Cult of Personality
It’s not easy for someone like me—a member of a spiritual group in which the devotees wear all white on ceremonial occasions, perform ablutions before meditation, touch our heads to the floor before a ritual meal and obey the Master of the Path without question—to sit through the first parts of Sound of My Voice, much less be interested in seeing it at all lest it make me squirm right out of my preferred movie theater seat, C22 in the handicapped section of Arclight Hollywood, the most legroom in the galaxy.
Granted, the secret Sufi handshake of my group isn’t as elaborate as the one in SOMV, but nor is it particularly secret. A sort of cross between a bro handclasp and a kiss, it is elegant enough to be performed quickly on the street; it doesn’t even look like a secret handshake, more like the Middle-Eastern equivalent of a European air kiss, which is what it is: very Arabian Nights somehow, or how Crusaders in an esoteric brotherhood might have met or left each other in medieval Jerusalem.
I’m waffling about this handshake because it is central to SOMV, as are many of the common elements of cult-ish societies, be they Mormon, Freemasons or college fraternities. These elements are woven deftly, organically into the twists of the script, co-written by the film’s star, Brit Marling, an enchanting talent whom I am now beginning to suspect of sorcery given how unlikely and exceptional her brief career has been thus far.
I called it wrong in my review of Marling’s Another Earth, which she also co-wrote and produced with Mike Cahill. Given that she’d signed with CAA just after the release of that film, I was convinced we’d see her in more commercial fare going forward, that she would abandon the hard scrabbling of low-budget indie filmmaking. Instead, with SOMV she has made a companion piece to Earth, shot in the same lo-tech style but with another director, first-timer Zal Batmanglij.
I was able to relax quickly and not take the weird cult thing so personally when the superficial ritualistic similarities caved under more fundamental differences. My group’s particular form of Sufi practice is atheistic, and any kind of magical thinking is actively discouraged; the point of our path is to still the mind’s torments through silent meditation, and to crush any demonic behavioral tendencies by exorcising them with love. In SOMV, the devotees, and by extension the audience, are asked to believe that cult leader Maggie, played by Marling, is a time traveler from the future. This impossibility is the fulcrum on which the plot so cleverly whirls.
The difficulty about revealing too much of that plot in a review is it might give away the twists on which the films relies to carry you forward; there are even fewer visual and dramatic pyrotechnics here than in Earth, even if it feels more seamlessly directed.
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are a couple trying to escape the banalities of their LA lives by uncovering a sinister cult that holds meetings in a willfully nondescript basement in the Valley. Peter is a teacher by day, Lorna an aspiring novelist who can never finish a book. If they don’t complete this mission, whatever the dangers, then the next thing they know their twenties will be over and by extension their entire lives.
From the point of view of a middle-aged person, this is a risible proposition, but thinking about it further this anxiety might be a legitimate imperative if you happen to be in your twenties and have a particularly Logan’s Run-like perspective on existence, i.e., that life ends at thirty. It’s still a pretty weak motivator in the face of such perils as making a clandestine documentary exposing a cult that is arming itself against an apocalyptic future predicted by its wacky leader, but I allowed it for the sake of seeing what happens next.
Marling is such the perfect Scandinavian beauty that you almost think her too perfect to be taken seriously, which is perhaps why she goes the extra mile to make more cerebral films, although I suspect that’s a fallacious assumption. The more likely reality is that she could care less about her physicality; it’s just a pleasant convenience, like having been born the heir to a gorgeous house that is only going to grow more stately with age, but you’d be just as happy living anywhere else provided it’s comfortable.
Marling is mesmerizing and utterly believable, and that’s a hard sell for cult cognoscenti like me because, with the notable exception of the equally controversial and beauteous female master Gurumayi, most spiritual leaders tend to be charismatic, avuncular old people. It’s almost as if Marling has taken her preternatural radiance, her Galadriel-ness and made a film about how perilous it might be if used the wrong way. Or, as the film asks all the way through, is it really being used the wrong way?
SOMV is mercifully devoid of those brooding scenes without dialogue of beleaguered characters staring off into the distance figuring out something you can’t be privy to, which tend to mark festival films, as if they ran out of money for synced sound and could only afford bleak, obscure locations and non-union actors with great scowls. There was quite a bit of that in Earth, which might be why this film feels so much smoother, even if it is broken into ten chapters.
The reason for chopping it is because SOMV was originally intended as webisodes, although I’m not sure what relevance that has to the theatrical version; the film wouldn’t have suffered without the numbered title cards before each segment. My other question is I’m still trying to figure out what the title means. Maybe it’s some solipsistic reference to the seductiveness of Marling’s voice. More likely it’s an obscure detail I missed while trying not to squirm about those cult clichés by crunching peanut M&Ms I’d bought from the concession stand using my Arclight membership points.
Both Denham and Vicius acquit themselves admirably as the alternately loveless and loving couple. But the real hiccup for me was the sudden, seemingly random appearance of Oprah Winfrey. Well, it wasn’t really Oprah, just an actress who looks a lot like her. I immediately thought, “Oh, look. America’s favorite talk-show guru is getting meta with it and appearing in a film about cults. How self-aware.”
I’m quibbling. In the end, even the Oprah-esque character makes sense and it all ties together. As with Earth, you just need to give Marling time to meander around her garden apparently cutting unrelated flowers before she whips around in the last scenes and goes “Voila!” with that winsome blond smile and presents you with a perfectly arranged bouquet.
Something I’ve been debating in the past few weeks is the twist ending. Is it actually self-indulgent laziness on the part of the somewhat-intellectual storyteller? I’ve tended to eschew twists and surprises in my work the past few years, despite the fact that I enjoy them in what I read and watch, and delight myself coming up with them. But having a twisty plot with a twist ending is rather like having a complex secret handshake with yourself. Might it not be more elegant if you were just straightforward with the narrative?
In the interest of full disclosure, SOMV was produced by Hans C. Ritter, who was also producer on the as-yet-unmade film version of my play Hatter, but I wasn’t aware of that until the end credits when I’d already made up my mind about the film. In any event, my policy is I will only review films of friends and colleagues if they are good, if not it’s probably not such a great idea to shoot myself in the foot just for the sake of blog fodder.
For its deceptive simplicity, elegance, cleverness and solid performances, and despite the fact Marling has clearly made a Faustian pact with the Devil to be so precociously accomplished, already an auteur at twenty-eight, I give Sound of My Voice a