Friday, May 20, 2011

Dancing in the Dark

(Leon Marr, 1986)

The only feature Marr ever made is almost entirely Martha Henry. Glacial, severe, formal, the film adopts a flashback structure to describe an isolated housewife’s sudden and brutal realization that she is living a lie. We shift between Henry in psychiatric prison after murdering her philandering, yet far from monstrous husband, and an earlier Henry in the ‘prison’ of her almost totally solitary domestic routine. Coming from an obviously theatre-reared gang, this movie is impressively cinematic whether it’s playing Citizen Kane games with the dinner table or unspooling an astonishing ten-minute single take husband-and-wife dialogue scene at a 40th birthday dinner. As the husband insistently questions his wife’s happiness, it becomes increasingly obvious that the happiness in question is his own, and the truth value of the exchange is awesome. After it’s done, though, Henry double-underlines this point in voiceover, and for me that moment was a telling betrayal: for all his attention to communication through everyday detail, Marr can’t resist spelling things out for us. However, while it is too generalized and too articulate, most of the wall-to-wall voiceover does capture the feeling of a damaged woman striving to understand and escape the hole she's stuck in. Her quest to find a voice is ultimately tragic because there's no one to talk to, thus leaving the film open to the usual charges of alienated self-indulgence. But while it doesn't match the rigor of its European role models, I found it thoughtful and moving and successful. Marr's bravura minimalism matches Henry's step for step.

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