Monday, July 15, 2013

Thoughts on "Rachel Getting Married"

Some thoughts on Rachel Getting Married after the jump:

Rachel Getting Married does not revolve around the kind of story that one would expect to call optimistic. Its protagonist has been in and out of rehab her entire adult life, and her family is haunted by a tragic loss whose circumstances are eventually revealed in one painful, unforgettable, and stunningly acted scene. And yet out of that devastating premise has emerged one of the most . . . well, I don't want to say happy, because it's not. Let's call it hopeful, and teeming with scenes that are small miracles of quiet beauty and life. There are plenty of instances of sadness, of course, but there are also so many moments that affirm its main character's challenging journey towards peace (and hopefully, eventually happiness), as well as her family's trek along the same path. Only one has reached anything resembling it by the end of the film, and it's likely that none will ever get there completely. Too much has happened to them. But most of them are trying, and trying is what will get them closer to that goal. Beautiful doesn't even begin to describe this movie.

The film achieves its sense of joy amidst sadness largely by way of its unconventional flow, and its refusal to simply focus on Anne Hathaway's Kym. Centered—as the title no doubt gives away—on a wedding (that of her sister), some of its strongest scenes focus not on any one character in particular, but on evoking a feeling of communality. The long string of toasts at the rehearsal dinner is a scene that most films would not allow to unfold at such length. But Rachel Getting Married is not most films, and recognizes how important this scene of warm camaraderie between these two families is to its underlying theme of the power of human and familial bonds. And so we linger. I for one was happy to do so, given the warmth of the scene, the often very funny toasts, and the way the handheld camerawork all but gives you a seat at that table and asks you to be a silent participant in this exchange of love and respect.

That invitation cuts both ways, however, as it also guarantees we feel every moment of emotional pain. Kym's father and his soon-to-be son-in-law later get into a friendly competition of dishwasher-loading: another scene that simply invites you to join in the fun the family is having watching this frivolous contest. Or at least, it does until something happens that stops the fun on a dime and causes Kym's father's face to go from joyous to immeasurably pained, all in the course of a few seconds. Jonathan Demme eschews any sort of safe or distant vantage point in depicting these characters' emotions, with the film instead providing handheld shot after handheld shot (Rachel Getting Married is a movie that takes "documentary-style camerawork" to heart as much as any non-documentary film I can recall) of human faces, on which every feeling and thought can be read, thanks to the tremendous work by this extraordinary cast. The result is a film that portrays human emotion better than any I've seen since Bergman's Cries and Whispers. High praise indeed, but it's deserved, as Rachel Getting Married deserves to be considered one of the all-time great cinematic dramas. I for one have seen few finer.

Hathaway's performance also ranks as one of the greatest: if not of all-time, than at the very least of the this century so far. Kym is a magnificently complex creation, capable of cutting remarks and displays of selfishness, but mostly using them to mask her own inability to forgive herself for her past mistakes. As Rachel Getting Married goes on, Hathaway slowly reveals the deeply wounded soul underneath all those (frequently mean-spirited) quips and stinging backhanded compliments. In one astonishingly powerful scene, she quietly shares something from her past at a twelve-step meeting, and her every word conveys pain and remorse. She has done some terrible things, but we root for her, because she knows and feels it every day of her life. And maybe, just maybe, she can finally start living, after trying to hide from her mistakes for so long through drug use.

That's what Rachel Getting Married is: a tale of life and living. It's not a story of Kym's redemption, though it certainly could have been. But Jenny Lumet is too smart to allow her script to fall into any sort of conventional and emotionally simplistic framework, and (rather than worrying about redeeming her through any sort of grand action) seeks merely to make Kym a human being who is doing the best she can, trusting that this will be enough to get us on her side. She also doesn't make this a story of conflict between Kym and her family; there are conflicts, to be sure, but the film makes it clear that the familial bonds (particularly that between Kym and Rachel) still remain strong despite them. And that's in many ways more interesting than the story of a family that's fighting at every turn and on the verge of collapse. (The exception to this is Kym's strained relationship with her mother, which leads to the one scene in which it feels like a bridge has been crossed from which there can be no return. It's an extraordinary and brutal moment, made all the more so because of how it stands in contrast to the much quieter—but no less potent—emotions of the rest of the film.)

If one wishes to nitpick, there are a few very minor issues I could point out. A lie that Kym once told is revealed in a moment that relies on an extremely convenient coincidence, and a case could be made that some of the scenes towards the movie's end go on a little bit too long. But these don't really matter in the grand scheme of things: not when you consider the overall power and beauty of the film. In many ways, it's a slightly different kind of drama than we're used to seeing. There are lengthy passages in which the main story almost gets lost in the overall rhythm of the film (although it always gets picked up again eventually). Indeed, I'd say rhythm is just the right word to describe Rachel Getting Married, particularly considering the fact that it contains a fair amount of infectious music and dance. It's as much about a feeling as it is about its characters, and the two relate to each other in a subtle, clear, and powerful fashion that proves utterly life-affirming even as it acknowledges pain and loss. The subject is heavy, but the movie that's been built around it is bliss.

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