Monday, December 24, 2007

A Battle of Minds and Wits

With Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach accomplishes what Woody Allen never could. Having an excellent script and featuring passionate, sharp direction, Baumbach’s fourth feature clearly and mercilessly depicts the convoluted milieu of Northeastern intellectualism that Allen constantly tried to capture in films such as Annie Hall (1977), and, most successfully, in Manhattan (1979) and Husbands and Wives (1992). However, Allen’s work always lacked the incisiveness necessary to effectively dissect and examine the psychology of his literary types and semi-artists. Bypassing the romanticism that cripples Allen’s mostly fluffy films, Baumbach favors a pulsing immediacy full of palpable contempt and perfectly imperfect relationships.

One of the most startlingly distinct aspects of Margot at the Wedding is its brazen visual scheme, based on handheld, but very confident, camerawork and beautiful natural light cinematography. The intimacy and familiarity of the film’s setting is amplified by the “realistic” style in which it is photographed. This ultimately creates a very comfortable, acquainted tone, which is extremely useful in enabling emotional and psychological connections with the films various flawed characters. Did I mention they were flawed?

The premise of the film is very simple. Margot (Nicole Kidman), a domineering, self-centered fiction writer, travels with her bright, submissive son, Claude (Zane Pais) to stay with her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in order to be a guest at Pauline’s wedding. Her beau, a failed artist of multiple fields and “coarse” wanna-be-intellectual named Malcolm (Jack Black) earns Margot’s enmity, as most do, resulting in various rifts that are wedged wider and wider by Margot’s incessant jealousy, insecurity, and condescension. The most pathetic victim of Margot’s caustic behavior is her son, Claude, the true protagonist of the film, played brilliantly by Zane Pais. Claude’s innocent, nearly objective perspective serves as a lens for the rest of the film, enabling the inconsiderate, frustrating behavior of Margot, Pauline, and Malcolm, among others, to be observed without the taint of subjectivity. Perhaps most importantly, Claude’s consistent point-of-view provides a healthy dose of sympathy for nearly every character in the film that truly helps shape them into full human beings. The psychology in the film is incredibly subtle and nuanced, extending past the inaccurate, but telling, musings that each character makes about the others. In this way, Baumbach, unlike Allen who merely had his characters offer up overly technical amateur psychoanalysis, builds honest, realistic psychological structures for his characters, too real to be completely apprehended and full of the mysterious and inexplicable irrationality of actual thought.

Acting-wise, Margot at the Wedding is rife with touching, strong performances, communicating the unspoken and the secret with incredible accuracy. The most obviously stunning of these numerous fantastic portrayals in that of Nicole Kidman as the nearly unendurable Margot. Throughout the film, Kidman exudes a coldness and shallowness that is terribly convincing, but even more convincing when Margot’s deep, repressed fear and mutated compassion are revealed in small, vulnerable bursts. A chronically critical individual, Margot is revealed to be ultimately a slave to criticism rather than a purveyor of it. The hidden subjugation of Margot is no doubt due to her hinted at family history and, most interestingly, due to her role as an artist.

Much of Margot at the Wedding deals strongly with the costs of art and the toll it can take on relationships and communication. One of the primary disputes between Margot and Pauline (the two hadn’t spoken for some time before Margot’s visit) revolves around Margot’s past use of information from Pauline’s life in a short story that appeared in "The New Yorker", resulting in the destruction of Pauline’s first marriage, leaving her as a single mother to her daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross). Margot’s art wrecks her real life, as further exemplified by her break down when asked during a public conversation about her work as to how much it is dependent on her actual life. It seems Margot is forced to choose art or family, and in the film’s finale, it seems Margot ultimately makes her decision.

Baumbach’s film is also rife with excellent metaphors, cleverly placed and generally unobtrusive. The most remarkable of these is the enormous tree in Pauline’s yard, which is, significantly, also the yard of Pauline and Margot’s youth. Margot is described by Pauline as loving to climb things and Margot’s eventual adventure up the tree to prove herself is brilliantly symbolic of Margot’s lonely, insecure journey upward to her aloof, uncaring position. Perhaps the most stunning line of the film occurs when Claude asks, wondering why his mother won’t come down, “What’s the matter?” and Pauline knowingly replies, “She’s stuck.” This statement reveals the actual tragedy inherent in Margot’s situation and paints her with complex strokes that reveal her victimization and weakness rather than her cruelty. Margot is ultimately stuck in her unpleasant state, almost powerless to escape, desperately needing help. She waits alone, with her magnificent, misused intelligence as Claude and Pauline slowly disintegrate around her. Margot at the Wedding is certainly not without hope, however, and redemption and genuine love underlie all of the film’s harshness, mostly in the prominent objects of Margot’s bile, Claude and Pauline. The real goodness of these characters more than compensates for Margot’s markedly bad example, providing a definite, complex, and honest exemplification of sympathy and unselfishness.

by Brandon Colvin


Anonymous said...

Kidman is a sensation. I smell Oscar!

w. said...

do you not like woody allen?