24 February 2012

Motifs in Cinema 2011: Marriage and Other Romantic Pursuits

I was recently asked to contribute something to Motifs in Cinema: 2011, a multi-site themed blog collaboration of 11 writers looking at 11 motifs from films last year. I selected ‘Marriage and Other Romantic Pursuits’ from the list. Although marriage obviously figures, the romantic pursuits part is slightly hazy at best. I thought I’d perhaps, for the most part, leave that bit out. There’s been spotlight on plenty of wedding-based movies which champion the love side of things. How about five examples of anti-matrimonial movie-making?

Here's Andrew Kendall's (whose idea it was) intro to the project: "Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in much different manner that literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offering. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmaker address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists."

Anti-Matrimony Movies: Five Films About Marriage and Other Romantic Pursuits

1. Young Adult (Jason Reitman)

The star of Young Adult, Charlize Theron’s youth fiction ghost writer Mavis Gary, doesn’t really have any truck with marriage. It’s more of an obstacle than a personal goal or a project. She disregards its constitutions in a uniquely novel way: Mavis tries to single-mindedly win back her now-married college sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) by any means necessary. Glamming up and putting on the hard sell are just the start; masses of alcohol, oblivious intrusion and convoluted manipulation are thrown in for good measure, too. It’s a brave and uncommon film, one which allows us to plainly see how deluded its lead character is, yet compassionately shows respect for her. Films which position the once popular, now tragic figure of the comeback prom queen as worthy of sincere attention (especially over “normal” folks) don’t roll around every week. Mavis was unapologetic in her quest, and the film itself never says sorry on her behalf. Young Adult, in its own particular way, is a caustically welcome little spike in cinema’s marital armour. It’s a sly wakeup call, a sharp reminder to never become too complacent. I’ll take Theron’s flipside marriage assault over any Katherine Heigl/Anne Hathaway/Jennifer Lopez bridal snoozer any day. To paraphrase mavis herself: I mean, have you seen those movies, like, up close?

2. Marriage Material (Joe Swanberg)

The couple in Marriage Material, one of Joe Swanberg’s (many) new films, are a decent, everyday pair, lending a hand to their new-parent friends by babysitting for them. In a brief 55-minutes the film shows the couple engaging with their experiences of what it’s like to care for a child – before they think of embarking on conjugal bliss and rearing a sprog of their own. They ooh and ahh at the baby, do a spot of work, chat with each other and friends, and do some gardening. Relatively little happens. The camera observes the placid couple in a straightforward, fuss-free way. No great truths about married life are revealed or denied. This is a study in miniature of practice parenting, practice grown-up life. Future hopes are clearly outlined, with little need for any extraneous dialogue. But so, too, are the telling silences. It’s an amiable, refreshing take on the relationship movie. A small glimpse at life for a couple prior to the tying of any knots.

3. Another Happy Day (Sam Levinson)

Another Happy Day is another bespoke wedding-day tragedy-fest in the style of Margot at the Wedding (a somewhat piercing take on the theme) and Rachel Getting Married (a somewhat invidious take on the theme). These three would make a great triple-bill of ‘jumping the broom followed by jumping off a cliff’ movies. These kinds of films suggest that wedding days are the very best times to let the relation-directed pain out. Every family hurts sometimes, they say. Ellen Barkin, as a divorced mother hauling her kids along to an extended family’s wedding celebration/therapy session, does plenty of teary actressing. So does matriarch Ellen Burstyn and trophy wife Demi Moore. (The less said about Kate Bosworth’s ropey moping the better.) They all vent their relative woes in one way or another; it's all about bottled up emotion uncorked in timely splurges at this blissful time. Huge thanks and sweet relief, then, for Diana Scarwid and Siobhan Fallon. As a pair of cocktail-drunk, gabby and, thankfully, lively aunts, they add catty, characterful commentary to every situation. Sometimes wedding ceremonies (and their accompanying lead-up or fall-out) are best spent with the people on the periphery, those who carry on being engagingly captivating or comically cutting on either side of the aisle.

4. Melancholia (Lars von Trier) and 5. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)

In the space of a few months last year, both Melancholia and Bridesmaids (which I wrote about just a week ago) became two of my favourite ever wedding-themed movies. Both displayed a marked cynicism (one slightly healthier than the other, you might say) about an institution that gets so often lazily or tediously rendered on screen. With Melancholia, Von Trier banged one out for the misanthropes of the world with his gloomy, doomed interplanetary heart puncher. Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, star Kirsten Wiig and company had the uplift, inspired comic experimentation and sheer energy. Not that it’s all plain-sailing there either. Both, however, portrayed women actively downtrodden by the pressures of nuptial engagement. Confetti was in short supply for Dunst. Congratulations were hard-won for Wiig.

Dunst was one of cinema’s most reluctant brides ever, with her depressed and introverted Justine; and Wiig, as head bridesmaid (well, for a spell), daftly spoke up for the maid's side, for the unsung heroines of wedding celebrations. 2011 made for a Kristen vs. Kirsten female acting smackdown; they were equally transfixing from different ends of the matrimony scale. Both shone brightly in entirely different ways as wedding-movie anti-matter. Their performances were vividly riveting and just anarchic enough. But each made some kind of stand for restraint and understanding when things became a little too falsely happy on the “Big Day”. With just one line each – Kristen with, “There’s a colonial woman on the wing of the plane!”, in the throes of turbulence, and Kirsten with, “Life is only on earth – and not for long,” in the throes of turmoil – they hilariously or wrenchingly summed up their predicaments perfectly. It's all rather ridiculous. Enjoy it while iut lasts.


  1. Excellent, paraphrasing and use of that Young Adult quote. When did (good) films get so caustic about marriage...and then, I realise they probably always were. Von Trier's decision to assess the issue of the world ending through the lenses of the insular wedding is an excellent decision and only sheds more light on the sometimes silly way these things develop.

  2. Funny enough that Katherine Heigl and Anne Hathaway paved the bridesmaid path three years ago with 27 Dresses and Rachel Getting Married. But Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiki Wiig took it to new heights by making the sister/best friend's POV into marriage the one whom we can sympathize.