Reviews

Noah Baumbach

USA, 2007

Credits

Review by Chiranjit Goswami

Posted on 11 October 2007

Source Paramount Vantage 35mm print

Categories The 32nd Toronto International Film Festival

As I walked out of Margot at the Wedding I overheard a fellow attendee fuming to his friends that he could succinctly summarize the fundamental preoccupations of Noah Baumbach’s latest film with the following phrases; “I hate my family. I just masturbated. Do you smell shit?” Apparently, by paraphrasing a handful of crucial moments within the film, the infuriated viewer felt that he had adequately captured the purpose of specific scenes that he felt were emblematic of Baumbach’s entire enterprise. When his peers provided some mild resistance by offering a modicum of divergent opinions, he instantly shot back at them, forcibly sneering that “Yeah, I get it: families are screwed up. But does [Baumbach] have to be so relentless about it?” Truthfully, I can’t argue with these assertions, even though they’re reductive. In fact, Margot at the Wedding demonstrates that Baumbach is exasperatingly insistent upon maintaining, if not augmenting, his strategies both as a writer and director, which will either be viewed as audacious or imprudent based upon the polar reactions that the film provokes.

An intermittently distressing synthesis of the sensibilities of Baumbach and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot at the Wedding begins by trailing a rather androgynous adolescent, named Claude, as he returns to his assigned seat on a train only to be greeted by the surly glare of a stranger he has gawkily mistaken for his mother. The teenager’s accidental intrusion allows Baumbach to situate his audience into an uncomfortable scenario, and any subsequent reprieve is merely fleeting, as the director staunchly refuses to assuage the uneasy sensation that subsists throughout the film’s remainder.

After Claude finally finds his mother, Margot Zeller, we join the pair as they travel to her crumbling childhood house in the Hamptons to visit Margot’s estranged sister, Pauline. Despite not having spoken to each other in two years, Margot is pressed to attend Pauline’s impending wedding, mostly to register her disapproval of her fiancé, Malcolm, an indolent fellow who Margot deems to be unworthy of her sister’s affection. Already prepared for Margot’s judgment, Pauline strives to maintain the appearance of prosperity within a flourishing relationship, but the sisters soon revert to a familiar rivalry, resuming their veiled enmity, while their children, including Pauline’s daughter Ingrid, act as spectators to their costly confrontational conduct.

Meanwhile, Margot’s own marriage is unraveling, with a divorce seemingly imminent after she exploits her excursion to the Hamptons to abruptly separate from her husband Jim. Margot is also evidently content to leave her son Josh behind, having presumably chosen Claude as her companion because he still clings to his mother and openly seeks her approval. Ostensibly liberated from such burdens of fidelity, the trip also provides Margot, who happens to be a moderately successful author, with a convenient excuse to coalesce with current colleague who happens to also be a former flame, fittingly named Dick, under the guise that he is helping her promote her latest novel. The rest of the film is a maddening mix of deliberate cruelty and tepid affection, with characters determined to inflict agonizing humiliation upon each other, but also urgently eager to reconcile out of necessity. Any discomfort we experience while witnessing the degradation and embarrassment that these people endure, whether via premeditated actions or unanticipated consequences, is presumably alleviated by Baumbach’s highbrow humor, though the director’s dark brand of wit sometimes feels as unsettling as his characters’ emotional malice.

Predictably, given his erudite inclinations, Baumbach populates his latest film with highly literate adults that remain reluctant to acknowledge their proclivity towards infantile behavior, with Margot serving as Baumbach’s main offender. Despite an abundance of her own neuroses, Margot is motivated to criticize anyone within proximity and determined to erode whatever potential bliss her family might enjoy. Unsatisfied until her misery enjoys the company of those that surrounds her, Margot designs the most devious and artful methods imaginable to achieve her aims. At one point, after Pauline requests that her pregnancy be kept a secret, Margot manipulates the situation to her own advantage, spilling the truth to her son without regard for the outcome. Margot’s monstrous behavior has no bias in choosing her victims, as she regularly quibbles over Claude’s demeanor, constantly challenges Pauline’s choices, delicately disparages Malcolm’s acumen, recklessly chastises a neighboring couple’s parenting methods, and even needlessly grumbles about a babysitter’s lack of intellect when she senses the girl’s influence may threaten her authority over Claude. Portrayed judiciously by Nicole Kidman, Margot is a frigid but imposing presence, who exerts a substantial amount of authority over the other characters. Kidman’s performance is aided considerably by Baumbach’s decision to accentuate her height so that she often towers over her fellow actors and squeezes them to the sides of the composition. More often, Margot is relegated or sequestered to her own frame to stress her solitary stance. In fact, the only characters able to drastically diminish Margot’s dominion within a scene are male characters of similar stature, most notably her husband Jim, played by John Turturro, and her cohort Dick, played by Ciarán Hinds.

