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The Reeler Blog

Margot and the Mistress

By Christopher Campbell

When film writers can't think of anything original to say, we go with the old comparison approach. I'm as guilty as anyone. Here's my easy-route take on Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding, which had its New York Film Festival press preview and conference Friday afternoon: it's like Terrence Malick, by way of Dogme 95, doing a dysfunctional family dramedy. Village Voice critic and NYFF selection committee member Jim Hoberman, who moderated the discussion, invoked Margot star Jennifer Jason Leigh's 2001 directorial effort The Anniversary Party.

The Wedding party: (L-R) Jennifer Jason Leigh, Noah Baumbach, Nicole Kidman and John Turturro following Friday's NYFF preview of Margot at the Wedding (Photo: S.T. VanAirsdale)

The most common reference, though, is certainly to Baumbach's previous film, The Squid and the Whale; another audience member drew the comparison by asking the filmmaker about whether or not Margot, a movie about a title character (Nicole Kidman) going home for her estranged sister's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding, had any autobiographical elements.

"No," Baumbach replied.

But surely there is something there, Hoberman suggested, considering Margot's title character is yet another writer.

"I'm interested in writers," Baumbach replied. "It was something when I decided to make Margot a writer and I was really interested in what is her work, where is she drawing upon and also what happened between these two sisters. The process of the writing of this movie was a real discovery for me, because what triggered the whole writing process was an image of a mom and son on a train. And I had to discover it all from there.

"I think the autobiography question is a tricky one," he continued. "Because when somebody asks it they always have a different idea than I might have answering it of what autobiography means. I mean, [with] Squid and the Whale I feel like there was a certain point... In an interview I couldn't open my mouth without that question coming out. And that movie is much less autobiographical than a lot of people would like to think -- or will insist on thinking."

And if we writers do have something more interesting to say about the film than making comparisons and garden-variety presumptions about autobiographical influences? Is it then worth attempting an analysis of themes?

"I kind of try not to look at the movies from the outside in and think about themes," Baumbach said. "Even The Squid and the Whale, I never thought of it as a divorce movie or a Brooklyn movie or a movie about intellectuals. I never thought about it that way until people asked me the questions. I always liked reading the things, if people write it and say, 'this is a movie about Brooklyn,' I'm happy, or 'this is a movie about family.' All this stuff would cross my mind, but I wouldn't look at it in this bigger picture way."

Kidman made a reference of her own while discussing her performance in the film. "When something's well written," she said. "All you have to do is put yourself in the director's hands. In the same way as To Die For, which was I suppose a similar type of character to play. I enjoy being able to just get lost in the complicated nature of the person ... As much as people describe [Margot] as a monster, I wanted her to be someone you could feel, and you could feel the pain within her and all of the different fears and defensiveness and the way she can sting and hurt people and ultimately hurt herself."

As for the other film that screened for critics Friday, The Last Mistress, the incomparably provocative director Catherine Breillat was able to point out one similar film -- not her own -- by actually pointing out her efforts to avoid a reference. An adaptation of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 19th-century novel about French aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) and the tempestuous mistress (Asia Argento) who threatens his new marriage to young Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), Breillat's script cut at least one major scene from the source narrative: "Hermangarde meets Ryno at a big ball," Breillat said through a translator. "But a great ball of the Romantic era -- there's already the one from The Leopard, so I didn't want to open the film on a scene of a big ball. And I didn't have the budget to do better than Visconti."

There were other comparisons between Argento's evocation of Marlene Dietrich and referencing adaptations of Les Liaisons dangereuses. Primarily, though, The Last Mistress is Breillat's attempt at something different -- something she hadn't done before, as well as something only she could do.

"I wanted to make this movie for 10 years," she acknowledged. "And people were always saying to me, 'You know how to make small-budget films, so why do you want to make a big-budget film?' And I told myself, 'There are so many directors in France who aren't as capable as I am, and they are making big-budget films. So I wanted to make a big-budget film."

Posted at October 6, 2007 12:24 PM

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