Martha Marcy May Marlene

John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox)

On the DVD commentary track for his 1999 masterpiece "The Limey," Steven Soderbergh explains how the movie went from being a problematic dud to one of his most satisfying films: He cut it up, shifting the narrative out of its intended linear chronology to juxtapose the past and present of Terence Stamp's character. It changes nothing about the story, but it changes everything about the story's emotional momentum. A movie that doggedly worked its way to a sigh of acceptance now ends with a fist to the gut.

Soderbergh had already demonstrated the value of a time-shifting narrative a year earlier with "Out of Sight," but "The Limey" is a test case for exactly how far a movie can take the tactic and remain comprehensible. Christopher Nolan has challenged the limits of Soderbergh's theory with the backwards-forwards structure of "Memento" and the interlocking pieces of "The Prestige," but Nolan's films are a little on the cold side; they're less about revealing emotions than solving puzzles.

I can point to two recent films that use ingenious editorial structures to reveal greater truths about their characters, though, and as luck would have it they're both arriving on disc this week. Jean-Marc Vallée's "Café de Flore" and Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" bear almost no relationship to one another beyond using parallel plot threads to tell their stories. Vallée's film is a flashy, high-speed drama about two lives separated by decades and continents, while Durkin's is a tightly controlled mood piece about a traumatized young woman trying to find her way out of the nightmare her life has become. And as with "The Limey," it's the way these stories are told that gives them their considerable power.

In "Café de Flore," the power comes from the sense of growing portent that drives Vallée's complex dual storylines. One plot thread, set in Paris in the late 1960s and early 1970s, follows a single mother (Vanessa Paradis) as she attempts to raise a son with Down syndrome in a world neither of them fully understands. The other, unfolding primarily in present-day Montréal, tracks the domestic upset of a DJ (Kevin Parent) who's left his wife (Hélène Florent) for another woman (Evelyn Brochu). And there's something else going on involving a plane trip.

The connections between the stories are not immediately apparent, and there's an interpretation of the film that suggests there may be no connection at all beyond an emotional resonance. I'm certainly not going to spoil it here, other than to say that Vallée has structured "Café de Flore" in a way that allows for multiple interpretations, including contradictory spiritual and existential readings that are equally valid.

All the evidence is on the screen - and on the soundtrack, which Vallée uses to orchestrate the movie's action in a way few other directors dare. The whole thing builds to a truly spectacular crescendo; please, please, please don't hit the stop button until you're sure you've seen it all.

The editorial accomplishments of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" are harder to divine, since writer-director Sean Durkin's film plays out in whispers rather than propulsive bass beats. But its silences speak volumes as Durkin picks away at the tormented psyche of his protagonist, a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) whom we meet just as she leaves a cloistered community in upstate New York to stay with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).

Once Martha is safely situated at Lucy and Ted's summer home, Durkin starts sliding back and forth between her fractured state of mind and the events that led her there, simultaneously moving forward through her recovery and her induction into what was clearly more cult than commune. It takes a while to figure out that the present-day storyline plays out in a matter of days while the flashbacks leap forward by weeks or months, but both stories are made entirely coherent through Elizabeth Olsen's amazing performance as Martha, who goes from impressionable to deeply damaged without ever once appearing mannered or showy.

Much like the young Maggie Gyllenhaal, Olsen holds the screen with no apparent effort, conveying major emotional changes in small, subtle gestures or shifts of expression. It's an astonishing performance from someone whose only previous screen credit was a cameo in one of her sisters' crappy cable movies, "How the West Was Fun." (Yes, her sisters are Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. But clearly, Elizabeth is the one with the acting talent.)

Olsen isn't the only actor in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" who gives a revelatory performance. John Hawkes, a character actor who's turned up in everything from "The Perfect Storm" to "Me and You and Everyone We Know" until "Winter's Bone" raised his profile and landed him a dark-horse Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, is absolutely mesmerizing - as he'd have to be - as the enigmatic Patrick, who is the principal reason for Martha's disconnected state.

Patrick doesn't seem like a bad person, but he absolutely is, and Hawkes' watchful stillness becomes more and more unnerving as the film progresses. The character's presence so infuses the flashbacks - and the film's structure uses him so effectively, as an implacable force that advances and recedes like the tide - that by the time Durkin brings "Martha Marcy May Marlene" to its artful, ambiguous conclusion, we understand exactly why it needs to end that way.

No matter what might actually be happening, Martha can never fully escape from her time with Patrick; she'll be struggling with her experiences well after we've moved on. Assuming she gets the chance, of course.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com