Margot at the Wedding might be a hard pill for some to swallow, for others it will be exactly the type of medicine they are looking for. People expecting and wanting a comedy are going to be sorely disappointed. That isn’t to say we don’t laugh at things that happen, but set ups and punch lines aren’t given. We laugh at the characters, not because they’re embarrassing, but because they act so realistically to the events that surround them. If you take Ingmar Bergman and add a dollop of John Cassavettes you get Noah Baumbach’s newest creation which leaves the overt quirk of The Life Aquatic and the diminishing quirk of The Squid and the Whale behind for something sharper and more bare bones. It’s not so much a character study, though the character at the center of it all, Margot, could certainly use a good slap across the face, but a study of how Margot infects the lives of the people around her. Nicole Kidman is slyly manipulative as Margot, slowly creeping in for the kill, and before the characters’ know it they are buying into her innuendo and hearsay. But she doesn’t play it as evil. Margot is an insecure woman who feeds off those around her. This is the type of role I love to see Kidman tackle. Her persona is a complicated one and when she dives into more Hollywood roles those complex traits become watered down and she becomes a very small presence. In this film she’s as brilliant as any of the greats.
The occasion bringing her into the story is her sister Pauline’s wedding. I’m so happy to see Jeniffer Jason Leigh on the screen again. She’s one of those overlooked actresses who I love and who plays Pauline at once with a now knowing eye about her sister’s ways, but also as someone who wants to see the good in everyone, even her fiancee Malcolm, whose schlubbiness could only be authenticated by Jack Black. We get the idea that the two sisters parted on ill terms and are trying to make up for lost time. Saying desperately that they love each other, and wanting to believe it as they say it. When Pauline talks you understand she means it, she wants it. But what Margot wants it ultimately more complicated. You see, it’s difficult for her to not have something under her thumb. So whether she truly thinks Malcolm is right for her or not isn’t the point. Margot wants to control her sister’s life as she has in the past when we also learn that perhaps she talked Pauline away from another suitor. But Pauline knows that Margot is sick. Margot knows Margot is sick, but in the end that perhaps is an act. She would trade sympathy for love any day.
Which brings me to the three men in Margot’s life, all at different stages: her husband Jim (John Turturro) loves her, deeply. Tries to break through the walls that surround her, but it seems like for Margot it’s not good enough anymore. When he buys her a pair of slippers, she says the fact that she already has a pair makes it seem like he doesn’t know her. He’s on his way out. And on the way in is her boyfriend and fellow author Dick Coosman (Ciaran Hines), someone who has perhaps grown weary of the lies that Margot has lived with about herself, and in an obliterating attack embarrasses Margot in front of a group of her loyal readers. And Margot’s response is authentically heartbreaking. But the most important of all, the man she reveals herself to the audience through is her son, Claude.
The spine of the story and the truth about Margot becomes apparent with each interaction they share together. At first it’s very subtle, but as we begin to see how much control Margot has lost over her family and her lovers (her other Sister and Mother don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that they never see Margot) we see how she makes up for that lack of control by emotionally manipulating her son. They are tragic vignettes. Painful to examine. She contemplates that maybe she should have let other people hold him when he was a baby. And the final shot of the film shows us just how much she needs that control, because it’s that control that allows her to feel loved. That’s how insecure she is. Without sympathy or manipulation she would be empty. Imagining that day when her son finally turns on her is a sad thought.
And just the fact that I imagine such an event only shows how much of an achievement this movie is. That these characters live outside of the film, that they breath beyond the beginning and end credits is an accomplishment for the director and the actors. No one could have directed this film but Baumbach, he captures the nuance and subtlety of every interaction that speaks volumes more about the characters than other directors could only imagine portraying. A particular scene stands out when Jim arrives to see Margot unexpectedly. All four adults and the son sit around the table eating lunch. It’s an awkward scene, but not depressingly so. It’s one of those conversations that we’ve all had in real life, when no one seems to be on the same wave lengths. Jim is pleased to be there, gives her the slippers. Margot doesn’t want to talk as sometimes being around too many people makes her clam up. Malcolm talks about how he’s just started sitting down to go pee in the bathroom. Describing it you might be thinking to yourself “what?” But it’s done so well that you begin to see just how these characters could never live together happily, at least not for long.
As the film goes on you see though that it’s Malcolm who sees Margot for who she truly is and doesn’t understand why no one else can see it.
A lot of critics complain that they don’t enjoy the film. Who says everything has to be “enjoyed”. I remember reading “Catcher in the Rye” and not enjoying it, but still loving every second of it, and coming out the other side a more thoughtful person. It’s about more than “enjoying” something sometimes. I certainly don’t “enjoy” Woman Under the Influence, but I’m mesmerized and provoked by the film. Sometimes its about holding up a mirror and allowing us to see, if not ourselves completely, then pieces of ourselves, and how horrible at times those pieces can be and how forgivable they can be when the other person really matters to you. I share some of the traits these characters have, hopefully not the darker ones, but like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver sometimes its frightening to look at yourself in the mirror.
This is the second film I’ve seen handling issues regarding family so well in the past few weeks, the other is The Savages. Both are similar in that they show these families and the people for who they truly are, but are different in that with The Savages we are left with some hope, for the characters in Margot at the Wedding we hope it isn’t life as usual, which it very well could be.
Tags: Character Studies, Dramatic Films, Film, Ingmar Bergman, Jack Black, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Cassavettes, John Turturro, Margot at the Wedding, Movies, Nicole Kidman, Noah Baumbach, Oscar Watch