Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters..."

I hope everybody who was interested in having a good Christmas did, with or without Jesus. Here at our blended Pagan-Christian household we exchanged gifts (some habits die hard), and then took a hike in the woods with one of the dogs. I can’t think of a better way to spend a holiday.

Last night, the designated worshipper in our house went off to church, and I went to the movies. I’ve been anxious to see Noah Baumbach’s new film Margot at the Wedding, in spite of the mostly crummy reviews, and I figured there’s no better time to wallow in fictional family neuroses than Christmas Eve. If you haven’t heard about the movie, click above for the website. Or just watch the trailer:

It’s hard to say whether I liked this movie. I’m not sure it wants to be liked. The characters are all clever, verbose, self-centered jerks, except for the kids, who are just clever and self-centered. The title character, played by Nicole Kidman, is one of those relentless passive-aggressive types who can only survive among people who share her pretensions and insecurities—an earthier set would mop up the floor with her in no time flat. In addition to stabbing her sister in the back at every opportunity, Margot is the ultimate Freudian nightmare mommy, alternately seductive and brutal toward her young son. The complaint from most of the critics has been that it’s impossible to stay interested in such a thoroughly dislikable character. Salon’s reviewer also goes out of her way to note that it’s hard to look at Kidman’s obviously botoxed face. That seems a bit catty, and it’s also a pointless attack on the movie, since the character Kidman is playing is exactly the type who would overdo a cosmetic touch-up. (Personally, I couldn’t care less what Kidman looks like when the irresistible Jennifer Jason Leigh is flouncing around the screen in an open pajama top. Not that I have a girl crush on her or anything.)

Dislikable characters notwithstanding, I did stay interested right up to the bummer of an ending—which speaks well of the movie, since my walk-out rate as a solitary moviegoer hovers somewhere around 50%. I have zero tolerance for tedium when I don’t have Dave or some other companion to consider. I suspect what kept me in my seat—apart from JJL—was the sibling drama between Margot and Pauline. I have always been fascinated by sister relationships. I’m the youngest of three kids, the only girl, and when I was young I desperately wanted a sister. My mother had a girl baby after me that died at birth, which only added to my sense of being deprived. I’d watch my mother interact with her sister, or my grandmother with my great aunts, and it always seemed that there was a special kind of love between them—hate, too, of course—which you couldn’t experience with anyone but a sister.

Being an only daughter shaped me in a lot of ways. Among other things, I think it helped give me a feisty attitude toward males, especially in their bullying mode. I had to hold my own with the boys since there was nobody else on my team to back me up. It also left me ill-equipped for certain kinds of female communication. To this day, I am baffled by the dishy intimacy of beauty salon discourse.

I remember a friend once saying to me that she would never get married because she didn’t want to be defined by a relationship with another person. I always thought that was one of the dumber things I ever heard a smart person say. Whether you marry or not, you’re always defined by your relationships with other people. There’s no escaping that you’re someone’s child, sibling, lover, friend, parent, student, employee, etc., etc. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to realize how much our lives are also defined by the relationships we don’t have. In my case, I’ll never know what it is to have a sister or to be a mother, but everybody has particular connections that they forgo, or that life’s lottery doesn’t deliver. Maybe you mourn the lack, maybe you don’t, but if you look at the broad picture of your life, you’re bound to find empty spots that’ll make you wonder what it would have meant if they’d been filled.

Which brings us back to Margot at the Wedding, which, for me, was a glimpse of a mystery that has intrigued me all my life. It’s a terrific exploration of the dark bond that can only exist between sisters, a bond I’ll never know. I walked out of the theater feeling as if I’d spent 2 hours at a psychological peep show. A lurid, funny, seriously twisted peep show. Then I went home and asked Dave about how things went at church. Who says you can’t have it all?

Photo of Alice Liddell and her sisters by Lewis Carroll, from Wikimedia Commons.


Perfumeshrine said...

What a smart, articulate post (as always) and intriguing me to see the film when it opens here!

Of course we are defined by our replationships with other people (especially family: hubs, kids, parents, siblings ~whatever they might be)as well as our own attributes.
Like you, for comparable reasons perhaps, I have never understood the "the dishy intimacy of beauty salon discourse".

It has been my firm belief all those years that the most noble, the most important bonds are those that derive from not being DNA related to someone. To learn to love someone who is not "your blood".
The love towards one's child is of course superior to anything, mostly because one feels so much protective of it and so responsible (and this is why the love of the child to the parent can never be expected to be as strong, despite our vanity). But still, it is a call of nature: the need to nurture your own, to continue your race, your clan, yourself to immortality. As much as we like to deny that last part, when we see elements of ourselves in the child, we secretly are proud, even when it is something we despise in ourselves. It's how things are.
Loving a lover is not different (there can be protectiveness and responsibility and pride too!), but more difficult, more "cultured" and thus more noble IMHO.

I love Jennifer Jason Leigh too: have you watched Dolores Clairbone? Now there's a disfunctional family. I also loved her in Mrs Parker and the Vicious circle and Washington Square (surely a suberb performance of crushed girly dreams and the tough maturing of one into a woman)

chayaruchama said...

Dear God, Helg !
You hit one of my all-time favorite films- Mrs. Parker.
Also The Road to Wellville.

I love a woman who will take those risks- PLUS, I think she's married to Danny Elfman.
Come on. She's got it ALL goin' on.

Count me in, on the woefully sister-deprived....
I have a big longing, a cosmic sense of needing to heal the woman-hatred that was rampant in my family [ with the exception of an unmarried aunt, to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude, for her unconditional love].

That accounts for neurotic overkill in my posts-
I'm damned if I'll contribute to lack of 'fellowship'.
No need to perpetuate bad juju.

Hey, maybe I'll get to see this this week, with J.

Meanwhile, you kiss that church-goin' man for me, won't you [ you sweet Pagan thing, you !]

chayaruchama said...

Oh- BTW-

I KNEW, just by looking, who that perv of a photographer was.
Gorgeous work that CREEPS ME OUT !

BitterGrace said...

I have to say that I am inclined to agree with you, E., about learning to love someone who is "other." I always find it particularly interesting when people create intense bonds across cultures, especially as spouses or long-time partners. That takes an ability to extend oneself that most of us lack.

There was a lot of woman-hating in my family, too, Chaya--but there was also some intense female solidarity, for which I have always been grateful. Anyway, I love your posts ;-)

Jennifer has got it all. And she's made so many damn movies, I haven't seen half of them. I'll have to work on that.

Anonymous said...

She is teh hotness. There's something about her that just gets under your skin. I loved Delores Claiborne (also because I thought Kathy Bates was excellent, but the story especially between mother and daughter resonated) and Single White Female especially.