Saturday, June 4, 2011

Late Marriage

First I would like to note that the Decade List at Fin de cinema was greatly helpful in learning of this and many other films from the decade that was which I was otherwise completely unaware of.

Maybe you will be surprised when I tell you that this decade produced a great and hilarious Israeli comedy, but you might be less surprised when you find out that is made by and about Georgian emigrants. Or are you still surprised? Do you not know of Otar Iosseliani? Do you even read this blog? Whatever, who cares, let’s talk about the film. The film is structured in segments with distinct tones which congeal in the final segment into a brilliantly caustic happy ending, an ending which demands the presence of each preceding element and to which each preceding element is, in my estimation, a perfect fit. The film opens with comically bickering old people, a scene rendered blackly comic soon afterward when you realize that it is the collective mission of the protagonist’s family to subject him to just such a relationship for the rest of his life. After this there is a young, beautiful, sexy, strong willed girl who the family hopes will be wooed by the protagonist; this is not a Hollywood film; after the girl’s family subtly laughs off the protagonist’s family’s attempts the girl is never seen again - but since this absence is never made certain until the film’s final sequence the specter of this potential pairing hovers over the proceeding events, adding the first (or second or tenth) layer of uneasy complexity to this tale of conflicting emotions. If you will allow me to jump directly to the end, the bride-to-be is visibly older, and perhaps less beautiful than either this first girl or the girl who is to become the film’s most important character. I don’t say ‘beautiful’ to be superficial, of course, I say this because that term plays a great importance in establishing a multifaceted instance of dramatic irony, an irony which means one thing to the audience and may potentially mean several different and perhaps opposing things to the family members who were present for the events of the film. The dramatic irony between the family and the wedding audience establishes the importance of the film’s preceding events, for the complexities of the way he uses the term ‘beautiful’ are completely lost on them and the dramatic irony generated by the ambiguity of interpretation between family, groom, and viewer establishes the film as a tantalizing work of black comedy steeped in ambivalences so deep-seated that the son can no longer call his mother beautiful without the word’s intended meaning being forever rendered opaque. But it’s a happy ending! On the surface, anyway.

If you will allow me to reorient your focus to a point in the middle of the film, there is a particular moment where I thought that the film was about to spiral outward into a chaotic mess of screwball-esque antics that seems a crucial turning point on reflection. I think I can be forgiven for having false expectations, but I think there is something to be gleaned from the implications found in this twist of expectation. The first act of the film is dedicated to a proactive attempt by the protagonist’s family to change his marital status, but the attempt sputters and their efforts are framed as yet another hapless family left wanting. After the playful and unexpectedly warm bedroom scene between the protagonist and his lover the next family setup could certainly show the family’s attempts unwinding ever further, thereby showing the power of true love to break the bonds of tradition and whatever other cliché you’d like to toss out – that doesn’t happen. It seems like it will happen, though, as the older men in the family seem heavily conflicted about the demands of tradition and seem unlikely candidates to mount a successful frontal assault, even losing the element of surprise and being rendered foolish in their attempts to hide. These implications linger into the confrontation itself as the family walks in awkwardly wordless and brandishes a sword in a display of force which far exceeds any reasonable expectations of action, an act of unquestionable overcompensation. It has all the makings of a farce, but something peculiar happens. Actually, nothing happens, and that is peculiar. Their show of force isn’t halted and they stumble out as awkwardly as they stumbled in, but the protagonist’s inability to make a grand gesture, to make a choice that will put himself at risk, dooms him completely. There are layers here to dig through – his lack of employment and dependence on his family, his refusal to take a stand as a man bound by duty or a man bound by love, the strength of character of his lover, but that is a topic for another time. What is at issue here is how the film takes a set of actions befitting a screwball comedy and turns them into a thoroughly depressing spectacle of reckless oppression and heart-wrenching failure. In fact, the issue may merely be that the family’s silly antics are contextualized within a world inhabited by living, breathing people. Even puffed up so full of hot air that their forcefulness could be relieved by a single pinprick the family prevails because there are so many elements working below the surface which cause the protagonist to do nothing, and that is just barely too little. Without a bursting bubble the farce turns tragic, destroys a relationship which provided the film’s only moments of warmth and untarnished levity, and sets the stage for an ending with a multitude of conflicts boiling just below the surface of every phrase turned.

