Margaret (2011)

Margaret (2011) Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Kenneth Lonergan’s formidable and radical experiment in narrative forms, Margaret, filmed in different time planes but released in 2011, has not only aged stupendously well but has also achieved the status of being an abstract piece of 21st century cinema. To generalize it as “abstract” may not be the most accurate, it is self-explanatory enough in plot and socio-political allusions to pigeonhole it in the domain of abstraction; yet the same cannot be said of its teleological sense. What intrigues me most about this brilliant work of cinema is its inscrutable language. In effect, therein lies the abstraction to which I allude. It is redundant to mention that the final editing and the superlative ambition of its director were truncated by a series of obstacles imposed by the studio. I believe that the inherent mess that is palpable in the film speaks for itself, so there is no need to delve into the complications that this epic project underwent. Nevertheless, it is imperative to mention that whichever cut you have seen of the two that exist, both contain the same muddled, unclassifiable narrative structure. The gargantuan 180-minute version I like to say is more melodious and more powerful, and the 150-minute version more daring and layered. Still, both coexist in the same intricate environment.

Anna Paquin roars on-screen with her painstaking portrayal of Lisa Cohen, a teenager with the typical problems that a 17-year-old girl has at that sensitive stage, but her life gets even more messy when she witnesses, and is somewhat guilty of, a devastating accident. Without thinking of the consequences that distracting a bus driver while behind the wheel can have, Lisa recklessly interrupts the attention of the unscrupulous driver Gerald, played by Mark Ruffalo, and in the blink of an eye, the speeding bus collides with a woman as she calmly crosses a street. Lisa rushes to the aid of the dying woman, who is lying on the ground soaked in blood on the verge of death. Lisa holds her in her arms, and although some passersby try to help the poor woman who is in a state of delirium because of the accident, she eventually dies. That’s how icy, bleak and shocking the beginning of this story is. After that I’m not exactly sure where the film is headed, nor do I have any idea of its pretensions; however, one thing is clear. Different themes are scattered in the same tragedy, that of the protagonist and her life wrapped in an overwhelming sense of guilt and a brutal moral martyrdom.

There are many movies that deal with the life of a character invaded by a post-traumatic stress disorder. But I assure you that none is quite like Margaret. Kenneth Lonergan conceives something so singular and special that it really intimidates me to put it into words. I even think his conceptions are so ambitious and pedantic to the point of bordering on pretentiousness; yet none of this detracts from the merit of being one of the smartest films of the 21st century. Explicitly, Margaret’s flaws are also part of its effectiveness; though it may not seem to make the slightest sense, I think anyone who has profoundly experienced the complexities of this film will understand me perfectly well. The number one reason that makes this film extraordinary is its convoluted form. One of its many abstractions.

Even though the dramatic genesis of the story is stimulated and amplified by the fatal accident Lisa witnessed, the plot does not commence with that point of inflection. The masterful, if odd, script integrates many of the hallmarks of a 19th century novel, containing a novelistic sensuality that gives this on-screen story an enviable richness willing to be bold with its storytelling. Thus, the first few minutes of Margaret are cleverly introduced as an anticipatory space for those solemn and heart-wrenching events that will emerge in the rest of the film. We get to know Lisa in her daily life, but especially two facets, that of her family and that of her student life. These introductory minutes allow us to first grasp and empathize with Lisa’s world before her life falls apart. Delicately, Lonergan’s direction enunciates the tragedy using the spirit of a particular contemporary context. The story takes place in New York, just four years after the horrendous terrorist attack on the Twin Towers; Margaret holistically alludes to the sentiment of post-9/11 American society. So poignantly efficacious is the physical and metaphysical portrayal of New York City without its two landmark towers that the atmosphere becomes so dense and vivid to the extent of tangibility, and spirituality.

The script’s function is imponderable. Exquisitely, it takes us through the dizzying life of a lost teenager experiencing a moral hell where even adult advice is artificial and dubious. Lonergan’s anarchic direction makes this story a challenging, exhausting, yet ultimately admirable exercise for his audience. My first reaction upon seeing this wild cinematic experiment that defies every rigid rule of the Hollywood system was pure bewilderment. Whether it is the longest cut or not, the film is one of a kind, chaotic and frenetic, yet revealing and meditative. Much of the heterogeneity of which Margaret is composed comes from its idiosyncratic editing. The cutting system is the antithesis of the conventional order that a Hollywood film has, and I find that to be one of the most fascinating pleasures of this film.

Whenever possible, Lonergan avoids analytical editing or continuity transitions; he ignores many of the sacred laws of montage and reinvents a scheme of discontinuity cuts that evoke desperation and fragmentation with apparent narrative motifs. In other words, that deconstruction of continuity editing is articulated with solid and valid narrative purposes, premeditatedly executed to create an atypical cinematic space-time that brings authenticity and realism to the story. In many crucial sequences of the narration, the film seeks to disrupt the spatio-temporal continuity of the framing and opts for a compulsive ellipsis that progressively forms a peculiar dimension, from spiritual musings to an intense physical disorder. The editing is bizarre, but one of the most expressively lyrical I have seen, it seems to assemble the life of our unbalanced protagonist as a great novel, and a lachrymose opera.

Margaret is the most unorthodox, symphonic and eloquent film in Kenneth Lonergan’s filmography. It is abstract because its objectives are crafted with discretion and mystery, and I like to refer to it as such because it is uncompromisingly elusive in its form. There is no objective answer that encapsulates Margaret’s indecipherable dramatic depth. Personally, when I watch this film, I constantly evade its discursive superfluity with respect to its political and cultural debate, I don’t think this is a film that stands out for wanting to teach us something about moral duplicity. Rather, it tries to tell us something about our world, not as separate nationalities, but as complex human beings. When one tries to expound in detail what the heck Margaret is trying to convey, it loses the mystique of its cryptic poetry. I prefer to leave it that way, just as it is.

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