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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Margot at the Wedding (2004, *** 1/2)

Nicole_Treed_567.jpg“JUST BECAUSE I DON’T AGREE WITH YOU DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT TRUE.”That’s the memorable way Noah Baumbach responds to a journalist who offered up an interpretation darker than what’s on screen in his relentless, tragicomic study of emotional breakdown among the literary class in Margot at the Wedding. As thinking-out-loud that sounds as written as can be, not precisely a put-down, but a musing of precision, discomfiting, just shy of disdain, it captures the tone of his written dialogue as well.
The 38-year-old writer-director’s fifth feature, coming after The Squid and the Whale, follows in terse, cutting strokes a short story writer Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman) with teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais) in tow to the wedding of her estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s wife) at the East Coast island home given to Pauline by their mother. The décor of the remote, unspecified locale looks as if mom had deserted the place 30 years ago; Baumbach and cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac, American Gangster) also work with less-sharp 1970s-era lenses, giving Margot an additional element out of time. (Pauline’s fiancée, Malcolm, is played with self-suffocating wit by Jack Black.)
Margot’s in the midst of a breakdown, more terrifying than comic, running from a failed marriage, hiding her affair with an older man (Ciaran Hinds) who’s also her writing partner, and she leaps from irritation to cruelty in a blink. How do intelligent people deal with unintelligent behavior in their midst? Badly, for the most part, but Baumbach observes his characters with ruthless economy. Brief scenes are sketched from the perspective of the characters: there’s a beguiling subjectivity in how events are shaped, including those involving less-well-off neighbors who see a tree on the shared property line—a bold and blunt metaphor—as a purveyor of rot. The Zellers, old and young alike, are less judgmental than fearful of them, of anything that can be an Other. (There is a shockingly tender moment near the end between two members of that clan that underlines this.) This also suits the motifs of eavesdropping and inappropriate confidences: what is the subjective (mis-)perception at that moment?

This is Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore) as farce, treading on the potential for intelligent people to crush one another with the ponderousness of their concerns, thoughts outweighing the concern for actions. Wounds are welts here: they do not heal. Baumbach says he works from scraps of dialogue or images like the opening scene of Margot and Claude on a train. “Things change all the time. What I try to do is remain as open as possible in the early drafts, but it creates a lot of contradictory element, character elements and things I later have to make decisions about.”
Leigh, whose mother is a screenwriter, was an invaluable collaborator. “I would ask her, “Help me solve this?” It wasn’t vague. I would say, “Help me figure this out.” Jennifer is an incredible editor and she’s great with character and story, so she was invaluable.” Although some influences are obvious—I didn’t get a chance to ask about Maurice Pialat (A nos amours)—Baumbach considers his work influenced by everything he’s seen. “I was thinking about Eric Rohmer movies, particularly movies where he has people sort of go on vacations. Things like Claire’s Knee and Pauline at the Beach. And the movies that Ingmar Bergman made in the ’60s that also take place on an island. I like that feeling of isolation, but also there’s something about getting people, you’re both isolated but there’s also a coziness to being separated from baumbach_1a.jpgeveryone. I had spent summers on islands as a kid so I sort of connected to that, brought that into Margot, movies like The Passion Of Anna and Shame. I love movies. I watch movies all the time so it’s hard to pick, y’know, certain specific directors that have inspired me in the aggregate. Any movie I like seeps in somehow.”
And life? “I probably identify more with Margot than Claude. There’s certainly things of me in Claude, but it’s not a depiction of me as a kid.” Why Margot? “I can feel pretty critical of people, and I understand that sort of feeling of when you’re going through something that’s painful, taking it out on the world and projecting onto other people, finding faults with other people because it’s harder to find faults in yourself.”
Just to observe Margot’s lacerating behavior without judgment is a rare feat of empathy. Like a Gena Rowlands role in a John Cassavetes movie, she’s allowed to fall apart. “I think she is complicated and you might not like her, but I have a lot of empathy for her. I never thought of it that way. I don’t look at the movie as about, “Well, should I soften this person here or there?” I just try to keep them true to what I see is going on in their lives at that moment. Margot is in crisis and I think people who are having breakdowns aren’t always their best selves. I know a lot of people like Margot and to me Margot is a real person. She feels very human to me, and sometimes being human is not being a great person.”
There’s no neat solution for her, either. “In my experience I don’t know when the crisis ends. I don’t know that anybody that’s gone through a breakdown says, ‘Okay! Nervous breakdown over!’ The movie approximates that experience. I think there’s hope in [several scenes near the end]. But it’s also, the movie’s about, in a lot of ways, it’s about not being able to escape your family and how this stuff keeps happening and keeps going. So to slam an ending on it and say, ‘Margot’s better now,’ I don’t know.” Baumbach allows himself a big grin.

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“With every table in the dining room occupied and me, the only waiter, neglecting the needs of a good fifty patrons, I approached Roth. Holding out Balls as a numbness set into the muscles of my face, I spoke. “Sir, I’ve heard you say that you don’t read fiction anymore, but I’ve just had my first novel published and I’d like to give you a copy.”

“His eyes lifting from his iPhone, he took the book from my hands. He congratulated me. Then, staring at the cover, he said, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.”

“These words worked on me like a hit of morphine. Like two hits. It felt as if I was no longer the occupant of my own body. The legs had gone weak, the ears warmed, the eyes watered, the heart rate increased rapidly. Barely able to keep myself upright, I told him, “Thank you.”

“Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

“I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

“Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

“After which I went back to work.”
~ Julian Tepper

“Any form of physical or sexual assault is a very serious matter, potentially a legal matter. But I’m also wondering, what about having some kind of “extreme asshole” clause? I know lots of people who have been abused verbally and psychologically. That’s traumatizing, too. What do we do with that?  It takes a lot of energy to be an asshole. The people I admire most just aren’t interested in things that take away from their ability to make stuff. The people I really respect, and that I’ve met who fit this definition, have a sense of grace about them, because they know that there is no evolving and there is no wisdom without humility. You can’t get better if you behave in a way that shuts people off. You can’t! You don’t have all the ideas necessary to solve something. You don’t! I’m sure if you spoke to Harvey in his heyday and said to him what I just said to you, he would believe that he accomplished all that he had because of the way he behaved.”
~ Steven Soderbergh