Directed by Noah Baumbach
Margot at the Wedding is like the disappointing sequel to Baumbach’s 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale. Margot (Nicole Kidman) uses her impressionable son Claude in her battle against her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) just like the divorcing parents of Squid used their kids like pawns in their own battle. I only say Margot is disappointing because the film focuses on Margot, Pauline and Pauline’s soon-to-be husband, Malcolm (Jack Black) whereas Squid focused more on the children. In each case, the adults are the ones who aren’t trying. Instead they’re willfully suffering while the children try to navigate through their destruction before it permanently ruins them and any relationship they might ever have.
So in Squid, the focus was on these two children, trying hard to deal with the challenges of their parents’ neuroses and divorce. In this context, the ‘hero’ fights for something and against something. But in Margot, we focus on the adults, the ones causing the problems, with an occasional glimpse of the effect on the kids who don’t realize how much they have already been shaped by their parents.
Margot and her son Claude ride the train from New York to come stay with Margot’s sister Pauline, her future husband Malcolm and Pauline’s daughter, Ingrid, who all live in Margot’s and Pauline’s childhood home. Pauline and Malcolm are set to marry in the yard in front of the house, underneath a large tree which the neighbors want removed.
It’s immediately clear that Margot and Pauline have an adversarial relationship, and every other character relationship echoes their own conflict. The two sisters are passive aggressive with each other and complain two the people they know are on their side about the other. Margot says too much to her son, and Pauline says too much to her husband. Malcolm himself seems to suffer from depression, as Margot notes, and he fights everyone around him, including himself. To make things more tense, the neighbors are bitter and sullen. They want the tree removed and aren’t willing to talk about it. Their son, actually all of them, feel like characters out of Deliverance (1972). The tree dies in the yard of the girls’ childhood home, like it’s feeding off the same dark hole which consumes Margot and Pauline and which in turn has infected their loved ones.
Margot and Pauline fight like insecure and immature teenagers. Pauline is bitter, we learn, because she blames her past divorce on Margot. Margot, a writer, wrote a book with a character exchange almost word for word like that of one Pauline had with her then husband that she confided in Margot. It’s also very clear that Margot doesn’t like Malcolm. She pretends to be looking out for her sister when she says he’s not good enough for her, but we know that she never wanted the wedding to take place. Margot takes the train to the wedding like she’s a firefighter. Her goal is to extinguish the wedding and other more. It’s likely that Margot doesn’t want her sister to be happy because she herself cannot be happy.
Margot has an estranged husband, Jim (John Turturro), and she’s seeing another man, Dick, who no one else likes and she probably shouldn’t like. Eventually Malcolm is exposed for having kissed Dick’s daughter. This is easily Malcolm’s low point (beaten up on the beach), but it’s a victory for Margot who can tell her sister something like ‘I told you so.’ She and her sister and the kids stay at a motel, and Pauline tentatively plans a life in New York near Margot. Then Malcolm calls, and Pauline considers taking him back. Margot watches Pauline on the phone in what is the most tense moment for her character. Though this moment has nothing to do with Margot, to her it means everything. She watches Pauline like a hawk, and she’s disturbed when Pauline takes Malcolm back.
This moment probably reflects Margot’s greatest flaw: her inability to forgive and repair what’s broken. Every scratch, splinter, scrape, etc. is life or death for Margot, metaphorically. She feels everything to her core, and it has ruined multiple relationships, including the one with her sister, it seems.
Margot takes Claude to the bus station and prepares to send him off to Vermont to stay with his father. Margot refuses to go though she has nowhere else to turn to. Then she decides to drop everything (her bags) and sprint to catch up to the bus and join her son. It’s the first sign that she is trying again, just as her sister did. Though this suggests positive things for Margot and Pauline individually, it also suggests a sacrifice of their sibling relationship.
Margot is completely self-involved, depressed, judgmental and rude. She’s a hard character to like, so this is a hard film to enjoy. She also snoops around and drinks her wine either smugly or while nursing a bruised ego. She never shows her son the right amount of love. She either smothers him for what feels like show or she speaks bluntly to him, neglecting his feelings and once making him cry.
In one scene, Margot is encouraged to climb the family tree in their yard, like she did as a kid. She does, and she gets stuck, and everyone laughs that the firemen had to help her down. She doesn’t think it’s funny. Later, when Claude falls in a pool and nearly drowns, Margot grabs him from Pauline’s grasp (Pauline had dove in to save him), and he apologizes for laughing at her getting stuck in the tree. Margot’s response is to say “now we’re even,” though she does so jokingly. And while this could be an innocent joke, it feels vengeful because nothing with Margot is innocent. She takes everything personally, and everything she says feels either too calculated or too impulsive.
