Friday, October 26, 2012

Margaret: A gritty reboot of Gerard Manley Hopkins

"Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?" This opening line to one of my favorite poems gives the slightly messy Margaret, playwright and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's follow-up to the wonderful You Can Count on Me, its structure and thematic cohesion. The poem (give it a re-read--it's lovely and seasonal), addressed to a young girl mourning the falling of the autumn leaves, argues for not only the inevitability of loss, but also the inevitable loss of the capacity to hurt as deeply as children do (or can). It's like in The Sound and the Fury when Mr. Compson tells Quentin that what grieves his son about losing his sister is that "you cannot bear to think that someday it will no longer hurt you like this now." And of course that was also about incest and a conversation that might not have actually taken place and I haven't even talked about the movie yet. So.

Margaret follows Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin, making you forget how annoying she is as Sookie), a privileged Manhattan teenager whose blithe self-centeredness and faith in her own precocity is not so much destroyed, but rather distorted and deformed, by a horrific bus accident for which she blames herself. This trauma occurs in the first twenty minutes or so of the film, and the remaining two-plus hours keep a very tight focus on Lisa as she attempts to numb her suffering through drugs, sex, anger, and a self-righteous crusade to punish the driver of the bus (Mark Ruffalo, briefly glimpsed, but haunting). 

The movie isn't easy--to watch, to categorize, or to deem entirely successful. Margaret was filmed in 2005 and only came out last year due to editing troubles. Those troubles were not completely solved. For a story with this much emotional rawness, any problem with pacing is going to feel either abusive or neglectful towards the audience and characters, and Margaret flirts with both. There are also at least one too many subplots and Jean Reno's character--a Colombian businessman romancing Lisa's mother--manages to be both under and overused. But it's still worth watching.

The film is ambivalent about the power of fiction to explain or account for suffering. Movies are described as "bullshit," but also as a reliable model for translating lived experience into language. The nature of "drama" is also very much in contention, with Lisa's mother in a stage play that is popular but predictable and safe, and Lisa herself constantly being accused of being "too dramatic." I think that the film's final scene, in which Lisa is able to connect with her deep reservoir of grief--for herself, for the accident, for the inescapability of loss--at the opera, gestures towards a way that performance can serve as a conduit for, and objective correlative of, the type of losses that cannot be adequately captured in words.

Margaret is described as a "post-9/11" film, which is most assuredly is, both in chronology and in its treatment of grief. Though the attack dances on the edges of the script--a few heated debates in Lisa's civics class, a barely overheard reference to Ground Zero--it is impossible to think of Lisa's experience with trauma--abrupt, unfair, unjustifiable, and brutally violent--without thinking of 9/11 as an analogue. But what I found most interesting about Margaret was the way it imagines the human response to a world where suffering cannot be avoided. Hopkins's poem implies that loss is as impossible to resist as the seasons, but Lisa struggles against that reality mightily, trying through punishing the driver to retcon her own complicity in the accident. She is grieving for herself, as the titular Margaret does, and that impulse is treated as deeply human, deeply immature and deeply pointless. But is a bus accident different than 9/11? Is 9/11 different than a twelve-year-old dying of leukemia (another incidence of loss in the film)? And if they are (and I think they are), is the human response always the same? Paquin's performance is so overwhelming (in a good way), that other attempts to work through grief get lost in her (can't resist) sound and fury.

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