Unfortunately, the attention that Baumbach lavishes upon the Pyrrhic conflicts between Margot and her adversaries may be detrimental to the reception of the film, except for those willing to accept a film crowded with unpleasant characters. Indeed, the film’s fatal flaw is that Baumbach constructs Margot at the Wedding to be devoid of a single sympathetic soul, save for the aforementioned ephemeral appearance by John Turturro’s Jim, whose innate decency causes Margot to “hate [herself]” in his presence. There is little doubt that Baumbach has intentionally assembled a smug cast of characters, but it’s astounding how little empathy he expects to generate from his audience.

Part of the problem might be attributable to miscasting, since the most obvious surrogate for the viewer is Claude, who observes the subtly spiteful sequence of events without any perceptible judgment of the participants, retaining his status as an outsider to these adult actions due to his age. Regrettably, while actor Zane Pais splendidly captures the crippling malaise and awkward apprehension of an adolescent stifled by the imperious will of a narcissistic mother, he lacks any discernible amount of magnetism. Certainly Pais’ Claude doesn’t exude the same personality as Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt, his complement within The Squid and the Whale, whose numerous attempts at shallow sophistication were as fascinating as they were frustrating. Instead, Claude is a more morose presence, simply content to persist within the same state while weathering the eternal trickle of his mother’s disapproving remarks. In fact, while Claude’s only outburst is remarkably shrill and rather incomprehensible, it is swiftly answered with a nasty slap across the face. Thus, while we might pity the boy’s circumstances, it’s difficult to relate to such an inscrutable character, especially when his incessant neediness is so frustrating to witness. Yet, considering the arresting degree of accuracy achieved in capturing the character’s dismay and frailty, Claude’s general disposition doesn’t appear to be a miscalculation on Baumbach’s part, since the efforts by both actor and director in sculpting the character appear quite purposely polished and premeditated.

Consequently, it becomes tempting to assume that Malcolm is intended to act as the viewer’s proxy, given that he is played by the typically jovial and exuberant Jack Black. Described by Pauline as perhaps being “too smart,” the character also provides us with the most consistent source of comedy, wasting his time as a rambling letter-writer to music magazines and complaining that Bono is hoarding a disproportionate amount of fame. Furthermore, though he lacks the courage to address his assailant directly, Malcolm is one of the only characters willing to explicitly denounce Margot’s actions, mostly because he is her most regular target, thereby endearing him to the audience. Later, Malcolm actually blurts out the fact that he feels as if he’s the only ordinary character within this absurd realm, exclaiming that his reactions are appropriate “in proportion to what is going on.” However, any attachment that Baumbach allows the viewer to build with Malcolm is ultimately debased by a nefarious twist within Baumbach’s script, which forces the audience to swiftly rescind any sympathy we once had for Malcolm.

Every so often Pauline appears capable of offsetting Margot’s virulent behavior and gaining our sympathy. Realistically, Pauline is relatively amiable in many ways, occasionally displaying an ability to be compassionate, understanding, and forgiving towards others. Quite often we witness Pauline acting more maternal towards Claude than Margot. The free-spirited aunt definitely gains our respect by hauling her nephew out from the neighbor’s pool, which naturally causes Margot’s resentment to swell to such a degree that she later declines to allow Pauline to teach Claude how to swim, perhaps hoping to keep her son helpless. A pattern of conduct soon surfaces between the two sisters. After witnessing Margot suffer through an inexorable embarrassment committed by an ally, Pauline comforts her nephew once Margot rejects his company, but she is unable to protect Claude from Margot’s bitter verbal blows afterwards, which seem to manifest whenever Margot senses rivalry for Claude’s affection.

