Directed by Jonathan Demme, 2008.
Those watching the latest offering by director Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married (2008), cannot help but be reminded of the well-known and oft-quoted opening statement of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What is captured on film is a slice of real life as lived by the Buchman family while its members prepare for the wedding of Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), one of the daughters. Kym (Anne Hathaway), the other daughter, is released from her court-ordered drug rehabilitation programme for a few days so that she can attend her sister’s wedding. Their father, Paul (Bill Irwin), and their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), are divorced and have their significant others.
Right off the bat, the audience is made sensitive to the unstable and disturbed dynamic that informs the familial relationships. The sisters often trade subtle though barbed comments and compete for their father’s acknowledgement and attention, which seems more focussed on Kym, her whereabouts and well-being. As the film unravels, we are made privy to the tragedy underlying the family’s strained dynamic. Sixteen-year-old Kym had been responsible for the death of her younger brother Ethan who had been left in her care. While returning from the park, Kym, in a drug-induced stupor, had lost control of the car, driving over a bridge into a lake, where Ethan drowned. Though all of them have tried to move on with their lives, appearing to have acquired a modicum of normalcy, this progress is clearly fragile even now, and the ghost of Ethan, and Kym’s responsibility for his death are issues that keep intruding like the Freudian unconscious, threatening to dismantle the cover of regularity and routine that shrouds their lives in the present. Instances such as when Kym stands before Ethan’s old room, momentarily hesitating before nonchalantly enquiring when she would meet Rachel’s fiancé, or when Paul breaks down in the kitchen, in the midst of a friendly competition with his impending son-in-law, at the sight of Ethan’s dish, clearly suggest that a part of the Buchman family members are still rooted in the past. The divorce between Abby and Paul was also a consequence of the tragedy, and the relationship between Abby and her daughters is marked by strain and distance.
The narrative of the film, it appears, is constructed on a foundation of binaries. Demme very skilfully employs Rachel’s fiancé Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) and his family as a contrasting device that thrusts the skewed Buchanan family dynamic into constant limelight. The open and spontaneous love shared between Sidney’s family members, and the congenial, mirthful atmosphere created by the wedding festivities and preparations, serve to emphasize the tensions that colour the Buchman family ties. The perpetually simmering tension that suffuses their day-to-day conversations and behaviour, often flares up into fierce arguments and bitter, hostile confrontations, particularly between Kym and Rachel, with Paul struggling to keep his family together. One of the most profound scenes in the film is the verbal, and consequent physical altercation between Abby and Kym, when Kym pleads with her mother to accept partial responsibility for the death of Ethan, on account of Abby’s having been aware of Kym’s addiction. Overwhelming, almost violent in their intensity, these scenes would have left the audience high-strung in their wake, had it not been for the intervening moments of celebration and joviality that Demme intersperses the narrative with.
Rachel Getting Married has no formal musical score, but in keeping with the identity of some of the characters (Paul is a hot-shot in the music industry, while Sidney is a record producer), and the over-arching theme of marriage, Demme has live music playing throughout the film. The music reflects the play of dark and light that the events in the film portray, and quite often, the keen listener is able to detect the undertones of the sinister or the melancholy in a melody that is meant to celebrate love and new beginnings.
Each of the actors cast perform their job exceedingly well, including those cast in the role of supporting characters. Anne Hathaway shines as the vulnerable, needy, recovering drug addict, who is struggling to live with the guilt of the death of her brother. Her sunken eyes, thin frame, brashness, a certain twitchiness in her actions – all display her need for expiation, for reassurance and re-acceptance into the family fold, free from the taint of guilt. Rachel DeWitt delivers a top-notch performance as the sister who wants a day for herself, determined not to be outshone by the other sibling. Debra Winger and Bill Irwin are a treat to watch, the cold distant mother with little maternal warmth or concern balanced out by the hen-pecking father, agonising over the rifts in his family, and desperate to keep it together. Even Anna Deavere who plays Carol, Paul’s second wife, leaves her mark. Despite minimal dialogue, she encapsulates the character of the second wife succinctly, staying in the background, but a comforting supportive presence nonetheless.
The performances of the cast, combined with the unique cinematographic technique employed by Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, make the film an absorbing watch. At times, the shots are traditional, and at others, the film resembles a home-made video, situating the audience at the scene. Even as the characters move about their space, we follow them around, or look in through windows, familiarising ourselves, the perpetual observers, with the large cast of characters, despite no real knowledge of them. This technique lends an element of immediacy and authenticity to the film that keeps the audience absorbed in the characters and events. It also ensures that the characters are invested with a lifelikeness that makes them both identifiable and somewhat uncomfortable to watch. In the film, Anne Hathaway as Kym unhesitatingly spouts racist stereotypes even as her family prepares for a union with an African-American family, and we are compelled to acknowledge that the term “political correctness” does not really apply to our daily realities. The underlying binarised structure of the film’s narrative thus has another component – the apparent multiculturalism depicted in the film, questioned by its own irruptive instances of otherisation.
The film’s successful evocation of life-like emotions, characters and circumstances, and its wave-like pace makes it an exhausting watch, but a riveting one nonetheless for it captivates the audience’s full attention. It presses us to confront our fears, to face our grievances and insecurities, and leads us to the unsettling cognizance that it is, or may, quite possibly be the story of our lives being played out on celluloid.