Are Elizabeth Olsen and Carey Mulligan paving way for new nudity?
For the last couple weeks, Carey Mulligan was making the rounds to help publicize her soon-to-be-released film "Shame" before heading off to Australia to work on Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." In the NC-17 "Shame," directed by Steve McQueen, Mulligan plays the younger sister of a man (Michael Fassbender) with a crippling sex addiction, which seems to be the result of some shared trauma between them. In one particular scene, which audiences seem to respond to as equal parts disturbing and disarming, he discovers her in his apartment using his shower. Her bold refusal to cover up as he talks to her is a signature point in the film.
A few weeks back when Elizabeth Olsen was in Los Angeles for a whirlwind promotional tour for "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the 22-year-old perked up when a conversation turned to the 26-year-old Mulligan. (It should perhaps be noted that both "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Shame" are being distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.)
"I've loved the movies Carey Mulligan has been in in the last year and a half or two years," said Olsen. "She's made cool choices, especially this year with 'Drive' and 'Shame.' That's amazing. Those are two movies it would be great to be a part of. I saw 'Shame' at the [New York Film] Festival. I did like 'Shame.' My personal taste, it's a little too graphic for me. I understand why all of it was there, but..."
Her response naturally (honest!) brought up the issue of Olsen's own offhanded nudity in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." In the film, written and directed by Sean Durkin, Olsen plays a young woman who is in the first stages of regaining her identity after fleeing from a cult. Certain societal norms seem for the moment beyond her, such as when she curls up on the corner of a darkened bed where her sister and brother-in-law are making love, or the way she casually shucks her clothes to skinny-dip in a lake, or unabashedly changes into a dress right in front of her sister.
Whether these high-profile actresses baring themselves marks a shift in the attitudes of young performers to nudity in the movies remains to be seen. Perhaps things are swinging back the other way from the modesty of the past few years, itself a response to the era of ubiquitous screen-capture infamy, when a moment from a film can be decontextualized to its basest, barest essentials and live forever on the Internet. While the bra-in-bed sex scene has become an accepted norm for audiences, are these few performances pointing the way to a new candor?
"In theater I don't think of nudity as something that's difficult because it's so ephemeral and it's not captured, it just is in the moment and if it tells the story better, it tells the story better and you go on with your life and it's not recorded in any way," said Olsen.
"With this movie, it's different," she continued. "And my biggest fear, because it's only my second film, I got nervous. 'Wait, does this set a precedent for me? Are people going to think I'm just game for that?' Because I'm not. When it's sensationalized or gratuitous, I have no interest in it. But for this movie, it's so a part of the nature theme that's explored and the loss of identity. The No. 1 way of manipulating someone in these cults and taking away their identity is by sexually taking away the identification of their body, being not theirs anymore and being someone else's. And that's so important.
"So that was scary. However, I saw 'Holy Smoke' coincidentally right when I got the job and Kate Winslet in that film has much more difficult, physically vulnerable scenes then I did in this movie and it was so impactful. And I was thinking, look at her career now. She's not pigeonholed, it just is the story. And that was a lesson to learn, to look up to her career as something that's pretty ideal in my mind and so that gave me a type of courage of being like, 'I'm going to support the movie, this tells the story better, this is important for the story and that's that.'"
The fleeting, contextual nudity of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is perhaps most reminiscent of the casual glimpses of naked bodies in American films from the 1970s and early '80s, when it could just be another part of the storytelling.
"And that's the way Sean shoots too," said Olsen. "What Sean would say is that we're not trying to highlight it, we're just not trying to hide it."
— Mark Olsen
Photo credit: Actress Elizabeth Olsen as "Martha" on the set of "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Credit: Drew Innis