Thomas Sutcliffe: Why do characters have to be likeable?

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The Independent Online

Let me get the rant out of the way first. I'd like to defend Noah Baumbach's film Margot at the Wedding against the wrong-headedly tepid reviews it got last week, and I'd like to do it by looking at the loose ends of his movie, moments where the camera appears to get distracted by a detail in the scenes he has constructed. But first we have to clear up the matter of "likeability".

Quite a few of the responses to Baumbach's film made a point of saying that none of the characters was sympathetic or loveable, as if this was a condemnation in itself. One answer to this would be that "being sympathetic" isn't a quality that can be unilaterally acquired. You need to be someone prepared to feel the sympathy, and if they don't it's entirely possible that this is an indictment of their cold-heartedness rather than the characters' failure to engage.

Another answer would be far more impatient. Where is it written in the contract that all films and plays should contain characters that the audience like? Grown-up fictions aren't speed-dating sessions or singles holidays, where the lament that everyone is nasty and self-centred might be understandable. They are places where you can consider the more awkward aspects of relationships. I have a dim feeling that I may have been guilty of this babyish complaint myself in the past, but if so, I repudiate its stupidity here. Who cares whether you like the characters? What matters is whether they are convincing or not.

I would admit that liking a film's sensibility is rather crucial, and that may have been where the problem lay for those who didn't ever warm to Margot at the Wedding. It isn't a film that is remotely seductive in its approach to its audience, filmed as it is through Seventies lenses that give the whole thing a drab, lustreless look, as if the camera itself has forgotten to take its medication and has become severely depressed. But what that camera looks at is interesting in a way very few films are these days. Baumbach is terrific at noticing things out of the corner of the eye, and giving them a presence on screen that resonates after the scene has ended.

To give one specific example, there's a scene in the film when the characters (brought together by a prospective wedding) are invited by a neighbour to swim in his pool. This social occasion is fraught with all kinds of undercurrents – an unacknowledged affair, sibling rivalry, adolescent sexuality, improper attractions – and it culminates with a character fainting into the pool. Quite enough to be going on with, you would have thought, but the most memorable image from this sequence is an odd shot of the bottom of the pool – edited in to the sequence in which the fainter is rescued. There appears to be a drowned mouse lying beside the filter, and Baumbach gives you just long enough to look at it to suggest that it is worth looking at.

It's an oddly ambiguous moment. Is this a detail of the real world that has serendipitously intruded into the fiction, or is it a prop that Baumbach has deliberately placed there? The latter seems implausible, given how glancingly you see it and how extraneous it is to the film's purposes. Nobody on screen appears to notice it, and it plays no part in how people react. And yet it seems knitted into the mood of the film as a whole.

I took it as a marker of attentiveness – and though I wrote earlier about the camera being distracted by detail, that may get it the wrong way round. Baumbach concentrates so hard on what is happening in his scenes, both the stuff that he's made happen and the stuff that blows in from world at large, that nothing gets missed. To offer another example, there's a sequence in which Nicole Kidman's controlling mother unwraps a birthday present. Her son toys with the ribbon, and even that contingent detail seems to be absorbed into the scene. How he plays with it and how much it irritates his mother rounds out your sense of the relationship they have.

You could argue that this is just projection on my part, of course, but getting the audience into a projecting state of mind is part of the skill of the director, and the way that Baumbach constructs his dialogue out of scraps, remnants and offhand asides tutors you to see that nothing is negligible and everything repays inspection. And in a film culture that generally assumes that you won't be concentrating at all and have to be told everything at least twice, that's wonderful. Margot at the Wedding isn't just worth seeing once. It's worth watching twice, to see what you missed the first time.

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