Margot at the Wedding (2007) Dir Noah Baumbach
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ciaran Hinds, John Turturro
Though I liked very much "The Squid and the Whale", "Margot at the Wedding" turned me off. For no particularly good reason the trailer seemed to be talking down to me. I sensed an intellectual superiority or distancing from the audience. It turns out my instincts were wrong, Noah's "Squid" follow up is a thoroughly entertaining film - a trainwreck of a film to be sure, but fine character study of sibling rivalry.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a 'famous' short story author. She and her son Claude travel to “the Hamptons" - cottage country for the New York rich and famous - to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is marrying slacker music-snob Malcolm (Jack Black). On the visit, the sisters clash on various issues– mainly Margot's disapproval of Malcolm as her prospective husband. But latent conflicts from childhood resurface and it becomes a bloody battle of psychological warfare, where no one, including the children, is spared the wounds.
"Margot" teeters on the edge of truth and pretension. At the beginning Baumbach puts up an impenetrable front. When we first meet Malcolm, he’s sporting an ironic hipster moustache, but he’s self-aware of it as well, and so tells everyone it's temporary. Even Margot’s young boy Claude is dressed up and coifed like a Metosexual. They play a highly competitive game of Crochet and Margot climbs a tree for no apparent reason. This random intellectual irony I feared from the trailer.
The dialogue was difficult to understand and get into as well. The characters don't speak like movie characters, but they don't speak like real people either – at least not the people I know. But that's ok, because once I got into the groove of the film it hooked me in and dragged me along its rocky course. The situations and issues I’m familiar with, and so once the characters are properly identified, the dialogue becomes as natural as everyday conversation.
Though we only see a weekend in the life of these characters Baumbach manages to show us generations of emotional baggage, going back at least three generations. Though we never meet Margot and Pauline’s parents, their mother and sister are referred to often. I'm sure an alternate film following these characters around for a couple days would result in similar self-destruction.
Saying Margot is a 'flawed' character is an understatement. She's a royal bitch, actually. She talks to and treats her son like an adult. It's terribly annoying. She even plays child-stunting mind games with him - the same games she plays with her sister, and likely the same games her mother played with her. This scolding disaffection comes from deep-rooted emotions which are revealed throughout the film. Sibling envy is one, career anxiety another, loss of identity, aging etc. It’s a layered performance from Kidman and one of her best. While she’s being a cold-hearted bitch, and though we never sympathize with her, we do identify with her emotions.
The great cinematographer Harris Savides (‘Elephant’) shot the film. He compliments the emotions with a cold, lonely and isolating visual design. Despite living on expensive property, the home feels dreary and depressing. He uses a muted colour palette and unflattering wide angle close-ups. It adds to up dogma-like realism.
Baumbach uses a few clever visual metaphors to hit his point on the head. There’s a recurring subplot of an aging tree in the backyard which becomes significant thematically at the end. And the final moments on the bus (and clever reference to “The Graduate”) is not subtle either. But both moments provide the satisfying closure I didn’t think I would get.
So don’t judge a film by its trailer. “Margot at the Wedding” made me look naïve for initially dismissing like fine little gem. Enjoy.