Thursday, 6 March 2008
ATONEMENT; MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) and Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007), two of the many year-end films now circulating here on bootlegged DVDs (and in the case of Atonement in theatres as well) could not be much different, even if they do share themes in common: the danger of family being linked to the very thing that makes them needed, intimacy; and the danger of being an artist, especially to those close to you.
Atonement is a high class, polished piece of prestige cinema adapted from a very well-respected novel by Ian McEwan. The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and was almost unanimously praised by critics, scoring an 85 on the Metacritic website. Margot at the Wedding is shot with a hand-held camera with many extremely grainy images captured by a low definition digital camera. Its reception was very mixed, scoring a 66 on the Metacritic tally. One can easily understand why, outside of the aesthetics. The characters in Atonement are very sympathetic, even the young girl who causes the tragedy of the film, and are placed in the life and death situation of World War II. The characters of Margot at the Wedding are extremely difficult to relate to, both because of their unpleasantness as well as the seeming pettiness and privilege of their situation.
However, I admired both films about equally. Atonement contains one particular shot that has been much discussed by critics, an almost five minute extended tracking shot of the British army waiting at Dunkirk (stills above) that has already been compared to the greatest long take tracking shots in cinema history. The inclusion of such a bravura cinematic feat seems like a very self-conscious attempt by director Joe Wright to distinguish himself from other Merchant-Ivory style literary adaptations. As far back as Francois Truffaut's attack on the Tradition of Quality of prestigious literary adaptations in 1950s France, this sub-genre has often been accused of being un-cinematic. But with the exception of this one shot, Atonement does still feel like many other World War II love stories, such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair. The story remains very compelling, but at the same time is a literary conceit that Wright never really finds a cinematic equivalent for.
Noah Baumbach's style in Margot at the Wedding, like in his other films, is spiritually linked to the French New Wave. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has argued, Baumbach's first film Kicking and Screaming owes a great deal to the style of New Wave hero Jean Renoir. His last film, The Squid and the Whale, was an homage to early Godard and Truffaut. Margot at the Wedding recalls New Wave favorite Ingmar Bergman as well as New Wave critic turned director Eric Rohmer. In particular, the film's opening titles work to mark Baumbach's work as "art cinema". There is also a Dogma-like feel to many of the scenes and images. Much of what people dislike about the film is what I admired: difficult characters, ugly images, and a lack of story resolution. The interest instead lies in the performances, the awkward humour, and the surprising, uncomfortable eroticism, which is probably the most notable comparison with the often neglected Rohmer. Not a film I would recommend to most, but if you're tuned into its sensibility and/ or interested in the attempt by American indie directors to establish themselves as cineastes, Margot at the Wedding offers a strange and almost indefensible fascination.