Rachel Getting Married

Recovering from this film took me an entire evening. I’m still haunted and disturbed by it several days later. Leaving the theatre, I felt like I’d spent two hours strapped under the carriage of an RV of family dysfunction. The family in question in Jonathan Demme’s nearly documentary rendition of Jenny Lumet’s script suffers from an unspeakable tragedy that forever changes their relationships.But the tenor of their interactions—with all the impossible need, utter miscommunications, and badly timed interventions—
sounds like the raw, rough material of the damages all families inflict on one another without even really trying.The acting in Rachel makes the family’s moments of cutting pain and humiliation believable and fresh. The script’s improvisatory mood, and Demme’s ability to lurk so intimately in each scene, his camera unobtrusively capturing the fleeting emotion in every facial muscle’s tick, brings the viewer close to sisters Rachel and Kym and makes it difficult to avoid empathizing.The story resembles any number of recent films. Margot at the Wedding comes to mind, in which Nicole Kidman delivered her own wrenching version of the Anne Hathaway role in Rachel as the troubled sister returning to celebrate her sibling but who manages to pull focus and wave family history with full-flag martyrdom and unhappy misanthropy.

The particulars here make the story poignant and searing. Rosemarie Dewitt’s turn as Rachel, whose nuptials organize the plot, and especially Hathaway’s vivid portrayal of her recovering drug-addicted sister, Kym, offer two of the richest, most complex performances by women I’ve seen on screen this year. Their ambivalent bond is based in the deep camaraderie of shared personal history, tempered by their mutual grief and loss and the blame Rachel can’t help placing squarely on Kym’s shoulders. They simmer in a stew of hatred and love, recrimination and understanding from which it’s difficult to look away, even as it’s excruciating to watch.

Kym’s addiction and tragic irresponsibility undergird the family’s dysfunction, but Rachel’s success lies in its ability to spread the blame for their inability to repair their loss and move on. Kym’s self-immolating guilt makes her the unwelcome dark side of the forcefully happy wedding event. But Rachel’s voracious need for attention and her bitterness over years of parental neglect as she was overshadowed by Kym’s more obvious wounds and traumas make her wedding day an emotional minefield.

The forced gaiety barely covers Rachel’s insatiable need to be the center of attention, a desire foiled when Kym arrives fresh from rehab to attend the festivities. Watching Dewitt and Hathaway push and pull at each other and cry out in their very different ways for their father’s attention, it’s easy to see how blame for the family’s dissolution distributes equally among all its members.

Their father, Paul, played beautifully by Bill Irwin in a whirling dither of desire to be happy at all costs, tries valiantly to attend to Rachel, his theoretically healthy daughter, while his always present, indelible, guilt-driven concern for Kym and her whereabouts undoes his best intentions.Their mother, Abby (played by Debra Winger, in a brief, truly virtuosic appearance), has flown the family, remarrying to a man untouched by their traumatic history. (Or by much of anything else; he’s a bland, nondescript cipher compared to Irwin’s always moving, mercurial spinning top of a man).

Abby’s barely contained, long-simmering anger flares in a remarkable scene between Winger and Hathaway toward the film’s climax, when perpetual questions of blame and accusation boil over into a series of physical, as well as emotional, blows that land exactly where they do the most harm.Kym seeks out her mother at her home, a marvel of clean, contemporary lines sparely furnished, as empty and controlled as Winger’s exterior, yet roiling with the violence of suppressed recrimination.The scene’s predominant décor is a large stone wall against which the two tangle, an ironic metaphorical juxtaposition with the flowers that Abby provides for Rachel’s wedding.

When Kym breaches their uneasy truce, which is based on not asking the questions that torture them both, the mother and daughter fly at each other in rage, slugging one another’s faces and drawing blood that releases nothing. The scene is both shocking and sad, as it taps the unspoken only for a moment, then locks it back up and puts it away. Still, that it insists Kym isn’t the only one to blame is one of the film’s achievements.