Nevertheless, Pauline cannot avert her competitive nature and she shares Margot’s anxiety whenever she senses an authentic threat to any affection she has obtained, particularly once she realizes the extent of a younger adversary’s allure. Moreover, there definitely is something vindictive beneath Pauline’s actions, especially while she goads Margot into climbing a sizeable tree that straddles the childhood estate and the neighboring property. In an exact replication of a childhood trauma, Margot is determined to display her bravery and ability, once again hastily scaling the beloved tree only to belatedly realize that she cannot find a way down. Based on her previous deeds, one would assume Margot is perfectly secure in a position where she able to look down upon the others, but Baumbach makes sure we observe Margot become patently petrified while she is entwined within the branches. Soon enough Margot’s family abandons her to enjoy indoor comforts, while we collectively wait for the firemen to escort her back to the safety of the ground. It’s an outcome that Pauline fully expected given her casual explanation to Claude, and it enables her to take a perverse pleasure in Margot’s public humiliation, which appears to sooth her slightly.

An invaluable instrument for Pauline to ridicule her sister with, the cherished tree also serves as a practical device for Baumbach’s larger purposes. Most importantly, given its historical significance to the sisters, the decaying tree operates as modest metaphor for the disintegrating relationship between the family members. In fact the neighbors, a crude clan named the Voglers, claim that the tree’s diseased roots are rotting away underneath their property and must eventually be chopped down. Though Pauline and Malcolm dispute the Voglers’ claim, it feels inevitable that the tree will ultimately collapse, and when the moment finally arrives it occurs in parallel to catastrophic revelations for the family.

Baumbach expends an extensive amount of effort into emphasizing the contrast between the bookish civilized artists he centers his story upon and the mysterious heathen neighbors that are often obscured within Baumbach’s frame and are only referred to in abstract terms. Having altered his setting from the confines of the city and without the amenity provided by Park Slope dwellings, Baumbach exposes his Manhattan intellectuals to the simple perils that nature provides. Not only is Margot stranded within the tree she cannot conquer, but she soon becomes harassed by a gnat that she is convinced has become lodged in her ear. Afterwards, while peering into the Vogler’s home, we notice Margot is suitably scared in the dusk, with the chirping of birds becoming distinctly creepy, as if they sense Margot trespassing. Likewise, Claude is later startled by a dead rat that has somehow intruded into a swimming pool. Finally, in a stunning display of misanthropy, Margot attempts to avoid helping an old woman who has become stranded on the road with her wounded dog, grumbling to her husband that she “can’t stand her.” Hence, despite the strength she obtains from her sophistication, it’s quite apparent that Margot – and perhaps Claude – has an intrinsic aversion towards nature. Even though Margot may feign resilience at times, it’s almost as if nature senses her fragile state while she is stranded within unfamiliar surroundings.

Meanwhile, the Voglers appear perfectly content within their surroundings. In fact, our first encounter with the Voglers interrupts a game of croquet, as Claude spies the couple lounging around their backyard in the nude and watches intently as their limbs boldly become entangled. Later, Margot acts as the voyeur and is fascinated and repulsed while witnessing the couple handle a slaughtered pig in a careless and unsavory manner. When we finally face the Vogler father, he almost grunts out a reply to Pauline’s questions. In the early moments of the film, the Voglers quickly become associated to brutality, as we witness the Vogler mother smack her child during a hike through the woods, which prompts Margot to scold the woman for striking a child. Sadly, the Vogler’s feral child will later attack Claude, initially with crude comments regarding Claude’s femininity and then with his ravenous teeth. Claude’s reaction is understandably frenzied, but his only response is verbal rather than physical and not levied at his attacker, but directed towards Margot, who Claude deems as the provocateur for the abuse he has suffered. Perhaps in an apt outcome, Claude suffers the indignity of another physical attack, receiving a rough rebuke from his mother for all the commotion that he creates, and thus allowing Baumbach to undermine Margot’s moral superiority.

Thus the much-adored tree also acts as both a physical and figurative barrier to the savagery of the Voglers, it’s no surprise that the Zellers must finally confront their own depravity once the tree begins to topple. In fact, amidst all the chaos created from the confession of perversion, the hostility that has so far been confined to acerbic comments suddenly manifests into physical aggression. Without the tree to function as a barricade, it’s as if the family has finally been polluted by the Voglers’ barbarianism.

