Things We Lost in the Fire

Starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, John Turturro, Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Noah Baumbach

Running Time: 92 mins
Rated: Rated M (moderate sexual references and coarse language)

Margot at the Wedding is a puzzling film. Not that there is anything wrong with that. However, between puzzle and satisfaction, the swing is much more towards puzzle.

Noah Baumbach made that very good film about a dysfunctional family, The Squid and the Whale. Margot at the Wedding is something in the same vein, except that a principal focus is on a mother (Margot) and a son (Claude) about to move into adolescence. This film also focuses on the relationship between the mother and her previously estranged sister whose wedding she decides to attend. In the foreground is her sister's intended and her pre-teenage daughter. In the background is Margot's husband and a writer with whom she is having an affair. There are also some cantankerous neighbours.

This means that there is plenty of plot. But, it is plot by way of a succession of episodes rather than any dynamic character-driven or situation-driven narrative. Which means that the film could just stop whether issues are shown to have been resolved or not (and it does). Margot is described as often changing her mind - and this happens to the other characters as well. It means we leave the cinema thinking about the characters - or not - depending on how interesting and engaging they are (or not).

Nicole Kidman gives another strong performance as the capricious Margot. She is in turns mollycoddling her son or humiliating and embarrassing him. She is self-absorbed, a writer who has exploited all the family traumas in her stories. She dominates and then pouts at criticism accusing everyone of picking on her. Kidman makes Margot believable but not someone you would not like to know in real life.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is her sister, less moody and with her feet more firmly on the ground. She wants the friendship of her sister after years of non-speaking but she also has her distraught moments. Jack Black gives another variation on his large slob with potential performance as he prepares to marry but is off-put by Margot. John Turturro is sympathetic in his short screen time. Ciaran Hinds is the writer whose interview with Margot in a bookshop precipitates the final emotional crisis.

Baumbach has an ear for dialogue, especially the dialogue of conflict. This gives a literate quality to the film and the performances. But, these characters, their antagonisms and their emotions are still a big puzzle.

Paramount Out February 21

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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