June 18, 2017
The Cynics’ Guide to Wedding Season: A Film Syllabus
A cinematic guide to surviving wedding season, sardonically.
It’s that time of year folks. Do you know where your unwanted sassy remarks are? I went to a wedding recently and felt wholly unprepared. It’s not that I’m opposed to marriage—just that I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. And while that may or may not change with time, I would have greatly benefited from watching any of the following 10 films to prepare for such a brazen public display of commitment.
While we’re about half-way through into the marriage season slog, I hope you can learn from my mistake, and draw from this syllabus to mitigate or bolster your cynicism towards all things marital.
dir. Lars Von Trier
What better setting than a wedding for a treatise on depression and the end of the world? We follow the reception of newlyweds Justine and Michael, set in the lavish castle/golf course of Justine’s sister Claire. What follows is a cascading string of distress and embarrassment: her father is a flirtatious drunk while her mother is openly hostile to marriage and anything that moves. Justine’s boss uses his best man toast to wrest a work assignment from her. And, least of all, Justine herself gradually slips into warped depressive lethargy; a Gregory Crewdson photograph of untethered emotional paralysis. Every articulation of Melancholia is filtered through an unsettling dream-like subjectivity, a dread for the destruction promised in the apocalyptic prologue. That said, everything has collapsed long before the rogue planet collides with Earth.
WEDDING GIFT: ‘The Hunters in the Snow,’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
dir. Mike Newell
More than any other film on this list, Four Weddings feels like being at a wedding. We meet people, glean their relation to one another, and are slowly enveloped in a warm (if incidental) sense of community. Richard Curtis’ script is transcendent, elevating a lackadaisical rom-com premise that would have wilted in lesser hands (Hugh Grant falling in love over and over again with Andie MacDowell). The film speaks to the soft melancholy of always being at weddings and never actually getting married oneself. That it does so without condescension, without tritely romanticizing “the thunderbolt” of true love, is a triumph. What an immensely satisfying conceit: that there is a fundamental happiness to staying true to what you want, be it marriage or otherwise.
WEDDING GIFT: a reliable alarm clock.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
dir. Michael Cimino
The centerpiece of Deer Hunter’s first act consists of a lengthy Russian Orthodox wedding. Steven is getting hitched to his pregnant girlfriend before shipping out to Vietnam with two of his steelworker buddies. At roughly 51-minutes long, the sequence consists of seemingly incongruous details, both humorous (bridesmaids in a fit of giggles stumbling through the streets) and somber (Steven’s slurred confession that the child isn’t his). The reception intones the kind of chaotic inebriation that teeters on the edge of violence. It’s the same lurking unease signaled in the looming banner, commanding the future G.I.’s to serve God and country proudly, and in DeNiro’s naked moonlit pledge to Walken that he won’t leave him behind in Vietnam. In this way, the rhythms and rituals of the wedding serve as more than an elongated character introduction, but a promise not only of what’s at stake but what’s to come.
WEDDING GIFT: the privilege of watching Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken dance.
The Princess Bride (1987)
dir. Rob Reiner
Childhood films are like familiar rooms you can navigate in the dark—re-watching them as an adult can feel like someone turned on the lights. It’s not that your understanding of the room was inaccurate; just that you didn’t know the couch was leopard print. That the royal mawiage takes place at night becomes more obviously sinister; Buttercup’s stalwart refusal to wed someone she doesn’t love less trite; and her fever dreams more relatable. Though it is disappointing that she didn’t lean into the moniker of Trash Queen. If like wee baby Fred Savage you’re going to open yourself up to schmaltz—best done via one of cinema’s most enduring, sly, and irreverent offerings. P.S. “Father, I have failed you for 20 years” is a fun thing to solemnly mutter to parental figures when they ask you when you’re getting married.
WEDDING GIFT: a bedtime story from the light of my life Peter Falk.
