The story behind Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, shot in 2005 but only released this fall, is long, convoluted, almost impenetrable. There were disagreements between the studio and the director, the ensuing legal battles took years, and the version of the film that was - extremely briefly - released this year was the producer’s cut. After Fox Searchlight botched the release - there were apparently not enough screenings for critics or groups like the guilds and the Academy - the internet took charge of the situation, spearheaded by a number of British critics who championed the movie as an almost-lost masterpiece, by pushing #TeamMargaret on Twitter. The extremely gratifying result of this effort is that the film will be released again in the United States, supposedly in more cities than just New York and Los Angeles. It began screening again at one of Manhattan’s tiniest and oddest independent cinemas, Cinema Village, last Friday.
The film, alas, has been irreparably damaged by the overly protracted post-production process: by around the two-thirds mark, it has begun to disintegrate, and continues to do so until it’s over. What, exactly, the movie is about, and what material is important to the illumination of that elusive quantity, is not entirely clear. But it’s a movie that deserves to be seen. If Lonergan’s grasp of the macro structure of the film is shaky and winds up, ultimately, bungled, he almost makes up for it with his extraordinary command of the immediate moment, the individual scene. The exchanges between the characters are always sharp and realistic, if not necessarily salient. Jordan Hoffman hits on the matter exactly by comparing it to jazz: “unpredictable, uncontrollable, unrepeatable.”
Yet despite all this morass of brilliance there is one element of the film consistently propelling it forward - pushing, maybe, at the material, at the space, clawing its way out. That force is Anna Paquin, whose performance as Lisa Cohen, a young woman who is the equally spoiled and intelligent product of the Upper West Side, is an incendiary, transcendent thing. Lisa witnesses - and, in fact, helps cause - a horrific traffic accident that results in the death of a pedestrian, and spends the rest of the film trying to figure out what to do about it, both on a practical and a metaphorical level. She wants, very badly, for there to be somebody on whom she can pin a kind of conclusive blame, and it would be convenient if that person were not herself. Or perhaps not. She takes a kind of agonized pleasure in her trauma, exploding it to a positively operatic scale (the opera does in fact recurs as a motif in the film), in the way that most teenagers do. She feels her own pain and suffering so potently that she is willing to use or enrage or please everybody else in her life in whatever way makes her feel better, or rather makes her feel significant. She very much wants life to be significant, and her own life most of all. It’s the tragedy of her, and of the film, that although it is, in a way, it’s also not at all.
We can’t quite blame her, though, and that’s due largely to Paquin’s dexterity as an actor. She is hyper-articulate and hyper-sensitive; we can see clearly in her face that she cannot help but feel everything too well. She reflects with an eerie accuracy the self-absorbed nature of teenage existence, the way that everything is either magnificent or horrific, the lack of comfort in one’s own skin, the sudden perturbing onset of sex as a fact of life and a tool to be used to get your way. The desperate quest to figure out who we are and who we are going to be is the inescapable underlying fact of adolescence and the movie externalizes Lisa’s, but it is really Paquin who brings Lisa’s malaise to the fore. The world may not be particularly concerned with Lisa’s emotional crisis, but the audience is. For as long as you are in the theater, there are only two people who understand and have lived through adolescence: Lisa, and yourself.