A huge improvement over Noah Baumbach's breakthrough The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding is proving to be nothing if not divisive at this year's festival. Completely willing to alienate its audience through prolonged exposure to its unlikable, but human, cast of characters, the movie plows past its initially comic premise into Bergman territory with its honest and unflinching exploration of its characters' foibles. At one point, Margot (Nicole Kidman, perfectly cast), the titular author and sister, slaps her son, and the camera immediately cuts. Most of the edits in this tightly constructed serio-comedy have that kind of sting, though, which is precisely why reactions are so uncomfortably mixed.
Chronicling a few days during which two estranged sisters reunite for a wedding, the movie achieves a level of intimacy that's extremely rare in American cinema. Baumbach details his characters as acutely as his unflinchingly blunt heroine does, diagnosing and announcing their faults, no matter that such honesty grows to be less than pleasant. The sharp, incisive screenplay gives the ensemble a group of flawed, thought-through characters, and the cast runs with the opportunity.
More exciting, though, than the screenplay's accomplishment, is Baumbach's work as director. For the first time, it seems that he's conceived a film as a piece of cinema first and as a screenplay second. Throughout the film, startlingly poetic images show up on the screen, without ever negatively affecting the closely observed, dimly lit mood that dominates. Casual shots, such as one of a piece of lipstick-smeared toilet paper in the toilet, find visual metaphors for the anxieties that dominate this distinctive and razor-sharp film.