In May, four months after Sundance, Olsen stood on the Croisette in Cannes, about to attend the premiere of Martha Marcy May Marlene. It was a Sunday around 9 p.m., and it was still light out. Olsen had arrived two days prior from New York; checked into her hotel, the Trois Quatorze; and, ever practical, immediately realized that she would have to do her makeup in her agent’s room. “My room had a Parisian theme,” Olsen told me at a small dinner Fox Searchlight threw for Martha. “Everything was red—the lightbulbs were pink. Rhonda’s room had an Asian theme. Everything was white in Asia. I put my makeup on there.”
During Cannes, Olsen did dozens of interviews and posed for countless pictures. The international press, which congregates in Cannes, is often contrarian and peculiar, regularly asking questions that are completely unrelated to the films. Of course, they asked Olsen about her sisters (she demurred politely) and, more provocatively, if Martha was meant to be about the power and impossibility of utopian societies.
At Cannes (and Sundance), there were other films that dealt with cult-like religious fanaticism. Most notably, Take Shelter (which went on to win the Grand Prize at Cannes Critics’ Week), a psychological study in which a man systematically destroys his life when he starts to believe that the end of days is imminent. He seeks a god-like stature, but is able to persuade only his wife and small child (a cult of two) to move into a storm shelter for safety. Like Martha, Take Shelter offers the idea of salvation through isolation and devout belief; that same clannish, xenophobic, paranoid-but-superior mentality is also the trademark of today’s American political sub-tribes. Like cult members, they crave a messianic leader who preaches dogma and re-affirms the “specialness” of the group. The journalists tried to press Durkin and Olsen about these sociopolitical overtones, but the filmmakers were resistant. Which was okay with the press corps—their more intellectual queries were trumped by their passion for Olsen’s performance. They veered away from the serious to swoon: Cannes loves to anoint a star.
Since Sundance is strictly puffers and mufflers, this was Olsen’s first black-tie premiere. She wore a sleek black gown from The Row and looked rather like a Twenties-era ingenue. “This doesn’t feel like reality to me,” she said, before heading to the red-carpeted steps that led to the theater. “And that makes me laugh. I thought I would find the photographers and the press irritating, but it struck me as funny. We made this little movie, and now we’re standing in pretty outfits and smiling at the camera. You have to laugh.”
With that, she smiled. One can only hope that, as time goes on and the world does not seem quite so easy, Olsen won’t lose her sense of joy and optimism. As the paparazzi called out Lizzie’s name—a name they didn’t know a few days earlier—and asked her to look left and then right, Olsen briefly looked backward, at the street where a small group of fans had gathered. She waved, they took her picture, and she turned back to the theater and headed upstairs. It was the only way to go.