Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rachel Getting Married

There are some very good scenes in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (2008)--which is playing in Paris under the title Rachel se marie--but you have to wait for them. The film, which takes place at a wedding, periodically comes to a halt for lots of long, heartfelt speeches in which different family members say how happy they are, and how great it is that everyone's here together. Having been to real weddings where people gave boring speeches like those in the film, I can't say I was eager to see that experience represented on film.

Thankfully, however, at least some of the family members are miserable. As the film opens, Kym (Anne Hathaway), has just been released from rehab after killing somebody with her car. Her older sister, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt), who's about to get married to a perfectly boring young man named Sidney--as in Poitier?--(Tunde Adebimpe), deeply resents Kym for the way her problems are always stealing the spotlight. At one point, Rachel observes that their father, Paul (Bill Irwin), who watches Kym like a hawk, only becomes engaged in a conversation when Kym's name gets brought up. (Sidney's biggest concern, on the other hand, is maximizing the number of plates he can put in the dishwasher at one time.) The movie has the basic structure of an old fashioned family melodrama, like both versions of Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds (1934/59), in which an absent family member returns after a sustained period away, and old secrets and wounds come to the surface.

The film has been celebrated by liberal reviewers because the fact that Sidney is black and Rachel is white doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow. But if we are supposed to be living in this "post-racial" utopia, then how come the film is at pains to make Sidney's family as boring as possible? Couldn't they be messed up too, and have a daughter who's a former model and recovering drug addict, just the same as any white family? Also, it's a little conspicuous that the bridesmaids are all wearing saris, even though none of the characters are Hindu and it's a Christian ceremony, as if wearing the clothes somehow made the event more inclusive.

Shot on video by Declan Quinn, it's the kind of cruddy looking movie that only a truly talented cinematographer could make. When Rachel disappears into a dark kitchen, a lesser DP would contrive some way of shining a light in her face, but Quinn, having painted himself into a corner of pointless naturalism, refuses to back down. When Demme shows us the home movie being shot by Sidney's younger brother (a military hero, and therefore doubly boring), the change in image quality is subtle rather than dramatic.

The plot and style of the film both resemble Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding (2007), which was also about the love-hate relationship between adult sisters. That film was photographed by Harris Savides, who also achieved a naturalistic look by shooting in low lighting conditions. And both films favor handheld medium shots and close-ups--all the better for serving up the emotions raw and throwing viewers into the thick of it. But in Baumbach's film, all the characters have interesting flaws. For instance, the groom (Jack Black, taking his Orange County [2002] loser persona to the absolute max) is a failed musician with a "funny" mustache who's eventually revealed to be a pedophile. And Savides, working on 35mm, is able to have a whole range of tones, from over-exposed to totally black with a single light source (say, the light shining in through an attic window), in contrast with Quinn's images, which are flat and ugly. But because the picture Baumbach paints is much less flattering, reviews were mixed, while the critics are going bananas for Demme's rose-tinted view of racial harmony.

Incidentally, the film I regard as Demme's best work, The Agronomist (2003), is a sobering--if even cruddier-looking--documentary about the Haitian radio personality, Jean Dominique, whose political out-spokeness eventually got him killed. A labor of love that took Demme more than a decade to complete, it's virtually a rebuke of all his other films, this one included. But when it comes to what makes reviewers pur and wins awards (a hard look at Haiti's recent history or a self-congratulatory liberal fantasy), naïvety is clearly a better career move.

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