Rachel Getting Married also demonstrates that the families we create are often those more willing to truly listen and to forgive. Kym’s scenes at the 12-step meetings she attends while she’s at home reshape the stereotype of how these groups are typically portrayed in pop culture. The testimonies are warm and wry, self-knowing and revealing, offered by people committed to their own recovery but fully aware of how often it does and doesn’t work, of how many times they can look forward to crawling on and cruelly falling off the wagon of sobriety.

The people at the meeting Kym attends are practiced at listening in ways her biological family can’t even hope to emulate, so entrapped are they in the narratives to which they mistakenly cling to help them survive. Although few of her fellow 12-steppers speak, Kym’s scenes with them work like oases of calm and care in a family desert of otherwise scorched earth emotional travel. These folks listen without judgment; Kym’s family can’t hear at all, deaf from the shouting that echoes down the years of their collective yet individually isolating pain.

Nothing really happens in Rachel Getting Married, but the subtle shifts in its colors and tone speak to family relationships that change in incremental, hopeful ways as the wedding weekend proceeds.The several days before the big event are only about the characters’ preparations and concern about the weather, but they provide the palette of quotidian detail against which the bold strokes of damaged relationships play out.

For example, when Kym arrives home to find that she’s been replaced as maid of honor by Rachel’s best friend Emma (Anisa George), their contest for the bride-to-be’s affections become nearly mortal. Emma’s obvious disdain for Kym, and her blatant competition for Rachel’s affections, lashes out as she pins up Rachel’s wedding gown and prepares the wedding meal. Demme reveals the most ordinary settings to be poisoned wellsprings of old conflict and recrimination, and paints the emotional blackmailing and manipulation that happens on each side of the Rachel-Emma-Kym triangle.

Other simple moments reveal equally as much. Music plays a key role in the family’s fortunes, as the their friends all play various instruments, none of which finally provide the balm everyone seeks.Always expecting the music to soothe, the constant presence of men playing guitars and other instruments irritates more often than not. Their blithely unaware strumming becomes a metaphor for the family’s desperate attempt to distract themselves from what’s really happening around them.

The ethnic-influenced idiom of their music-making signals the film’s one off-key note. For reasons never adequately explained, Rachel and her bridesmaids wear saris and the men don Nehru jacketsfor her wedding ceremony; the couple’s cake is decorated with Indian-influenced colors and designs. This peculiar Orientalism stands alongside a cast that’s almost too insistently color-blind.Rachel’s betrothed, Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe), is African American, as is her father’s replacement wife, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith, in a role that doesn’t come close to using her full range of talents).

One of Demme’s most refreshing choices is to direct a multi-racial, multi-ethnic cast performing a celebration of interracial heterosexual union without commenting on difference. But it’s also just a bit suspect that race is so insistently not part of the conversation. It’s almost as if the film continues the characters’ inability to see what’s there, extending the lines of displacement and denial in which the family becomes tangled.

Part of me admires Demme for portraying race so casually and insistently. Another part of me thinks the film protests too much by not protesting at all. The wedding’s master of ceremonies, an Asian-American (Beau Sia, of Def Poetry Jam), plays the trickster, an always upbeat, ameliorative presence whose Asianness provides the “third” between the film’s black and white families. Perhaps the Indian-inflected wedding also participates in this racial triangle, allowing African Americans and white folks to meet at the site of Asianness to which Rachel and Sydney are both Other. It’s a bit embarrassing to see white women wear saris, but perhaps that subtle discomfort is Demme’s point:that everyone here is striving to be something they’re not, trying to disguise the complex fissures and estrangements between and among them with the exoticism of something other to them all.

On the film’s web site, Demme remarks that he filled the wedding scene and much of the supporting cast with friends and family.(The kid playing the screaming electric guitar version of “The Wedding March,” for example, is his son.) Many are people borrowed from his documentary-in-progress about New Orleans post-Katrina, some of whom are jazz musicians. Other musicians in Rachel are from an ensemble of Middle Eastern people Demme met while looking for a band to play on the soundtrack of his filmJimmy Carter: Man from Plains.

