Margot at the Wedding

2007-11-16 (Limited release)

From PopMatters’ coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2007.

After getting all worked up at Diving Bell, I figured I would cool down with some literate laughter from director Noah Baumbach’s newest offering, Margot at the Wedding.

Since this was a film by the same guy who delivered the goods with the whip-smart The Squid and the Whale (my favorite film of 2005, which mixed family dramatics with high-brow humor), I thought that I could expect non-stop chuckling throughout. Wow, was I wrong.

There are a lot of jokes in Margot, but they aren’t light-hearted, whatsoever. What Baumbach has done instead (wisely), is avoided relying on his past glories in favor of exploring something fresh and uncharted for him.

Margot has some moments of sublime gloom that will possibly scare people thinking that they are in for some sort of light-hearted romp about two sisters getting together for a girly reunion on the eve of one’s wedding. This film is sort of like what Bergman would have made had he been a French New Wave-era filmmaker. Yes, that means it is absolutely spectacular.

In a stark, bleak look at familial wounds and the seething bonds that hold sisters together, Margot (a top-form Nicole Kidman) is like a storm on the horizon as she gathers herself (and her adoring teenage son Claude, played nicely by Zane Pais) together to rain all over Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black).

The sisters have had a major falling out and have not spoken in a long time. Neither of them is willing to admit blame. The two have shared a rocky, desperate past with one another, as abused children and as adults who find sport in inflicting emotional damage on one another and then making up. Every word is like a poison dart. Every interaction between the sisters has some hidden meaning. Their connection is mysterious, but the actresses run with it, obviously thriving on the co-dependency.

Even though they have been estranged for an unspecified amount of time (it is implied that has been years), the bossier-than-hell Margot appears for Pauline’s special day, even though she talks nastily about her fiancée behind Pauline’s back. Pauline, meanwhile, lies to people when she refers to her sister, a famous writer, as her “best friend”. The two tell little lies to one another constantly, make hurtful jokes, and are constantly second-guessing and sniping (not just to each other — to everyone). It is their dysfunctional way of showing affection, apparently.

Both women have gotten really good at pretending. Margot, though she claims to be brutally honest about everything, all the time; is lying to everyone (including her impressionable son) about the wrecked state of her marriage to Jim (John Turturro). She is carrying on an affair with one of Pauline’s neighbors (Ciaran Hinds), and insists that neither he nor the discussion of her newest writing at a local bookstore had any influence in getting her to come out to the house they grew up in for Pauline’s wedding; even though Pauline herself has her doubts.

The brisk 92-minute film starts from this simple premise and explores, cannily, the intensity of the women’s relationship, and how they are inherently tied to one another, whether they like it or not.

Baumbach, who also wrote the script, has an ear for unusual, awkward language; as well as uncomfortable situations. As was the case with The Squid and the Whale, he demands that his players show everything. There is no narcissism in the acting, only in the two lead characters — which come off as realistically self-obsessed and even immature at times. It is this sort of bravery in creating a dark character on the page and seeing it through until the finished product that Baumbach should be credited for. His characters may not be showy, but they are an actor’s paradise.

Kidman, though she has a terrible habit of making really bad Hollywood films (and yet somehow she gets away with one big budget bomb after the other), has surprised me before with her skills. It took me a long time (probably like the rest of the world) to get over the whole “married to Tom Cruise” thing, but I remember seeing her in both Moulin Rouge and The Others in 2001 and thinking that she had really shown considerable range. With Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, the actress went to some unexpected, experimental heights, and again showed chops.

Her performance as the title character here, who is obsessed with knowing if people are talking about her (even though she is constantly gossiping about them) ranks with her greatest achievements. This is character she was born to play: cultured to a fault, prissy, nosy, icy-as-hell and mean. She is often snippy and hurtful with her son, repeating a cycle of abuse that is hinted at when we meet her. Hidden behind her shellacked veneer is something truly sad: a woman who has everything who can be destroyed by simple things like someone laughing at her. Kidman knows that this is chance to redeem some of her box office sins, and she runs with it, making this terribly unsympathetic woman human rather than a power-bitch caricature.

The absolute highlight of the daring film is the loving way in which Baumbach directs his spouse Leigh to perhaps the most nuanced, relaxed role of her accomplished career. The actress has been known to get down and dirty with her roles, and really disappear; but here she seems so poised and ordinary, it’s easy to forget that she is acting. Margot is the showier part, but as is the case here, and in countless other films in which people take the more quiet supporting roles; showy doesn’t always equal better. Leigh has somehow never been up for an Oscar, despite at least ten viable roles throughout the last seventeen years and it is beyond a crime she wasn’t up for one in 1995 for her tour-de-force in Georgia. This year, hopefully will not add to the shameful list of egregious awards snubs towards one of the most challenging, honest actresses I can think of. If anyone has paid their dues, it is Leigh.

RATING 9 / 10