Margaret, are you grieving,
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
[…] Ah! as the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
The sacrifices that come with making movies financed by a huge corporation are so many, that the sole fact of a movie being finished is a triumph. Andrew Sarris establishes that auterists value the auteur’s personality due to all the walls they have to tear down in order to manifest it. He also talks about how an artist is never fully free, and that art with less restrictions isn’t necessarily freer.
There’s directors that have met both sides of the creative freedom spectrum in Hollywood. The better known case is without a doubt Orson Welles. From doing anything and everything he wanted with Citizen Kane, he went on to endure what many consider the biggest tragedy in the history of Hollywood: the destruction of his most personal work (The Magnificent Ambersons) by the executives of RKO. Even though we like to think that movies belong to those who make them, in Hollywood, the ones that have the last word are those who pay the bills. I mention all that because Margaret is probably the most famous case of something like this since Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Margaret’s road has been long and convoluted. Kenneth Lonergan wrote the script in 2003 (after his extraordinary directorial debut You Can Count on Me), finished shooting in 2005, but it wasn’t until last year - after being in a legal limbo for years, and going through different cuts that didn’t satisfy him nor the the producers - that the movie was premiered in two theaters in New York. From then on, a contingent of New York critics started the campaign #TeamMargaret on Twitter, and Fox Searchlight presented it in two other theaters, and released an extended version on DVD and Blu-ray a month ago. In under six months, Margaret reached a cult status that would take years for any other movie to achieve.
Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a teenager living in the Upper West Side with her brother and mother, who’s a well-known Broadway actress. She’s what most of us once were: an unbearable teenager who thinks she’s more mature than she really is, who uses big words trying to pass as an intellectual, who thinks her ideas are more valid than everyone else’s, and goes around making stupid decisions and justifies them with even more stupid arguments. Neither Lonergan or Paquin try to make a character the audience can sympathize with. It’s almost a paroxysmal version of the characters she played in The Squid and the Whale and 25th Hour.
The themes that Lonergan touches on are large and difficult, and it’s easy to understand what is it that made him lose himself in his own labyrinth while editing for over five years. All the characters, starting with Lisa, are filled with a deep sense of guilt, of resentment, of anguish, and their inability to express those feelings give the viewer an asphyxiating sense of oppression that’s hard to describe.
Margaret can be defined as the tortuous coming of age of a spoiled brat that gains consciousness of what’s going on outside her privileged bubble. There’s an interesting intertextuality with Rosellini’s Europa ‘51, and I don’t know if Lonergan considers it an influence, but to me it’s more than evident. In the latter, a family tragedy suddenly opens Ingrid Bergman’s eyes to the terrible reality that surrounds her, and what we see afterwards is the gradual canonization of a woman. She completely abandons her family and social circle, and dedicates her life to helping others. At the end of the movie, Bergman has practically turned into a saint on earth. Lisa never reaches those heights, but if we asked her she’d probably say she did. An accident, in this case provoked by her, is also the catalyst for her transformation. The movie is narrated from Lisa’s perspective, and being how she is, everything is seen in an unmeasured and excessive way, like an opera where she’s the main character. An opera in which all the situations and emotions are presented in such an exaggerated way that even the person sitting all the way at the back can feel them.
Lisa is an open wound, and Anna Paquin has the incredibly hard of job of navigating between the character’s selfishness and the bona fide self search outside of herself that goes on after the accident. Just like in Europa ‘51, in Margaret tragedy inspires a forced growth, and shows how hard it is to verbalize and make other people understand that process of change. Her relationship with her mother was already tense, but her inability to communicate and make her a part of her transformation makes them grow even further apart.
The new New York that opens up to Lisa is no longer limited to the Upper West Side’s microcosm, now it’s immense, where millions of stories happen parallel to her’s and sometimes touch, and that’s one of the themes that fascinate Lonergan. The accident may seem like a tragedy of epic proportions to Lisa, but it’s only one insignificant moment in city full of individuals with personal dramas, and that city is at the same time one small dot in a world full of people with even more stories. The scene that best underlines this subject is only in the extended version: Lisa and her friend Darren are sitting in a restaurant. The scene opens on a long shot and what they’re saying is intelligible in the sea of conversations going on around them, until the camera slowly zooms in, turning that long shot into a close-up.
The events of 9/11 and its effects in the city and its people are another axis in this story, and Lisa’s lost innocence parallels with the city’s transformation. She’s looking for her place in the world, reconciling the privileges that she’s always had with, for instance, those of the bus driver that caused the accident. Her search is moved by a simplistic ideal of justice, so simplistic that it’s not more than a crusade against the lower class person which she feels is more responsible for the tragedy than she is. This personal battle ends up getting out of control, and she doesn’t achieve was she was going for. Her thirst for justice and the sense of gratification that she expected to reach no longer mean anything. While her classmates, confined in the safety of their expensive high-school, passionately discuss big subjects and think they have the ability to change the world, Lisa is living them in the flesh, and realizing that her fight was useless is devastating.
Like the poem that gives name to the movie, the passing of time and Lisa’s maturity resemble the falling of the leaves, and Lisa, just like New York, is terrified and confused by seeing how the layers of a reality she considered absolute start falling off and revealing a new one that isn’t so comforting. Margaret’s biggest feat as a movie is how it captures a human epiphany like that in such an authentic and sincere way; showing the development and repercussions of this epiphany, of this awakening to a new a reality through images and voices of such well constructed characters.
In one of the many scenes where Lisa uses big phrases trying to come across as an intellectual, she uses one by George Bernard Shaw in which she says that she doesn’t want to turn the accident that ended in a woman’s death into her “moral gymnasium,” but Margaret is definitely a moral gymnasium for Lonergan.
The movie ends with a second epiphany, one more powerful and violent than the first. The opera that Lisa has created around her ends up crumbling down before her eyes, and finally, without saying a word, she achieves a striking moment of communion with her mother about everything she’s gone through. She allows herself to stop acting, her life is no longer an opera in which everyone around her is nothing but an extra. That moment is one of inexpressible emotional transcendence. What Lonergan created is a greatly ambitious piece of work. Fascinating, lacerating, that cuts very deep, leaving very visible stitches, and it’s those visible threads that make it feel even more urgent and closer.
I remember reading a phrase by Gustav Mahler in which he described how music should be. His idea was that for a symphony to be perfect it had to comprise everything, like the world. Margaret is just that.