The Wedding Banquet (1993)
dir. Ang Lee
No wedding is without its fair share of social discomfort, but The Wedding Banquet is next level. Wai-Tung, a successful young gay man living in New York with his American boyfriend Simon stages a marriage of convenience with a woman (who has a crush on him) to secure her a green card and get his parents off his back. And then his folks unexpectedly travel from Taiwan for the wedding and things go to shit faster than you can say “Groovy. Rings.”The Wedding Banquet features one of the most awkward weddings in film history, bountiful with comic misunderstandings, genuinely painful moments, and toasts dickered enough to make you want to quit drinking. All of this culminating, of course, in a proper Chinese wedding banquet, where the deception, expectation, tradition (and booze) come together into an unlikely and rather poignant happiness.
WEDDING GIFT: hongbao.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
dir. George Cukor
You haven’t truly lived until you’ve heard Katharine Hepburn say “fiancé.” Like the rest of the film, the word oozes with patrician haughtiness and is frustratingly charming. Frustrating because Philadelphia Story is, um, problematic. While Tracy Lord deserves better, and while there’s no denying the moral repugnancy of men gathering around Katharine Hepburn and blaming her for their personal failings and calling her a frigid bitch-goddess—I can’t help but love it. It’s imperfect, yes, and littered with gorgeous moments: Hepburn’s icy resilience; Cary Grant’s description of alcoholism as a “deep and gorgeous thirst”; Jimmy Stewart’s cantankerous bafflement at WASP oligarchies. In particular, Philadelphia Story does an excellent job of charting the messy crescendo of a night of pre-martial stress drinking…and the precipitous hangover.
WEDDING GIFT: “Champagne! Just the bottle! I’m going on a picnic!”
The Graduate (1967)
dir. Mike Nichols
People who cite The Graduate as propagating the “we barely know each other but leave your fiancé at the altar for me” cliché need to re-watch The Graduate. To me, there’s very little hope that Benjamin and Elaine’s ride into the sunset results in a happily ever after. It’s a suspicion festering in the way their grins dissolve on their getaway bus; how lingering, we watch the exhilaration of their spontaneous rebellion run out of gas. What’s left is a sobered sense that impulsive romantic gestures are far from a cure-all for existential numbness. That rushing blindly into a commitment for the sake of rebellion sours. After all, we’ve seen the consequences of such rashness in Mrs. Robinson herself, who married young after getting pregnant with Elaine. Not to say that the status quo that Ben and Elaine are rejecting is justified—simply that there is a difference between avoiding what you don’t want and fighting for what you do.
WEDDING GIFT: stock in plastics.
Father of the Bride (1950)
dir. Vincente Minnelli
While ostensibly a lighthearted film about a loving-father-having-difficulty-letting-his-little-girl-go™ Father of the Bride is, I think you’ll find, a Kafkaesque nightmare about the horrors of the wedding industry. Our lead, played by a hapless and quietly empathetic Spencer Tracy, is exhausted, both emotionally and financially. The price tag is steep, the pressure is high, and its all he can do to fend off the German Expressionism stress-dreams. I’m only mostly kidding. At its heart, Father of the Bride is less about the trials and tribulations of organizing a wedding and bartering your daughter off than the pointedly bittersweet okay-ness of watching your children grow up. Tracy acknowledges this soft bereavement at the altar; that “Annie…was leaving us, and something inside began to hurt.”
WEDDING GIFT: the clock/Venus de Milo hybrid, of course.
dir. Paul Feig
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you couldn’t pick the groom from Bridesmaids out of a police lineup. What is typically a love triangle comprised of the betrothed and a lovelorn third wheel is swapped out for childhood friends (Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph) and a BFF newcomer (Rose Byrne). It’s a relatable subversion: the discomfort of sharing a friend with other friends; how perceived rivalry is often a smokescreen for personal failings. Bridesmaids succeeds where most raunchy wedding comedies fail, earning its vulgar bombast with genuine moments of vulnerability that don’t reek that oppressively of humdrum rom-com convention. It has heart. And Melissa McCarthy shitting in a sink at a bridal store.
WEDDING GIFT: a female fight club bridal shower.
- Rachel Getting Married (2008)
- Margot at the Wedding (2007)
- After the Wedding (2006)
- My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)