael Fassbender), who leads a relatively normal life during the day, but dwells the streets at night looking for sex in any way possible. He indulges in prostitutes, as well as other random encounters, either in hotels, outdoor spaces, or his own apartment.

Brandon’s sexual addiction is kept within reason only because he’s able to hide it from everyone he knows by unleashing his impulses when alone. This all changes with the arrival of his highly self destructive dependent sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who takes shelter in his condo, proving to be a leech of sorts.

Unable to feed his addictive state in the comfort of his home, the film follows Brandon as he tries to suppress the urges, or channel them in other ways. The result finds him entertaining a variety of options, from seeking sex in seedy run down establishments to actually trying to date a woman from work, an experiment that goes horribly wrong. As the film continues, Brandon’s percolating desires remove him further from reality, creating unhealthy imbalances and overall irritability.

Shame is dare I say it, not depraved enough for a film chronicling sexual addiction. Too often throughout, Brandon is displayed as having a mere overactive sex drive, with a glimpse of something more dangerous now and then. This is truly not the film’s intent, so it can’t help be deduced that there is a degree of failure here as a result. It is a character study, but Brandon’s life rarely, at any point, feels in jeopardy of collapsing due to his sex addiction. There is an accurate and painful representation of the embarrassment a person can feel over such a disorder, but the film could have taken it to the next level. Only during the uncomfortable climax do we get a sense of where this toxic behavior can lead someone.

Given that, there’s much to admire about Steve McQueen's film. Both central performances are outstanding. In fact, the interaction between Fassbender and Mulligan is electric, far more effective at points the addiction content. Fassbender seeps into the character’s soulless, detached shoes, but also brings a weird sense of humanity to him, almost as if he’s viciously torn over the intimacy he rejects and urges he wallows in.

Mulligan, as a suicidal wreck, perfectly provides an oppositional example of Brandon’s dysfunction, which occurs behind closed doors. She, on the contrary, is exposed and full of frailty. There is a sequence in a restaurant in which she sings acapella that is achingly vulnerable on every level.

Together they are two lost, misinterpreted beings, running from everything and everyone. Their moments are great, and thought Shame doesn’t work as a sum of its parts, some of the individual pieces are certainly magnificent.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

You wouldn't expect any sister from the Olson family (Yep, the Full House ones) to star in a theme of abusive cults. Not only that but the sister isn't even named Mary Kate or Ashley.

That mysterious Olsen sister I am referring to is Elizabeth Olsen, and she stars in the intense thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. With Halloween around the corner, there’s no need to seek out Paranormal Activity  if you want to be sufficiently freaked out, because Martha Marcy May Elizabeth Olsen Martha Marcy May MarleneMarlene is easily the creepiest movie of the year, a truly skin crawling experience in various ways.

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens with a girl carefully packing up her things and attempting to tiptoe out of a farmhouse quietly. That doesn’t go so smoothly, as various other individuals wake to see her escape, and chase after her into the woods. In a frantic moment, she manages to hide and escape to a diner, where she phones her sister to come pick her up.

The girl’s name is Martha, and she’s been through it. When Lucy (Sarah Paulson) arrives to pick her up at a remote gas station, not much is said. Apparently Martha has had a habit of reappearing and disappearing since their mom passed years back. The two travel to a vacation home, where Lucy’s stern husband awaits.

During the next few weeks, Martha’s reality is blurred with nightmares plagued with physical and sexual abuse, tracing back to the cult she ran from. Several instances are remembered, from the first visit to the farm, to the unsettling “cleansing”, a disturbing ritual all members must pass through in order to be part of the family.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a festival darling, one that has garnered more and more praise after each outing it’s premiered at. There’s a reason for that. It’s a brilliantly directed film with a breakout turn from Elizabeth Olsen. Director Sean Durkin does such an effective job at creating a foreboding sense of paranoia that even the audience will be second guessing every moment. He also fantastically blends dream and reality, fusing cult sequences with current day scenarios, all while brilliantly drawing parallels between the two. Martha Marcy May Marlene will be one to watch come Oscar time.

Continue to check out Philly2Philly for coverage of the Philadelphia Film Festival!

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Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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