French movies aren’t much in vogue with American audiences anymore–the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, which has earned $10 million here, is the only French movie of the year to find much success, and it’s the first Gallic offering since 2001’s Amelie to do that well.
But this week brings Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, the third attempt this year by American filmmakers to pay homage to French filmmakers. Earlier this fall, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited went to India in imitation of the languid air and saturated colors of Jean Renoir’s 1951 family drama The River. Chris Rock’s surprisingly measured I Think I Love My Wife, a remake of the 1972 Eric Rohmer drama Chloe in the Afternoon enlivened by Rock’s acid standup-style observations on the frustrations of marriage, presents a typically French story of a businessman with a successful marriage flirting with adultery without either bunny-boiling theatrics or door-slamming farce.
Equally indebted to Rohmer is Baumbach’s new film, his first since the triumphant release of his autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. Margot at the Wedding features Nicole Kidman in the title role of a woman who goes to the beach house of her semi-estranged sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a few days before the titular nuptials and finds herself unable to conceal her dislike of her crude prospective brother-in-law (Jack Black). From the film’s title, which winks at Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (Baumbach also dubs the sister Pauline), to its washed-out look to its rumpled unstylish costumes to its depressed intellectuals politely jabbing away at each other’s most vulnerable spots, it has the trappings of Rohmer down cold.
But Margot at the Wedding offers more than that. There is a boisterous American quality to Baumbach’s work that lights a fire under the style of Rohmer, who is frequently content to let the story inch forward or even pause as everyone contemplates the scenery. In Baumbach’s script, strange deadpan wit and skewed observations enliven the conflicts, which aren’t limited to one or two quandaries but tumble in from every direction due to misunderstandings and feuds among siblings, cousins, neighbors, spouses, and lovers. There is a subtle wit to Rohmer, but Baumbach’s film actually makes you laugh. The Woody Allen of the 1970’s would have been proud to have made this film.