Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s decision to cast Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman as sisters in Margot at the Wedding, his new absurdist farce of unyielding cruelty, was an inspired one. Kidman’s Margot is seemingly confident, accomplished and impressive; Leigh’s Pauline, beautiful as she is, appears withheld and destined to be seen as forever insubstantial by comparison; uncomfortable with her accomplishments, her surroundings and, of course, within her own skin. The sisters’ contrast is pointed and immediate: we fear Margot, we fear for Pauline. We want to take Pauline up in our hands and whisk her away to a place that better appreciates her airy fragility. We watch these sisters awkwardly embrace and recognize that they are meant to hurt one another, repeatedly, in strange, unending domestic skirmishes that eventually add up to full-blown, life poisoning warfare.
Nicole Kidman is a stunning presence, one of the few of the current actresses who exude that un-Earthly, Valhalla grace that used to define the stars of yesteryear. That grace, for Kidman anyway, usually seems to come at the price of a self-consciousness that’s stifling and dull. Even her awful comedies feel bloodless and inorganic, as if she spoke to Meryl Streep’s agent and got the ok before deigning to mix it up for the cheap seats. It’s a pity too, because some of Kidman’s work is legitimately exciting; at her best she has an undeniable, tethered heat; unsurprisingly it’s her villains or barely hinged characters that fully register: Dead Calm, To Die For, and even the appealingly ludicrous Malice. Plop Kidman down in an Oscar wannabe and she’s aloof and false; adrift in good intentions.
Baumbach breaks Kidman’s shell in Margot at the Wedding, her best work since The Others. Kidman doesn’t look like a beautiful woman straining to play a normal person here as she has in many of her past films; this picture is cannier than that. Kidman’s Margot instead looks like a beautiful woman who used to be an incredibly beautiful woman, and now has to settle for being just a beautiful woman possessed with an incomparable intelligence that she wields like a broad sword, smattering anyone who dare exhibit more than a passing affection for (or slight insight of) her.
That most anyone would kill to have the looks or talent of the current Margot is, of course, never considered. Margot is only focused on Margot or, more precisely, everything that has ever failed or disappointed Margot. How Margot registers to others somehow manages to be of both the smallest and largest importance, a contradiction that drives everyone, herself included, very nearly mad. Pauline sums it up, as everyone in this film has a habit of doing, perfectly, succinctly, savagely: “It’s tempting to fuck around with a guy nowadays because we aren’t as attractive as we used to be.”
This sort of dialogue (which, truthfully, I paraphrased) is probably the reason some people reject Noah Baumbach, as well as the reason a lot of people rejected Margot at the Wedding. There’s seemingly no subtext to Baumbach’s laser-beam cynicism: all of the characters say exactly what they think as soon as they think it and in the most artfully composed way that they could possibly say it. That’s missing the point. The lack of subtext in Baumbach’s work, especially this and his previous picture, The Squid and the Whale, is the subtext; Baumbach’s characters admit their and their friend’s failures in the supposed service of honesty and self-help, but the true function is self-justification. Most people blanket their insecurities and bitterness in an AM radio stream of bland pleasantries and half-compliments. Margot, Pauline, and even Pauline’s fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black, not bad), are too sharp for that, they let loose in an opposite, equally contrived blast of rapid-fire “honesty” that masks a pleading affection.
Margot at the Wedding is imperfect but remarkable; overpowering, daring, and nearly surreal in its cynicism. Baumbach could almost be said to be conjuring the sensibility of Luis Buñuel in his apparent disdain for the rigid banality of the traditional “everybody gets together for a wedding and heals” picture. Baumbach’s Margot is, to a certain extent, just as false as those sorts of pictures, but on the opposite end of the usual spectrum. This is the wedding get together of your worst Art movie fueled nightmares: everyone says the wrong thing, everyone turns out to be a cheat, and everyone goes home worse than they were before they left. It’s telling that the one character in Margot that could be said to be an unambiguously decent person enters the picture late, and exits early.
But, ultimately and most importantly, Margot isn’t a monster. She’s a bit like Daniel Plainview, a more famous so-called “monster” from 2007. As in the Anderson film, there are clues in Margot for anyone who wishes to go looking. Pay attention to the conversation Margot has with her son Claude (Zane Pais, wonderful) in the beginning of the film about his sunglasses and watch how that episode pays off toward the end of the film. Watch how Margot handles a seemingly innocent question at her book reading (a scene that actually has odd parallels with Plainview’s church scene). Watch how Margot reaches, and reaches, and reaches, and then recoils upon receiving what she asked for time and time again. Margot’s end is more truthful and ambitious than The Squid and the Whale’s more conventional non-ending; no one comes of age here, no one truly connects, but they still hope to, and that, for the moment, will have to count as a happy ending, at least until Noah Baumbach, in his ballsy, broken curiosity, can come to terms with whatever domestic demon it is that continues to haunt him.