Many of the film’s supernumeraries are other non-actors essentially playing “themselves,” including Demme’s cousin Rev. Robert W. Castle, who officiates at Rachel and Sydney’s wedding, and Gonzales Joseph, who plays Sydney’s cousin Joe, “the Iraq war soldier home on leave. He is indeed a Specialist in active duty, currently stationed in Fort Lee, VA” (web site). This mix of actors and non-, along with musicians imported from other Demme projects, goes partway toward explaining some of Rachel’s racial diversity.

Debra Winger’s appearance as Abby halfway through the film moved me quite a lot. Winger’s been off screen as an actress, gracefully entering her middle age without performing her life’s progress publicly as do so many younger actresses. Her features have softened; the planes of her face, so sharp in her earlier work, here seem definitively blurred, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. That is, even though her jowls sag a bit, and her limbs have thickened with the tissue of a woman’s middle years, her presence remains incisive and elegant.

The supreme dignity with which Abby holds herself at a necessary remove from her voraciously needy daughters makes her brief scenes among the film’s most compelling. When Rachel asks her guests to help her and Sydney cut the cake, hands (of many colors) pile onto of each other, covering the knife. Abby can only put her hand into the collection for a moment; she removes it almost instantly, unable to maintain contact.

Abby leaves the wedding party early, unable to assert her rightful presence at her daughter’s celebration and unwilling to pick up the burden of responsibility that real engagement would entail.She’s encased in self-protective remove that only breaks for the brief moment when Kym insists she bear equally in the burden of blame for their tragedy. Abby can’t forget and can’t forgive but it’s herself whom she’s determined to punish. The performance is entirely moving; I hope we can look forward to more of Winger’s intelligent, emotionally acute acting, since it’s so rare to see a middle-aged woman play and be a complex, compelling character.

Hathaway, as the damaged Kym, is as good as all the critics suggest. But what strikes me most about her performance is her strength. Kym might be an addict in the precarious early stages of recovery; she might use sex promiscuously for quick and superficial emotional connections; and she might be the dark presence that reminds her family too dearly of all they’ve lost. But played by Hathaway, Kym is also a woman strong enough to be the architect of her own redemption, not too broken to reach out with an unspoken but deeply felt hope that a new path to love is possible.

Despite the excruciating pain of their interactions, Kym gestures toward the family’s potential to remake its connections, and to embed their past in a fragile, tentative, but imminently possible future.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

8 thoughts on “Rachel Getting Married

  1. I’m glad you chose to write about this film. I, too, found myself feeling completely and unexpectedly destroyed by the story and haunting by the images for days. All three of the lead women gave some of the most memorable performances this year on screen.


  2. Thanks, Natka. I agree with you, obviously, and think we can’t take it for granted when a film gives women such wonderful roles to work with. One good role seems like a lot these days; three is heaven. I only wish every film I saw were the same.

    All best, jd

  3. I completely agree with your assessment of the bizarre form of orientalism in this film. What IS up with this mish-mash of colorful cultures (Africans, Indian accessories and costumes, Jamaican singers, Hawaiian leis) with no commment? Oh, and the Mercedes Station Wagon. And why are NONE of the non-whites in the movie in the least bit difficult or conflicted or complicated in contrast with the relentless disfunction of ALL the whites? Minstrels anyone? It often felt too much like a “colorful” cornucopia and not at all willing to engage the full guest list as anything more than window dressing. My two cents.

  4. Thanks for this smart observation, Kirk. It’s complicated, I think, even though I agree with you.

    On one hand, I want to admire Demme for casting lots of people of color, not only in the party scene, but Anna Deavere Smith as Bill Irwin’s wife, and the African American actor as the husband-to-be. I appreciate that he makes these choices without comment in a sort of “post-race” way.

    But on the other hand, yes, he does sanctify these characters, rather than making them flawed and complex. In the husband’s case–and Smith’s , for that matter–we know nothing about the character. They figure as supporting ciphers to the “real” drama of the white leads, which makes them, as usual, window dressing.

