Deborah Ross

Family at war | 27 February 2008

Margot at the Wedding<br /> <em>Nationwide, 15</em>

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Margot at the Wedding

Nationwide, 15

Margot at the Wedding is one of those unsettling and bothersome films which will bother and unsettle you during, afterwards and possibly for much of the next day, like a flea in the ear. If this is your sort of film, then you will like it and if you don’t — if you like to put a film behind you the moment you leave the cinema, and go for chips — then you probably won’t. I’m not saying one sort of film is better than the other, just what this is, so you know.

And now you know that? Well, what you also need to know is that it is writer-director Noel Baumbach’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale, and also focuses on what is commonly referred to as a ‘dysfunctional family’, as if there were any other kind. The setting is a family gathering at the old childhood home by the seaside. I’ve no idea why films like this — mood’n’character films; is that the genre? — are always set in old childhood homes by the seaside, but they are. Also, the season is indeterminate, the light is weak and the gull-calling skies are always white. If there is a functional family out there, I would like to think they are living all day and every day in full-on, glorious Technicolor and through the best summer anyone can remember

Anyway, here we have Margot (Nicole Kidman), a celebrated short-story writer whose first visit to the childhood home for years comes when her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) prepares to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), a slobby manchild who wears a moustache for comic effect. ‘I had a full beard for a while, and then when I shaved it I left this part for last, you know, to see how it looked. And... it’s meant to be funny.’

Margot is not amused. Margot is not impressed by Malcolm but denies he is ugly. ‘He’s not ugly. He is completely unattractive.’ Margot brings out the worst in everybody and speaks her mind with a shocking lack of empathy. ‘Have you ever noticed,’ she disingenuously asks Malcolm over dinner one night, ‘how Pauline sometimes can’t make eye contact?’ This film could just have easily been called The Squirm and the Cringe. Margot is accompanied by her 12-year-old son Claude (Zane Pais). Margot may be the worst mother ever (non-physically violent category). One minute she is needy, suffocating, telling Claude he can’t wear underarm deodorant because it’s carcinogenic, and the next she is telling him he stinks. Nice work, mom.

Margot is bitter, angry, spills with passive-aggressive bile and is always swiping at others’ weak spots, particularly Pauline’s, who has her own problems, believe me. We are never exactly told why these sisters are the way they are. We know their father has something to do with it. But while the father is referred to — ‘What was it about Dad that had us f***ing so many guys?’ Pauline asks Margot at one point — he is never elaborated on. We hear things only in passing, as you might if you were plunged suddenly into the life of someone else. Exposition is explicitly avoided. There is even a third sister, Becky, who is alluded to but whom we never meet. Meanwhile, Margot’s relationship with Claude is layered in such sexual confusion that there is every chance you will end up as confused as they are. This is a film that sometimes has you not knowing where to look — oh, the squirm and the cringe — but more often has you not knowing what to look for. You will be hunting for clues, nose to the ground, just like a sniffer dog.

OK, this all sounds a bit tiresome and shop-worn; as if Bergman had somehow been channelled by Woody Allen via a séance with Rohmer. Yes, it is very much that kind of film. But, as well as being savage, it is also savagely droll, with several truly laugh-out-loud moments, and the performances are stunning. True enough, Kidman’s forehead looks as if it’s been cast from iron, but her portrayal of narcissistic egotism is almost exhilaratingly chilling while Jack Black’s manic persona is used to tremendous effect, particularly as Malcolm pathetically unspools.

Margot at the Wedding is unsparing and uningratiating but once your nose hits that ground it wants to stay down there, wants to sniff about and find out more about these terrible people. But what does it all add up to? I’ve no idea, not the faintest, but suspect that it’s symbolised by the age-old tree with the deep, troublesome roots that sits outside the childhood home and may or may not get felled. The tree bothered me then and bothers me now because, yes, this is a bothersome film. Still, you could get chips anyway. There is no rule against it, as far as I know.