There's a long and involved story behind the making of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (2011)--about how Lonergan, having directed his first independent feature back in 2000, started his second some five years later from a huge, unwieldy script (Josh Hamilton: "I remember doing a reading of that screenplay in his living room years ago--it must have been 500 pages long. I mean it was all day"); how Lonergan ended up with a three-hour film but was contractually obligated to produce a two-and-a-half hour cut; how he struggled for six years to reduce the running time; how after three versions of the film were assembled (including one edited by Martin Scorsese) the studio finally screened Lonergan's 150-minute cut in two theaters, to mostly mixed-to-hostile reviews; how an admiring critic organized an online petition to see the three-hour version; how a year later both versions have been made available on DVD/Blu-ray.
A mangled account, I'm sure; I did hear that the longer cut managed to inspire at least two critics to change their minds and call it a masterpiece.
So that's what I decided to watch for now.
It's opera; you can tell that it's been written, shot and scored like opera, has the breadth, depth, scale of opera.
It has a story: Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a beautiful, comfortably rich young woman living in Manhattan. A discussion with Mr. Aaron her math teacher (Matt Damon) tells us she's manipulative (he accuses her of cheating, she talks him out of doing anything about it); a determined search for a cowboy hat (she's headed for the West Coast to join her dad (played by director Lonergan) in a week-long ranch holiday) tells us she's still a goofy if self-centered adolescent.
And then--while chasing down a bus whose driver (Mark Ruffalo) happens to be wearing her long-sought hat--tragedy strikes. Blood, lots of it; whole quarts sprayed about. Monica Patterson (Alison Janney, in a brief but memorable performance) dies in Lisa's arms; Lisa sits on a sidewalk, her pants drenched red, weeping.
It's an arresting opening--a lively if flawed main character struggling for the next hundred and eighty minutes to deal with her trauma--but isn't all that happens onscreen. What distinguishes Lonergan's sophomore effort from nearly everything else is the sense that his hold on Lisa's story is at best tenuous, that in a city with eight million stories (strange how that figure hasn't deviated much from what was quoted in Jules Dassin's 1948 classic noir film, or the TV series it inspired) a good number threaten to intrude into Lisa's own.
You see it from the opening--the view up and down Manhattan's avenues, the pedestrians teeming at the foot of skyscrapers in ominous slow motion. At one point Lonergan's lenses lingers over a plane crossing the sky and you thrill at the sight--it's like someone posted captured footage of an angel in flight. Pretentious? I suppose; Lonergan throws up shot after obsessive shot and you find yourself peering closer, wondering: every taxi cab, every street sign, every face lightly blurred by motion adds detail to a vast animated mural of a city caught in the intricate act of living--and, in the midst of that living, the occasional dying.
Critics mention the cafe scene--the camera looking down at Lisa and her friend Darren (John Gallagher Jr.) as she tries to explain to him that she likes him (but not that way), only instead of listening to her we hear a nearby couple talk about an ugly dog ("good, nobody'll steal him" "who's gonna steal him?"). I actually prefer a later shot, the camera gliding sideways across a row of apartments as we overhear a phone conversation about a missing person, overhear a couple arguing through the bathroom wall ("why don't you come in here and tell me everything I did wrong, and I can give you a preview of everything I'm going to do wrong?") before arriving at Lisa's. The shot recalls Jacques Tati's Playtime, where we peer into the side of a building the way a child peers into a dollhouse, the inhabitant's lives laid out before us--Lonergan doesn't have Tati's rigorous geometric wit, but the idea's similar.
Again and again stories intrude--before Lisa can arrive at a police station to submit an accident report we hear an officer describing a married man's second wife and family, hidden away in Staten Island; Lisa's mother Joan (the amazing J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan's wife) stars in a play and we hear brief snatches, sense a fully formed story being told (even if Lonergan has yet to actually write it out the play feels fully formed); later we learn that the late Monica had relatives with whom she never talked, and the story behind that sounds like another interesting subplot. Lonergan like Robert Altman before him and Jean Renoir before him seems to have mastered the (Catholic?) knack of giving us a world swarming with people, each worthy of our notice, the film frame at best an arbitrary boundary imposed to keep our attention limited to a reasonable span.
For a film with such wayward focus the (ostensibly) main characters feel alive, perhaps because (like Lonergan's multiple storylines) their defining boundaries aren't fully established, their personalities less than complete--they're still developing onscreen, and our responses change accordingly.
Take Lisa's friend Paul (Kieran Culkin): we first see him bartering cocaine for the privilege of making out with her; later she asks him to take her virginity and he agrees (the cad). Postcoitus, Lisa is upset--he'd come inside her before he could slip on a condom; Paul calms her by (arrogantly) assuring her he's the wrong demographic to have AIDs, and (more sensibly) pointing out that this being her first time, "it might as well be a basically happy memory instead of a shitty one." Paul's an asshole but oh so casual about it--even capable of a thoughtful remark--that you can't help but be charmed, even when bristling defensively.
