Tuesday, August 21, 2012


is the title of a movie without any characters named Margaret in it; the name is the subject of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins read aloud by Matthew Broderick, who plays the heroine's rather uninspiring and incompetent high-school English teacher.

And Matt Damon plays her math teacher, but this is not the sort of movie you'd expect from those names. It's a dark, serious drama with a clear plot arc but no pat simplicities of plot and above all no neat bow of "and it all comes out right" tied around its conclusive ending.

Anna Paquin, who carries almost the whole movie heroically on her strong shoulders, plays a 17-year-old girl named Lisa who witnesses a horrific motor vehicle accident for which she feels partly responsible; the victim dies in her arms. The movie basically traces how this experience almost disintegrates her life.

It's very much a woman-oriented movie, I thought. The principal characters are all women - Lisa's relationships with her mother and with another adult women she meets in the course of the story are the main interactions in the movie - and you'd run out of fingers and perhaps toes counting all the conversations which pass the Bechdel Test. The men in this movie exist primarily to look at the women, and for the women to wonder, a bit nervously, what they're thinking. The viewpoint is from the women being looked at, and this concentration on how they feel contrasts rather refreshingly with so many movies about men looking at women from the viewpoint of the male gaze, in which it's the insides of women's heads that's terra incognita.

Lisa does some strange and rather precipitate things in the course of the story, but I found her thought processes in the main thread of events to be compelling. Several times she gets into heated arguments - mostly but not all with other women (including classmates); though she can be mercurial with her mother, her attitude towards adult men is usually cautious and respectful - and I identified with her poignantly, because ignoring her overheated temper and focusing entirely on the content of what she was saying, even when I disagreed with her on substantive issues, I found her position justifiable, while the other party frequently misrepresented and abused her in ways I found eerily familiar. I'd be interested in others' takes on this.

(However, in an argument between a male student and the English teacher over the meaning of a line from Shakespeare, I thought they were both wrong, and I blame the teacher for not finding what seemed to me the obvious resolution of the dispute, and instead dumping the Argument from Authority over the student's head.)

I first read about the movie in this article describing how it was filmed seven years ago and has been held up ever since by editing problems and lawsuits, until a version finally made it out to DVD a couple weeks ago. That came in connection with another article citing the movie's opera scenes (characters go to the NYC Opera at Lincoln Center twice) as proof that Hollywood is killing opera, which Lisa Irontongue thought a strange charge since nobody has seen the movie.

So I reported in Lisa's comments that I've now seen it, and its depiction of opera is hardly fairly characterized by the NYT's citation of the teenager's question, "Why are you going to the opera?" Her mother replies she's not a big opera fan either, but she's been invited and maybe she'll go and learn something. She finds Norma beautiful (we get about one full minute of one aria) but the patrons pretentious, mostly because they use the correct Italian forms of "bravi" and "brava" when appropriate. Her date gently informs her that there's nothing pretentious about using words you know correctly, and that's that.

I can't say much about the place in the story of the later appearance of the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman (shown at much greater length) without summarizing and giving away too much of the plot, except that it's the very final scene and the emotional catharsis of the movie, and this time the characters are driven literally to tears by its beauty.

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