Sunday, November 22, 2015

Margot at the Wedding: A Reappraisal

When I first saw Margot at the Wedding back in 2009, I was 16, had never previously seen a Noah Baumbach film, hated this one, and really had no idea how to talk about movies. I'm not sure I do now, either, but at least I have the sense to recognize, after a fresh viewing, that this is a really good movie.

If you read any of the negative press the film received, it largely has to do with how despicable all of Baumbach's characters are. That's also the main reason I disliked it. My 16 year old self wrote this about the movie, which follows Margot and her son Claude attending the wedding of Margot's sister Pauline-who has a daughter from a previous relationship-and Malcolm, a failing artist: 

What follows is a tedious hour and a half of yelling, screaming, bickering, fighting, crying, swearing, all of which is totally unbearable.

I wonder why what what I found to be totally unbearable back then to be quite funny now? Perhaps it's because I was able to understand that the fighting, crying, and swearing is Baumbach's way of telling a massive joke. I imagine my growing familiarity with Baumbach's work helped, too. He loves unlikable characters, which is not a virtue in and of it self, but becomes one when they're used effectively. Baumbach is a master at this, but what makes Margot at the Wedding somewhat of an anomaly for him is that, unlike his other films, he doesn't try to earn his characters sympathy from the audience. He's set on their absurdity, their mean-spirits, and their utterly self-absorbed natures. In doing so he sacrifices the pathos that's snuck its way into his later work (most notably in Mistress America and the way he keeps us from forming what could have been complete disdain for Greta Gerwig's Brooke). 

And yet it also allows him more liberty to really wallow in the repugnancy of his characters and find interesting ways to present their nastiness and the situation at whole. In a way, it almost feels more like an experiment, as opposed to most of his other films in which theme, personal realizations, and denouement are major focal points. He almost always deals with the transition from disorder to order, even if that order means disappointment for his characters. Here, though, he works in the opposite direction. We're given the sense of control as Margot and her son travel by train to attend her sister's wedding, and then slowly that control unwinds and gives way to total disarray. And it's this movement towards disarray that allows Baumbach to experiment, because rather than trying to get somewhere specific, he's attempting scatter his landscape, to spin his characters out of control.

One of the ways he does this is to take the idea of family gatherings as something of a horror story (the first thing Margot asks for when she arrives at her sister's house is a glass of white wine-alcohol is typically a way to survive those difficult family encounters, and the fact that Margot wants it before any real encounters have begun indicates that this is going to be a particularly exasperating couple of days) and to accentuate it by employing tropes from the actual genre of horror.

Now, I'm not sure if this is something Baumbach was directly thinking about, but I certainly noticed it, as did Greta Gerwig: "I thought it was a horror movie," she says somewhat jokingly in the New Yorker profile on Baumbach from 2013. The most blatant example are the Voglers, the redneck neighbors of Pauline and Malcolm, who create a stir when they demand the large tree under which the wedding ceremony is to take place be cut down because the roots are extending into their yard and destroying their garden.

We first encounter them during a family walk in the woods. The Voglers are ahead on the trail and mistreating their child, at which Margot exclaims: "Be careful how you pull that child's arm! You'll pull it out of its socket." It's a strange, somewhat unsettling line from Margot, one of many Baumbach's packed his script with. Something isn't quite right with people and the way they talk in the world of this movie, he seems to suggest. The mother calls Margot a bitch and we immediately know these are not neighbors to mingle with. To add to the unease, later on the trail they encounter one of the shoes of the mistreated child. "Your mom started a war," Pauline's adolescent daughter Ingrid says in the next scene. "We have to make sure we wear shoes because they might star throwing glass."

Afterwards, Margot goes over to their house to make amends, but before she knocks she spies through the window and sees the husband and wife lay a massive object wrapped in a tarp on the table. Turns out it's a slaughtered pig, but you get the sense that if this was an actual horror film, it might be a dead body. Margot is horrified, and as she continues to watch, suddenly the Voglers' teenage son is at the window staring at her. At dusk his face is mostly a grey shape, like a ghost, and I, like Margot, was legitimately scared for a brief moment. 

There's another scene with the Voglers' kid that's also a little creepy. Claude and Ingrid are walking through the woods when they encounter him shirtless, in cut-off jeans. He taunts them briefly and then attacks Claude, tackling him to the ground. "You're fucking dead," he jeers repeatedly before biting Claude's neck in a drawn-out way that suggests a vampire. Or a cannibal, which brings to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that also shares a very similar woodsy setting and the most terrifying family in movie history. While Margot at the Wedding never comes close to that film's most horrific elements (and it would be absurd if it did), the equation of family and dread is something both films share. And just as Sally, the sole survivor in Tobe Hooper's classic, manages to escape at the end in the back of a truck, so too does Margot flee at the end on a bus with her son (quite literally, as she chases down the bus). 

There are other horror elements as well, like when a car crashes into a tree and characters are forced to walk through the woods in the dark, or when Margot speaks to her son as she might a lover, disappointed by his behavior. And even the look of the film is eerie, with low-lit interiors and grey exteriors, the overcast skies like a menace hovering above these troubled people (ideal for DP Harris Savides). Baumbach has stated that he wanted the movie to look like those times when you're talking to someone in a room without any lights on, and then suddenly it starts to get dark outside and the room takes on a strange, dim ambience. The result is film with a look so eerie that it almost takes on a sinister air to it. 

Now, of course, Baumbach's trying to make a comedy, and indeed it's funny, often in unexpected ways (Margot showing off her tree climbing skills only to get stuck and require fireman to rescue her, Malcolm trying to flick a cigarette out the car but landing it on a passenger in the back seat), but I've never seen a comedy pack such a sense of unease and strangeness in its look and feel. That, combined with the aforementioned moments that seem like they're straight from a bonafide horror flick is one of the ways to see Baumbach's film as an experiment. It's startlingly good if you look for the right things and don't base your opinion on your judgement of these characters. Because that's certainly not what Baumbach's doing, and nor does he want you to. 

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