“Margot at the Wedding” – 2007 New York Film Festival Review

Noah Baumbach’s new film “Margot at the Wedding” was one of the more disturbing films offered at this year’s New York Film Festival. This is not because of any overt violence; the wounds inflicted by the characters upon each other are invisible but no less devastating.

This film is a major improvement upon his last feature, “The Squid and the Whale,” which was selected for the New York Film Festival two years ago. While garnering Oscar nominations and critical accolades, that film was too insular in its milieu and rather self-congratulatory in its ersatz “honesty” in depicting the casual cruelty that often occurs in familial relationships.

“Margot at the Wedding” superficially seems to be very much in the same vein. Margot (Nicole Kidman), a celebrated writer long estranged from her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), has decided to attend Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed would-be artist. Pauline is happy that her sister has seemingly buried their differences and is there to support her. However, as soon as Margot lays eyes on the overweight, melancholic slacker Malcolm, she decides that the wedding can’t go on. Margot immediately sets out to put doubts in her sister’s mind about her fiancé. However, Margot is far from free of her own problems. She has just left her husband, leaving behind only a note and bringing her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) with her. Margot’s cruelty is hidden under the guise of extreme honesty, both with her own son and everyone around her. Margot also thinks nothing of exploiting the most personal details of her family’s lives as fodder for her short stories.

As the day of the wedding approaches, complications quickly pile up. Pauline’s next-door neighbors incessantly demand that Pauline cut down the large tree in her backyard that they claim is killing their lawn. Margot has been having an affair with her writing partner Dick (Ciarán Hinds), who happens to live near Pauline. Dick’s teenage daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) baby-sits for Pauline, and her precocious sexuality causes a major crisis later in the film. Also, Margot’s husband (John Turturro) shows up, demanding to know why she has left.

Almost everyone plays out their psychosexual neuroses for all to see, cutting each other down in the most cringe-inducing way possible, hurting each other in the ways only the closest of family members can. Parents let everything hang out in front of their children in ways that seem just a few shades away from outright child abuse. As in “The Squid and the Whale,” there may be hints of autobiography (although Baumbach pointedly disavows any direct connections), a reading encouraged by the casting of his wife Leigh as one of the film’s sisters. However, this film holds much more interest than Baumbach’s previous work, since here the performances beautifully embody his strategy of making the characters as unsympathetic as possible, yet daring us not to feel for them at least a little.

“Margot at the Wedding” has the added bonus of a beautiful visual aesthetic. Particularly impressive are the textured and grainy lo-fi lensing by ace cinematographer Harris Savides and the production design by Anne Ross, which lend the film a ‘70s feel in its design and gives the film an autumnal aura reminiscent of films by Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman, or more precisely, Woody Allen in Ingmar Bergman mode (especially “Interiors”).

And did I mention that this is a comedy? It is a credit to the excellent cast Baumbach has assembled that such unpleasant characters are compelling to watch, even though most of us would recoil from such people in real life. Kidman delivers one of her best performances as the viper-tongued Margot, never angling for audience sympathy. Leigh effectively conveys her conflicted feelings toward her sister, and her anxiety at growing older. Black tones down his usual anarchic antics and is quite amusing as the ennui-laden layabout who sleepwalks through life. Turturro is excellent in his brief scenes where he calls Margot to account for her extreme selfishness. Pais, playing perhaps the most sympathetic character, convincingly shows this young man struggling with his adolescence in the midst of this family turmoil.

Videos: “Margot at the Wedding” press conferences

Nicole Kidman said that playing the role of Margot was “frightening.”

Director Noah Baumbach talks about the script.

videos by Christopher Bourne / Meniscus Magazine