The Short Short Story Film Festival
Nov. 5-6. Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum, 600 Main St., Hartford. (860) 278-2670, thewadsworth.org.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Opens Nov. 4. Palace/Cinema City, Hartford; Criterion, New Haven; Bethel Cinemas; Fairfield Cinemas.
How to tell a story in five minutes is the challenge met by the 40 or so filmmakers, whose works comprise The Short Short Story Film Festival, including both live-action and animated films from 23 countries. Festival programmer Toni Pennacchia says the focus is "on succinctness and genuine storytelling — the films aren't just concept pieces."
The titles of the two 80-minute programs — "Heartstrings" and "Headtrip" — indicate the stories aim at the heart or head. "Heartstrings," such as Downpour, can be lyrically sentimental, as a bride regards the rain on her big day, or, as in We Love Our Customers, can be sentimental in a more comic way, as the staff of a large grocery store plays matchmaker. The animated Missing makes wordless use of childlike images to express a devastating fact of life in war-torn lands. In each case, the real drama is in the brilliantly effective editing to convey so much in so little time. And "Headtrips" like The Banishment of Naso are wonders of deferred meaning, providing effective "a-ha" moments. After the final screening each day, Pennacchia, creative director of merging arts, and festival co-organizer Paul Elsnau will be present for discussion.
Sean Durkin's first feature-length film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, creates a powerfully tense vacuity. Focused on and through the central character (Elizabeth Olsen), the film keeps much of our desire for answers at bay. The film opens with Martha fleeing the vaguely cult-like commune and phoning her somewhat estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes her in. Martha tries, sort of, to get herself together in Lucy's frigid Connecticut. Flashbacks gradually clue us in on the full range of activities of "the farm," which seems to take all its cues from the Manson family, complete with sinister leader Patrick (John Hawkes).
Back at the lake, Martha keeps mum about all that while behaving much like a child who hasn't been properly socialized. The great assets of the film are its cinematography, which maintains a tone of unease that stays with the viewer after the final abrupt cut, and Olsen, able to meet the camera's scrutiny while revealing so much and so little, making her haunted and haunting. We can't quite fathom her, and her detachment effectively sustains Durkin's oblique aesthetic.