Sunday, September 18, 2011

Emotional truth

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)

Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale was a pleasant surprise a couple of years ago - a marked contrast with his earlier, conventionally quirky movies, his humdrum writing work with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic) and thin humour pieces for The New Yorker. It had strongly autobiographical roots – the set-up of two New York writers whose marriage is breaking up, and the two boys caught in the middle, apparently paralleled Baumbach’s own teenage experience. The film had lots of funny lines, but also sustained a uniquely dour, rather squirmy quality, shot through with denial and displacement and self-loathing – the ending provided only the most minimal degree of closure. At the time I wrote: “It’s a most distinctive and subtly weighty work, but with the feeling of a one-off, although I hope I’m wrong.”

Margot at the Wedding

Baumbach’s new film Margot at the Wedding seems like a calculated attempt to capitalize on that momentum (and perhaps on the sudden availability of financing) – a film that he thought rather than felt his way into. Nicole Kidman plays Margot, a New York-based writer who goes upstate for the wedding of her sister Pauline, who she’s barely talked to for years. Pauline’s fiancée is basically a waste of space, but they have good sex and it works for them somehow. Margot’s teenage son is there too; another writer she’s been sleeping with lives close by; her almost estranged husband makes a brief appearance; and there’s a scary group of rednecks living next door.

Film Comment summed it up this way: “…in this movie, as in his others, Baumbach refrains from judging his indelibly drawn characters and remains dedicated, above all, to the emotional truth of his material.” Now, Film Comment is a very good magazine, but I have a feeling (a) that they praise many movies in these same general terms, for respecting the old Renoir “every man has his reasons” thing, and (b) they seldom met a movie about a New York intellectual that they didn’t like.

For me it’s not so much the dedication to emotional truth – lots of movies have that, in their own blinkered way (emotional truth, after all, can often be a pretty banal commodity), and when your characters are conceived as a bunch of privileged screw-ups, it’s hard to know what’s plausibly true and what isn’t. What I most liked about Margot at the Wedding, I guess, is the volatility of it all. The Film Comment article points out how Margot praises her son’s new sunglasses at the start, poking at him for not wearing them enough; then when he puts them on at the end, she criticizes what they do to his face. He just shrugs it off, and you feel that in five minutes’ time she might as easily adopt yet another position on it. It reminded me a bit of John Cassavetes – love as an endless dance, unable to thrive without conflict, display and reinvention.

Everything Is Dysfunctional

It’s much coarser than Cassavetes ever was though. Rex Reed, a different kind of New York critic, called it “92 minutes of screaming, pouting, weeping and vomiting in an ugly home-movie style that could set movies back decades…there is nothing funny about a movie in which absolutely everything is dysfunctional regardless of age or gender.” I’ll spare you the specific examples he cites to support that point, because taken out of context, they sound pretty indefensible. But context is everything, and it seems to me there’s significant artistry and wit in how Baumbach’s dialogue consistently pirouettes and swerves and rears up: a movie where everything is dysfunctional (even nature looks like a flop here, said another critic) should count as some kind of achievement, no?

It’s a real tightrope though, depending heavily on good actors. Kidman keeps it all together pretty well, and the more naturally talented and facile Jennifer Jason Leigh is very good as Pauline. She recently married Noah Baumbach; hence her best part in years. It makes some questionable demands on her, but I guess theirs is a marriage that commendably refrains from judging.

For all its qualities, it does feel rather academic. The title is supposedly an allusion to Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, but that only brings to mind the greater gracefulness and overall coherence of Rohmer’s scenarios. I don’t know why Baumbach even wanted to evoke Rohmer though – he seems to be after something more primal and turbulent. His adults, compared to their teenage offspring, are nosily regressing, whereas Rohmer’s tend more to philosophically calcify. Rohmer of course is French. Oh, and when Rohmer calls a movie Pauline at the Beach, Pauline spends a lot of time at the beach. Forgive me the mild spoiler, but Margot never gets to the wedding. See, even the title is dysfunctional!

Love In The Time Of Cholera is an adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ famous novel (which I haven’t read), about a young man who falls indelibly in love, and then for virtually his whole life must watch his beloved living with another man; in the meantime, he conquers over six hundred women (all chronicled in a notebook) while retaining a concept of emotional fidelity, even virginity. It’s adapted by Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for writing The Pianist – Harwood doesn’t go in for pirouetting and swerving, and director Mike Newell isn’t in the mood to add any of his own.

Time Of Cholera

What we get is a pretty mausoleum of a film, almost hilariously soppy and stilted at times. Everything’s sensitive and poised, nasty plot elements like cholera are kept discreetly on the sidelines, and it has all the scenery and soft-core eroticism you’d expect, but it doesn’t make any sense. I agree with critics who find the main character, played by Javier Bardem, more creepy than anything else, and Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno doesn’t convey anything capable of this long hold on his passion. I fell asleep several times, and could have indulged myself in that vein a while longer.

But, I ask myself, is it dedicated to the emotional truth of the material? Well, maybe, in the sense that it devotes itself to Bardem’s delusional trudge through life and ultimately concludes it was all worthwhile. But shouldn’t we be declaring the death of such chocolate box filmmaking (and by the way, is there any excuse, in our sophisticated multicultural age, to resort to the hoary old device of filming a Spanish speaking story, with mostly Spanish actors, in the English language)? What if Love In The Time Of Cholera were filmed in a Noah Baumbach style, with some turmoil and randomness and authentic period dirt? What if a 50-year obsession, refracted through obsessive girl chasing, were actually presented as a phenomenon of dysfunctional psychology, with pain and rage and contradiction? That might not be true to Marquez’ novel I suppose, but at least it might feel like a project belonging to this century rather than the one before last.

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