Inspired by the films of Eric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman, Margot at the Wedding will impulsively be compared to Woody Allen films, but the association is only superficial. Baumbach latest film is far more cynical than most of Allen’s work, while Baumbach’s unsettling style of wit is miles apart from Allen’s reassuring variety of humor. However, there is something quite European about Baumbach’s aesthetics, specifically in Harris Savides’ coarse cinematography, which is able to capture a gloomy colour palette of greys and browns to drown us within a perpetually dismal and dreary atmosphere. Equally impressive are the seemingly natural methods by which the filmmakers accentuate the distance between characters within specific compositions and enclose individuals within doorways to emphasize their anguish. At times, Savides and Baumbach are able to achieve a distressing, almost suffocating, intimacy with the proximity of their unstable camerawork that often resembles the work of the Dardannes, though I doubt anyone would be willing to give them that much credit. Perhaps more palpable is the influence of the French New Wave, as Baumbach occasionally inserts jump-cuts at precise points to maximize the impact of the characters’ actions.

Regardless of the cinematic techniques applied, Baumbach’s films tend to be evaluated based upon the meticulously crafted dialogue that is perceived to be his primary concern. Thus, Margot at the Wedding is probably doomed since it appears so cold and distant compared to the essential warmth contained within The Squid and the Whale. Indeed, Margot at the Wedding appears almost unconcerned with audience reaction, satisfied to be an uncompromising vision of deranged relationship between siblings, strangely swarmed by spiteful characters. Truthfully, it would be exhausting to catalogue all the minute transgressions that the participants commit against one another, even though the sum is significant. I’m not even sure one could categorize these indiscretions as passive-aggressive behavior considering the characters are so cognizant of everyone’s motivations and so openly hostile even during the most ordinary courtesies, whether it’s lending a book to a sibling, accepting a present from a spouse, or engaging in a dinner conversation with an acquaintance. It’s quite astounding how almost every scene that Baumbach builds features puerile characters that are constantly agitated by the each other’s presence and appear to tolerate one another out of obligation. Even when a brittle intimacy is achieved within a scene, it’s usually fuelled by necessity rather than sympathy.

Yet, in spite of all the exhibitions of shrewdly malicious conduct, Baumbach is able to craft a few frail moments of genuine honesty, even when they are difficult for the viewer to stomach. One such moment occurs when Margot and Pauline share a sinister snicker at the expense of their absent sister, Becky. While reminiscing over past childhood trauma and alluding to child abuse, the siblings burst into hysterically laughter when they mention the horrific plight of their other sister, which leaves the audience and the rest of the fictional family in an awkward position, unable to estimate the appropriate reaction after hearing about such a horrendous event. It’s an unnerving scenario that feels all too real, much like the incoherent cursing that Pauline directs towards Margot during the film’s climax (there is also something wonderful about a filmmaker renowned for his words taking repeated pleasure in incomprehensible dialogue).

However, while they might go overlooked while we are distracted by the cruelty, Baumbach also weaves in a few tender moments between the family members, including a frank discussion between the sisters while they share a bed about the damage they inflict upon each other. It’s during these fleeting seconds that Pauline’s words to Claude regarding family ring true: “it’s hard to find people in the world that you love more than your family.” Pauline’s statement paves the way for Baumbach’s conclusion, where a frantic Margot chases down a departing bus in a scene that mirrors our introduction. Blurred in background, exerting substantial effort, and sequestered into the corner of the frame right above Claude distant visage, it’s as if Baumbach suggests that Margot is fighting to remain firmly entrenched within Claude’s subconscious, finally comprehending that she needs his affection just as much as he requires her attention. Unfortunately, by the time Baumbach offers Margot some semblance of redemption, it’s has probably arrived to late for the audience to forgive her for the turmoil she’s created, but the desperation within Margot’s voice feels entirely authentic and appropriate, and succeeds in displaying the family’s willingness to endure.

In this instance, Baumbach exhibits a distressing habit of pointing out the obvious, and it’s a shame he finds it necessary to be so blunt at times with his thematic concerns. However, whenever Baumbach is able to evoke this unique type of unnerving authenticity, whether reassuringly warm or alarmingly frosty, Margot at the Wedding feels worthwhile. Thus, while Baumbach hasn’t crafted a particularly likeable film, it doesn’t mean his filmmaking isn’t accomplished. Unfortunately, while I personally appreciate Margot at the Wedding for its uncompromising filmmaking, it isn’t a film that I would necessarily recommend to anyone.

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