Having debuted a new personal aesthetic in The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach gets more comfortable with his French New Wave stylings in Margot at the Wedding, a ragged portrait of family dysfunction that's chock-full of messy human viscera. Baumbach also confirms his talent for stuffing dense emotional material into a tight and economic package, barely crossing the 90-minute mark for a second straight film. But it's not without effort. From the framing to the camera movements to the dialogue to the direction, Margot at the Wedding feels self-consciously stylized. Most of the production design -- particularly the nostalgic and photogenic drabness of the island setting -- seems flash-frozen in time. Each shot is composed like a vinyl album cover from the early '70s, and Nicole Kidman's pink hat serves as a quintessential accessory of bohemian couture, a shout-out to the essence of Truffaut.
Beneath this hip exterior, however, is some real thematic meat. What stands out is Baumbach's daring, his willingness to bludgeon the audience with this family's ugly passive-aggressive warfare. In Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, he's chosen collaborators with a highly watchable inner turmoil, which bleeds through into their performances. As sisters who love and hate each other with equal intensity, the actresses play their roles with an anxiety verging on mental collapse, their feelings creeping across their faces in little spasms of emotion. Jack Black and his ironic moustache make an excellent complement. Because this film is replete with anger, self-loathing, insecurity, and cruelty, it turned off a lot of viewers, and some circles labeled Baumbach an empty provocateur. To be sure, Margot at the Wedding mirrors its main characters by being too difficult to love unconditionally. But there's no denying that it pulses with artistic intention, at least some of which it converts.