Here’s what PTSD is like, and why people kill themselves over it. Think of life like a cave. If I send you into a cave with a lantern and tell you there are no bears in the cave, you feel safe. You will walk around the cave and enjoy yourself. Now what if I give you a lantern and a gun and tell you that there is a bear in there? You can still go down, but you’ll be careful to look for the bear and ready to run or shoot if you see it. Now, what if I send you down there with a gun but no lantern and simply say “bear” to you? Pretty soon, you’re in there, you can’t see the way out, and every rock you bump into feels like a bear. After a long enough time being down in the cave, you realize you don’t have enough ammo to shoot everything that might be a bear. It has nothing to do with running out of food or water or feeling like you’re fighting some unwinnable battle with the bear. You just get sick and tired of the uncertainty. Are you going to live through the night? Are you going to wake up to a bear gnawing your intestines? You get to the point where you just wish the bear would come along and end it. And when he doesn’t come, you decide to do it yourself.
Jim Gourley, “Of lepers and caves”
Putting this quote up because I just saw Martha Marcy May Marlene, which depicts a woman suffering from PTSD. This condition is something I’m very interested in, so I approached the film from that perspective, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film depicted PTSD rather well. Between this film and Melancholia, 2011 has been a good year for films about mental illness! I think one difference between the films, though, is that Melancholia uses depression as a jumping-off point for something much more complex and important than mere depiction of mental illness. Depression becomes just another aspect of the world that Lars von Trier has absorbed and creatively refashioned in order to express something that cannot be captured in, say, clinical literature. Depression becomes a metaphor for a basic aspect of existence.
By contrast, a lot of what Martha Marcy May Marlene succeeds in doing is well-captured by something like the quote above, but I still liked the film a lot more than I expected. The above quote explains what PTSD is like, but MMMM actually goes some way in simulating the feel of it. For that, I think the film is notable and worthwhile, though a) I certainly don’t think this fulfills the criteria for great art, and b) I’m sympathetic to many of the criticisms of the film (beyond whether or not it correctly “gets” PTSD). But then there are some who maybe faulted the film because of their own unfamiliarity with PTSD, which is why I think the quote above gives some excellent background to anyone who plans on watching the MMMM. It also helps explain why the film never reaches anything like a climax (i.e. the “bear”) and why it necessarily ends without resolution or certainty (because waiting for the “bear,” and not the actual bear attack, is what PTSD is all about).