Lisa's mother Joan is an even more complicated creation, a victim of Lisa's changing sensibilities; she can sense the gulf opened up between them but feels helpless in the face of Lisa's stone silence. She reaches out to Ramon (Jean Reno, charmingly slow-witted) and they become lovers--that's the easy part--but never intimate. His mind is an alien landscape to her, inexplicably European (or so she suspects), unalterably rooted in old-world machismo, despite (or perhaps because of) his love of European and in particular opera culture.
Early in the film Joan gives us the startling impersonation of a baby crying; later her face crumples when Lisa rejects her clumsy attempts at communication, and you wonder: who's the adult, who the child? For all her sophistication Joan seems to grow more helpless, Lisa more independent (the accident, the blood on her jeans have granted her new authority); at one point Joan insists that, having a new man and new play to worry about, she's got needs too (not "I demand obedience!" but "I demand consideration!"). Of course Lisa hides a gigantic trauma Joan can only guess at, but where the daughter used to come to her for every major crisis, this sudden remoteness must frighten Joan, who can only see the silly adolescent she raised.
Lisa is instead drawn to Monica's best friend and executor Emily (Jeannie Berlin), who has gravitas and warmth, who insists on clarity and straight talk (she berates people for being either incoherent ("Who are you talking to? You know we don't know what that means!"), or deluded ("this is not an opera!")). But Emily has a life beyond the confines of the narrative, and when she finds herself being fitted into Lisa's she lashes out: "this is my life we're talking about...I don't want to be sucked into some kind of adolescent self-dramatization!" A startling demand, considering she is a fictional character in a drama where Lisa is protagonist. Or rather, a character in a drama that nominally presents Lisa as protagonist, but is perfectly willing to listen to Emily protest her part.
Lisa is a fascinating bundle of adolescent clunk and sly manipulation. When she visits Mr. Aaron's apartment to speak with (translate: seduce) him she asks right off if she could smoke, and I asked myself: why would she do that? Lighting up before a man you're trying to bed isn't smart--he probably hates the smell of smoke, for starters. Yet she holds the cig like a pocketsized phallus and powers through; the misstep starts looking like a gesture of confidence, a sign that whatever she wants to do he'll go along...
As for the accident--call what happened trauma, and Lisa's response to it the psychological (or spiritual) equivalent of a bruise. Damage is done: guilt, pain, fear, anger leak from surrounding tissues with nowhere to go, resulting in swelling, discoloration, pain; the only real remedy is time. She tries to deal with symptoms best she can, talking to her mother, talking to the police, talking to Mr. Aaron, basically discussing the gory details without once discharging the psychic pain. There's only one person she really wants to speak to, and that person--Maretti, the bus driver (Ruffalo)--shuts her down.
And that sets Lisa off. The man is refusing to do what she--with considerable difficulty--has done, hold herself accountable in the eyes of others and the law (despite which she was deemed essentially innocent). It's this righteous anger, this need to address a grievous injustice (he won't even acknowledge any wrongdoing!) that fuels her campaign to sue the bus company; justice or at least her idea of it must be served (unspoken: and her innocence validated).
Lisa goes far; almost all the way. Then on speakerphone (funny how Lonergan's crucial conversations--between Lisa and Monica's relatives, between Lisa and her father--often take place over telecommunication lines where facial expressions cannot be read, where people struggle to catch nuances or make a best guess, often through static), Lisa talks to lawyer and relatives about a possible cash windfall and realizes just how much in control she really is (big money of course developing its own momentum, its own set of consequences).
The whole painful process feels like a long and roundabout path toward Lisa's second pivotal confrontation, this time with the hapless Mr. Aaron. Lisa strides towards him and his co-worker Bonnie (unspoken: they're dating) and lets him have it: she was pregnant, and just had an abortion (unspoken: it's his child).
And Mr. Aaron shuts Lisa down. No, not quite true--he looks her in the eye and dares her (without saying a direct word) to make an accusation. He's standing on his principles of course; the first time in the film he does. You can't help but think he represents the establishment, and hate him for it; Lisa on the other hand proves more human--more humane if you like--for not being as self-destructive as she's always threatened to be. She finally earns our pity and our love.
Stepping back you can view the film several ways: Lisa, unmoored by the accident and seeking control of the world and people around her, is stopped cold twice: by a man outside of her control, by another who's grown beyond her control. Or Lisa, unmoored by the accident, drifts away from mother Joan, attempts to attach herself to surrogate mother Emily (until Emily brings that to a screeching halt), comes back to her mother's waiting arms. Or Lisa, unmoored by the accident, seeks to punish herself for her sin--first through the law (she's exonerated), then through her body (her hymen, her uterus), then through another's suffering (the bus company sued, Maretti dismissed); only when Mr Aaron humiliates her does she finally allow herself to feel release.
This is at most an intermediate attempt to sketch what Margaret (the title is from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, about youth facing oncoming grief) is all about. I could go on and on but have to stop somewhere (thankfully Lonergan didn't, or didn't know how). In my book the best American film of the past five years--if there's better, I can't think of the title at the moment.
First published in Businessworld, 4.10.14