Saturday, December 03, 2011

Margaret, unthatched

You can understand why Margaret has taken five years to make it to cinema screens, as few in number as those screens were. You can understand why it was the subject of editing headaches for director Kenneth Lonergan and his editor Anne McCabe. The film has been edited into as smooth a narrative curve as it sensibly could have been (apparently by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) , but, even though it is as close to a masterpiece as any film this year, you sense that there's a bigger, more amorphous, even more majestic film lying in pieces on the cutting room floor. Because Margaret is not about plot points or closure or linearity, not in a strict sense at least. Despite the clearly stringent editing process, Margaret still feels inescapably loose, a quietly ambitious collage of the human existence that barely makes the slightest pan or track without acutely demonstrating an astonishing understanding of the individual and their relationships.

Jean (J. Smith-Cameron) and Lisa (Anna Paquin)
Ostensibly the film follows the repercussions of a tragic road accident, partly caused by and witnessed by Lisa (Anna Paquin). Confused, petulant, argumentative and naive, Lisa is driven by guilt and self-righteously drives this into seeking legal action against the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who was also partially at fault. As the film progresses, the legal processes Lisa undertakes with the deceased woman's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) do dominate, but even they prove more symptomatic of the tangled trappings of modern society's convoluted, emotionless systems than of any sense of resolution or finality in any of the characters' lives.

At one point, the idea of Lisa as the centre of a narrative is explicitly disputed by one character, their mouth practically spitting with disgust at the idea of such a self-centred idea. Margaret's title seems to take issue with this too - Margaret is none of the characters, not even the dead one, but a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem read out by one of Lisa's teachers. There is a sense of latent resentment as the film aligns with Lisa; passages that spend time with her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) vibrate with a peculiar jealousy, stemming from Joan being slowly pushed out of her daughter's worldview, while her father (Lonergan) exists only in phone calls to his daughter, sympathetic but disconnected, trapped in an airless Los Angeles beach house. Students who are forced to witness Lisa's circular political arguments with a Muslim classmate yell to reinstate themselves in Lisa's narrative. Characters who are at one moment integral to Lisa's narrative fall away, her life shifting in a different direction - youthful romantic possibilities shed for starker, more cynical sexual entanglements. Among many things, Margaret is a story of a girl struggling with adulthood, a question of how a confrontation with death might mature her, and twist her self-perception.

Lisa shrinks from the world around her
On more than one occasion Lonergan abandons identification altogether, instead observing crowded sidewalks, or gliding across the cityscape to Nico Muhly's delicately sad score. These moments never feel awkward or pontifical, but an expressively cinematic way of expressing the essence of the film: the world overwhelming the individual, the multitude of tangled stories of isolated human beings. It recalls something mentioned by Glenn Close in The Hollywood Reporter's recent Actress Roundtable - the concept of "mirror neurons" and acting being a "reflection" of a scene partner. "You can elicit an emotion in someone else by how you look into someone else's eyes." But Margaret is about averted eyes, missed glances, defiant avoidance of gaze. Lisa chooses to disconnect herself from Jean, who desperately tries to draw her daughter's gaze but in turn fails to really look at the new man (Jean Reno) in her life.

Lisa's gaze rests on sympathetic teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon)
Its convoluted journey leaving it a strange window into the past, Margaret's foundations are closer to post-9/11 society than the present, something explicitly referenced in the debating scenes at Lisa's school. But these moments never feel as if they're trying to elicit a particular response to anything; they are simply a more verbal example of a friction between two human beings, with Lisa and Angie (Hina Abdullah) tellingly positioned on opposite sides of the room. Margaret at once feels timely and specific yet displaced, a strange window to a recent past where the ideas seem alternately innocent and prescient.

I left Margaret in a similar way to that in which I left Melancholia - my sense of the word around me felt irrevocably different. But where Melancholia's florid, epic ambition left me on some other plane of existence, Margaret thrust me back out into a world full of people, a fresh tactility and almost hyper-awareness of all the individual stories and issues brushing past me. Margaret's lack of grand scope is what makes it so ambitious, as if it's epic qualities have been turned in on themselves, expanding within character rather than in the form of a terrifying planet. It pinpoints, finally, the difficulties of living, and the precious moments we'd all do our best to ensure we actually look at. (A)

Margaret is playing three times at a day at the Odeon Panton St. in central London until next Thursday. If you can get there at all, run.

1 comment:

msmariah said...

Wow, it definitely is a very deep film. Unfortunately, I don't know if I've seen any indication that it's playing in the states.