    That, compounded with the party scene and the ubiquity of the colorful (in all senses of the word) musicians who populate the film, makes me, too, suspect Demme’s ability to depict a more nuanced, “real” post-race and -ethnicity environment.

    Thanks for writing.

    All best, jd

  5. Hi Jill,
    Thanks for your thoughtful review of this film. I found myself strangely UNMOVED by it–I think because I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, perhaps in a silly way–who exactly these people were. I thought the performances were great–especially Bill Irwin’s and Deborah Winger’s–but I also found Anne Hathaway, at least initially, a bit “Juno”-esque: that is, too wry and clever for me to really believe. The “muticultural” cast added to my confusion (and the saris, as a friend of mine who has worn them commented, fit the bridal party terribly!), since I wasn’t sure who these rich, terribly sophisticated people were: bohemians? commodities traders?

    Your comments about the music as soothing/irritant strikes me as brilliant, and explains why, by the end of the film, I found myself giggling that the musicians were still gigging on the morning AFTER the wedding. And I loved the improvisatory filmmaking, the sense that you were there, in the middle of one of these very complex and fraught rituals. The scene between Winger and Hathaway rescued the film for me–without it, I wouldn’t have found a way to empathize with Kym, and with it, the whole picture of family dsyfunction–past and present and future–somehow opened up.

    xo, Gayle

  6. Gayle, thanks for this comment. I do think this points to the ambiguous consequences of what seems Demme’s desire to be, well, “cool.” He so wants to “normalize” the assortment of characters he brings together across race, nationality, profession, artistry, etc., that he doesn’t give us any detail about who they are or, as you say, what they do! We have to take on faith that they’re all good, smart, caring people, but what do we know?

    I think I was seduced by Demme’s effort to put the family dysfunction story into a larger context, instead of giving us the closed, claustrophobic point of view that the stereotypical film in the genre usually does. But at the same time, the opening out is so non-specific, it finally seems gratuitous, a literally colorful backdrop for what is finally a retelling (with the twist of the son’s accidental death) of the same old story about emotionally numb, unforgiving white families.

    The performances, though, did move me, as I thought the writing at least tried to make the characters more complex, and the actors gave them nuance, “secrets,” even, that kept them compelling for me.

    At least the film is worth chewing on!

    Thanks for writing, all best, jd

  7. I don’t think they don’t want to fix their family, coz 1st the dead can’t be brought back, 2nd Kym was not the person for blame, everyone of them, Rachel, Mom and Dad. That they could not have strength to talk and find out the real cause, that everyone knew Kym was not fit to take care Ethan but it seemed that only Kym who was mandated and arranged by her family to take care him, like her mom said she was so great with him, and this means Kym loved Ethan more and Kym was the girl who washed dish and took out the trash of everyone in the family, and from the whole movie that Rachel, and Mom are so selfish, all they cared was themselves, only Kym trying to please everyone and being a part of it, trying to tell everyone by slogan of sorry and to worked it up, but she was unable to save herself, her brother, nor her family. And it is unfair that when she was so sick, she still was put together with her brother, and when she lost control and everyone blamed her for her weakness, her drunk or doping head. it is unfair!
    And in the end, Kym left which means a death of her, and the tragic was that Rachel felt her burden lifted that she might not know that Kym may die of the depression of the whole family’s unfairness.
    The family killed their own son, Kym too.
    They were drowning before the car crashed into the river, and only Ethan died quickly, the rest of them died a slow death.
    I cry for Kym that she can’t save her brother, nor herself, nor family.

    Insightful Post By Pan Da Chew:)ha ha

  8. I am among the many who haven’t seen A Wedding. In fact, I hadn’t even known about it. I will definitely have to check it out.

    And while you’re absolutely right that Rachel Getting Married doesn’t resemble Nashville in many ways, I singled it out because to me it is the quintessential Altman film, a perfect expression of the connected disconnect he was after in a number of his movies. The content is almost completely different, but the sensibilities toward observing human behavior and action appear the same.

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