Between the grand confrontation and the wedding there is a small but crucial exchange which to me confirms the brilliance of the film’s dramatic construction. The participants in this conflict are the film’s most stark contrasts, the strong, independent single mother who has to bear the double burden of being threatened with a sword and bear the knowledge of her daughter being subjected to such a frightening series of events and the protagonist’s mother, the most stubborn, spiteful, and vain member of the family. The protagonist's mother's own experiences are informed by the same situation that she has had to ‘endure’ from her husband’s past, she is the least impressed by the beauty of her son’s lover, and she seems the most troubled by the reflection upon her family of her son’s standing. Her portrayal is not a flattering one, to be sure, but when some parents find their child and their culture threatened they are capable of morphing into mindless beasts. Perhaps it was not much of a transformation for her, it’s hard to say. Regardless, without their particular natures their confrontation would take on entirely different meanings and would be a far less potent illustration of the type of bitterly ambiguous statements that the film’s writer and director seems to have mastered. If the protagonist’s lover were less strong then she would have taken him back, and if the protagonist’s mother seemed to have a shred of compassion in her then what she says would be far less ambiguous. With the characters being as they are, though, it is impossible to tell whether the mother’s regret over speaking with her son’s lover is due to the realization that she has done great harm to a woman she now sees is strong and good or whether the regret stems from the newfound knowledge about her son’s relative weakness. Given that the mother’s idea of restitution for excessive force in excessive numbers in the privacy of their own home is a giant teddy bear it’s difficult for me to believe the former, but it’s certainly a possibility of any sane individual. I never got the implication that the marital customs portrayed in the film were meant to drive people to sanity, though, and there is nothing strange to my mind about a petulant mother having eyes only for her son and his failings nor to a strong willed single mother who refuses to tolerate those who are unwilling or unable to protect her daughter. The film makes sense, to me, even while the traditions do not, and if the point of the film is to sensibly make the case for the senselessness of the traditions then the writer/director has succeeded with a subtle comic touch, a brutal tragic punch, and a disconcerting slap of black comic confusion in a conclusion for the ages, a depressingly happy ending which uses ambivalence and dramatic irony as if they were as simple as rote exposition.


  1. Sam JulianoJune 05, 2011

    "Between the grand confrontation and the wedding there is a small but crucial exchange which to me confirms the brilliance of the film’s dramatic construction. The participants in this conflict are the film’s most stark contrasts, the strong, independent single mother who has to bear the double burden of being threatened with a sword and bear the knowledge of her daughter being subjected to such a frightening series of events and the protagonist’s mother, the most stubborn, spiteful, and vain member of the family."

    Well Jean, this is the first I've heard of this film, though this penetrating and profound essay makes a visit likely when the time arrises. You have an amazing eye for nuanced dissection, and for the importance of tone and inflection. I will keep my eye open.

  2. The film placed surprisingly high on the above noted author's list, given that I had never heard of it before - much higher even than the film which lends its image for the site's banner. I was not anything resembling a seasoned cinephile when the film came out (nor an adult), so it doesn't surprise me that I missed it on its initial release, but for a film this fantastic to languish in near total obscurity is something I just can't understand. I highly recommend you seek it out. It shouldn't be too hard to find even if it seems to be rarely found. It completely switches tone and style throughout, each skillfully and meaningfully engineered to construct the various layers which provide the great tension and dramatic irony in those scenes where the implications of past scenes come to the forefront. I was also quite surprised, in a good way, that the film established a whole host of characters in its first third who would never reappear in the flesh, only in the important subtextual implications of their relationship to the central family. I hope you get around to it, I think it's totally fantastic.

  3. “The participants in this conflict are the film’s most stark contrasts, the strong, independent single mother who has to bear the double burden of being threatened with a sword and bear the knowledge of her daughter being subjected to such a frightening series of events and the protagonist’s mother, the most stubborn, spiteful, and vain member of the family.”