In another instance she tells her son that he used to be graceful but isn’t anymore. This makes him cry. She also unloads onto her son on multiple occasions, whether it’s about her sister (telling him the marriage won’t last) or about herself or about her son (telling him if he gets cancer it’s likely to be stomach or testicular). She doesn’t know how to appropriately talk to him, and she treats him at times like a therapist, like a student, like a prisoner and like a distant relative.
When we finally meet Jim, we see how nice of a guy he is. His character’s narrative purpose just seems to be to highlight how much is wrong with Margot. Jim stops to help a woman with a dog who has been hit by a car while Margot pleads for him to drive right on past. The woman sobs in the car with the dog, remarking how innocent the dog is, and all Margot can mutter is, “I can’t stand her.” We then cut to a little later as Jim emerges from the vet hospital. Margot bitterly comments that he probably paid for the bill. She can’t stand how nice he is, like it’s an affront to her because it reflects what’s wrong with her. Margot has just enough self-awareness to be miserable but not enough to do anything about it.
Pauline isn’t a whole lot better, but she seems more prepared to be happy. Her relationship with Malcolm is an attempt to repair the damage which she attributes to Margot (causing her first divorce). This is probably unfair to Margot, and it might just be a deflection. Still, she didn’t ask Margot to throw a wrench in her first marriage, and it feels like she didn’t ask Margot to show up now. Of course Margot was invited to what feels like a very small wedding, but it was probably just an invitation sent out of politeness.
Pauline vents to Malcolm about her sister, and it feels like behavior she simply learned from Margot. When Pauline considers moving to New York, she is approaching the idea of living a life like Margot. They would each live in the same city, with one child and with no significant other. It’s like Margot is breaking down her sister to remake her in her own image, not because she thinks that’s what Pauline needs, but because she’s miserable and wants to make sure her sister is miserable too. Then, if her sister is unhappy, she might have to rely on Margot who would look better by comparison.
When Pauline chooses to reunite with Malcolm, it’s a sign that she’s deciding for herself who she wants to be and what she wants to do. It’s the first sign that she won’t be like Margot and thus won’t be unhappy for the rest of her life. This moment does drive Margot away, but it feels like a necessary sacrifice.
Margot, while watching the bus drive away, decides suddenly to join her son, and it’s the first time she learns from her sister, though she would never admit it. The tables have turned, and Margot subconsciously accepts that’s she’s wrong, while observing that there still might be time to fix what she has broken.
I really had a hard time watching this movie because of its bleakness. I feel like I’ve seen this movie several times. I already mentioned The Squid and the Whale, but Baumbach’s later film, Greenberg (starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig) also deals with an unlikeable, difficult protagonist who has trouble letting people in.
I much preferred the scenes with the children who don’t realize how influenced by their struggling parents they are. In one scene, Ingrid brags to Claude that she has adult attention defecit disorder. She feels like a girl who will one day grow up to brag about her clinical depression.
Claude feels less molded by his mother than Ingrid, but he also appears well on his way to internal strife. He is very impressionable, feeling insecure about his sunglasses, his posture, his body odor and his attraction to Dick’s older daughter. He’s fighting himself because that’s what he observes his mother do.
The kids feel both like they’re at the start of their journey and also like they’re at the end of their education. Time is running out for them whereas it feels like it’s already run out for the parents. So why do we follow the parents? What is there to say about Margot and Pauline?
When you take a step back it looks as though nothing happened in this movie. There was no wedding, and there was never even a hint of a wedding. When Malcolm begins to saw down the tree, he weakens it enough so that it eventually falls on the canopy they had constructed for their ceremony. We also never see any other guests, just the family themselves, like they’re on house arrest, separated from the rest of the world. They’re all bitter, unhappy, sad, aggressive, unjustly prideful, self-righteous and incompetent.
I suppose the takeaway from this movie is that it’s never too late to change. While Squid was about kids running out of time to learn how to not be like their parents, Margot is about the parents remembering how to learn. Margot, Pauline and Malcolm are so set in their ways, and in the case of Margot and Pauline, it takes them admitting some defeat and adapting to other means of self-actualization. It’s like one long movie about a team of engineers trying to fix a dam and stop the flooding.