“If others have their will, Anne hath a way…”—James Joyce, Ulysses
With Rachel Getting Married, about as finely tuned and naturalistic as a scripted fiction can possibly aspire to be, Jonathan Demme has reinvented himself all over again. It is clear that his work in documentary film these past few years has had a profound impact on Demme’s storytelling technique; using a hand-held camera and digital video inserts to tell the story of two sisters struggling to make peace with one another ahead of the titular nuptials, Demme has forsaken the traditional poetic formalism of films like Beloved, Philadelphia, The Truth About Charlie and The Silence Of The Lambs in favor of an urgency and intimacy that can only spring from loosening up the entire process. Make no mistake, though; this is not your Dogme 95 brand of hand-held pyrotechnics. Intricately choreographed shots, never slipping focus, always using perfect exposure; each shot in Rachel Getting Married makes perfect use of its narrative moment to deliver a precisely calibrated emotion.
The film tells the story of Kym (Anne Hathaway, who gives a terrific and complicated performance), a recovering drug addict who leaves rehab for a weekend at her parent’s home where the family is gathering for her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. As Rachel and her fiancée Sidney (TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) continue their preparations for the impending ceremony, the family’s unresolved issues come boiling to the surface; Rachel has spent so many years dealing with Kym’s addiction that she is in no mood to participate in Kym’s recovery on the weekend of her own wedding. But recover she must, and on her own terms, so the smart-assed Kym spends most of her time talking about her feelings and trying to articulate her deep desire for forgiveness. In the film’s great, bravura scene (and one that I think is earning all of those unjustified comparisons to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration), the bride and groom’s family gather for the rehearsal dinner and spend the evening making speeches around the communal table. When Kym uses the moment to talk about her experience in rehab and ask for her sister’s forgiveness, things take a turn for the worse. When Demme finally reveals the tragedy at the heart of the family’s suffering (in my favorite shot of the movie, an unflinching close-up of Hathaway that is emotionally perfect—I expect this performance to be mentioned during awards season), it reframes what has come before, turning us toward Kym’s suffering in a single shot.
Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married
Not everything is perfect. There is an unresolved tension in this film; Demme’s loose, documentary style sometimes feels in conflict with Jenny Lumet’s well-written script because the cinematic naturalism of the moments cannot support the sense that everything has been perfectly structured to deliver maximum melodramatic impact. In addition, the oft-cited “Altmanesque” nature of the film, characterized solely, I think, in the use of a roving band of wedding musicians and wedding guests who actively populate the background of the film and provide real-time music (which, to my mind, seems more like something out of Emir Kusterica's Underground), can sometimes feel extraneous to the film’s central conflict. This is the story of four people, a family, and isn't really the sort of freewheeling ensemble piece that Robert Altman might make. It is, though, a film that wears Altman’s influence side-by-side with Demme’s documentary work, with the naturalism of so many hand-held movies shot on video, with the many great wedding films of recent years (the sisterly conflict of Margot At The Wedding, the rainy Indian influence of Moonsoon Wedding, the family melodrama of After The Wedding). Demme combines them all to make something fresh and alive, breathing new life into the melodrama by allowing his performers to have the run of the place.
Everyone delivers in surprising ways. This is one of the best acted films I have seen in some time, but while you never once doubt that you're seeing a family struggle, you also can’t help but feel Demme’s hand as the ringmaster of this circus, the man whose process and creative choices allowed the cast to knock this material out of the park. As an aside, I have to confess that I had no expectations for this film en route to the festival, but word of mouth piqued my interested and I ponied up $41.50 for a single ticket to see the film today at the vast, historic Elgin Theater. That price reflects the fact that the film was a Gala Presentation, but at the public screening this morning, no talent was in attendance and there was nothing “gala” about it. I personally could care less, but for a public festival like Toronto to charge $40 plus dollars for a film ticket, to cal it a Gala, put it in a 2,000 seat theater and then simply show the movie without benefit of talent present, well, I can see why the natives are starting to get a little restless. Regardless of festival politics, I can say that the film was worth it for me. Not so much a discovery but a happy surprise; a rare opportunity to see an artist thriving by re-imagining himself right before my eyes.