    The more I think about it, the more this movie becomes about these two. The weak-willed protagonist is barely interesting at all. Despite the fact that one woman is beautiful and the other is not, that I identify completely with the one and not at all with the other, I can see the similarities in their determination, love, and maternal feelings, even to their use of traditional “magic.” Both women conduct a ritual in secret – one in shame, ridicule, and failure, the other with passion, sympathy, and (possibly) huge success. But, isn’t it interesting that, despite the age difference, both are still rooted in the superstitions of their culture? All the wisdom seems to be on the side of the younger woman in this conflict, but when she ages, gains weight, grows bitter, and decides to “fight” for her daughter’s happiness, will she be any different from her antagonist in this film? Tell me I’m wrong!

    Thanks for another great recommendation.

  4. The protagonist definitely plays the blank-slate ineffectual which works well as a foil for the other women. The women do have it the worst in the film, after all - they are the ones who are shopped around at a young age to a multitude of men, spied on, etc., and then if they happen to submit to their culture and the marriage ends, whether their fault or not, they are cast out, placed in a position through no fault of their own where even if they find love the men will be pulled away from them. There may be a similar situation going in the opposite direction, of course, but the one posed here certainly draws out the character elements for those who make choices as opposed to merely submit to the will of others. Had the man stood up for his own feelings then perhaps the single mother would not have stood out as much, not because she was any weaker but because the situation she was placed in did not demand that she rise to the occasion. In this situation I can't imagine that the director would craft an ending that is any happier, though. It's not as if the culture's problems are solved by one man alone.

    As for the younger woman - I don't think the problem that the protagonist's mother faces is fighting for her son's happiness but, rather, fighting for tradition regardless of her son's happiness. What the younger woman is fighting for is for each person to decide for themselves. If we carry this to her daughter's situation then she will only support her daughter's decision, no matter the choice, and really not 'fight' at all. You could imagine that, because the younger woman is essentially a cultural outcast, her daughter will be ill-favored and thus subject to the same sort of treatment that she is currently suffering, but if she as a mother fought for her daughter to be treated on the basis of her own merits rather than the standing of her mother then I don't think it's the same sort of deal, although in such a case I still don't know why she would fight to begin with as the fight will only be won when the woman facing the question is put in a position where she can win on the basis of her own merits. In this film this is obviously not the case, and it is to the detriment of all involved.

  5. The older woman is fighting for tradition, but, for most of the movie at least, I’m sure she believes that tradition will make her son happy. And, the younger woman is fighting for “each person’s right to decide for themselves” because it coincides with her own happiness in this case. Anything else would be super-humanly altruistic. You disagree, but then what do you think is the significance of the two parallel uses of magic? Sure, they’re an element of comedy, but they also call attention to similarities between the two women that might otherwise have been obscured by the differences in their circumstances and, yes, their appearances. And I say that as someone who identified completely with the young woman and wished bodily harm on the other!

  6. I'm not sure she even considers her son, although it may be possible, but at the very least her feelings are heavily clouded by her own vanity, and I don't think anyone would believe her to be an unbiased judge of her son's wants and needs. At best she is a meddler with vested interests in the outcome. In practice her actions certainly work against her son's happiness, and I don't know that her actions indicate empathy so much as projection.

    'And, the younger woman is fighting for “each person’s right to decide for themselves” because it coincides with her own happiness in this case.'

    Well, sure, in the same way that the mother is fighting for tradition insofar as it reflects on her family, and I see nothing wrong with that. After all, expanding the fight beyond her own life, especially with regard to purely cultural issues, is simply a matter of meddling, as the mother exhibits all too well. As I said - I would hope that the woman would not intervene on the part of her daughter at all, merely offer the unconditional support that the male does not receive from his own mother.

    I didn't make anything of the two uses of magic. I forget the context of the second instance, so I don't know that I can comment. I don't think the two women having something is too troubling, though. They have a lot in common, in fact, but the mother refuses to recognize any of it (until she is forced by her conscience to take time to create an open dialogue). The main issue in the film is not to eradicate all cultures but simply to be understanding of another's, no matter how different or, in this case, similar. But what differences there are create a devastating chasm.