Weddings have been comparatively rare in screen history. After all, the goal of most romantic dramas and comedies is to have the loving couple overcome the obstacles preventing their union and the nuptials are frequently part of the presumed happy ever after that plays out in the off-screen space beyond the caption proclaiming ‘The End’. But weddings offer filmmakers an irresistible blend of spectacle and emotion, while the receptions that follow enable them to explore the dynamics between family and friends in an enclosed space, with feelings running high, usually under the influence of alcohol. Indeed, there are few places better than a wedding to witness human nature at its most affectionate, generous, unguarded, vulnerable, envious and cruel.
Unusually, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) opens with the happy couple striding away from the church towards the river barge that is to be their new home. But weddings are usually the centrepiece or culmination of a scenario and they come in many guises, whether they involve Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding (1951) or Nicolas Cage skydiving with some flying Elvises in Andrew Bergman’s Honeymoon in Vegas (1992).
Erich von Stroheim contrasted the nuptials of the aristocracy and the common folk in imperial Vienna in The Wedding March (1928) and class or cultural chasms between the bride and groom’s families have informed pictures as different as Richard Brooks’s The Catered Affair (1956) and Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993). Tensions involving troublesome siblings have also enlivened Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), Fred Zinnemann’s The Member of the Wedding (1952), Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Fairytale weddings don’t always live up to expectations either, as Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987) and Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson’s Shrek (2001) prove, but they fall short of the nightmares conceived by Tim Burton in Beetle Juice (1988) and Corpse Bride (2005). Weddings proved pivotal to three of the most significant pictures produced in New Hollywood: Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). But the vogue for matrimonial movies only really began with Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), although quantity has been no guarantee of quality, as for every crowdpleaser like The Wedding Singer (1998), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Confetti (2006) and Bridesmaids (2011), there’s been a Wedding Crashers (2005), 27 Dresses (2008), Bride Wars (2009) and The Big Wedding (2013).
Me and My Pal (1933)
Director Charles Rogers
Stan Laurel often stood in the way of Oliver Hardy’s romantic happiness. In James W. Horne’s Our Wife (1931), he botched Ollie’s elopement with the voluptuous Babe London and here he prevents his marriage to oil tycoon James Finlayson’s daughter by giving him a jigsaw as a wedding gift. Director Charles Rogers uses a radio announcement to establish that Ollie has finally made it good, and cutaways to the assembled guests confirm that the ceremony is going to be the highlight of the social season. But Stan gets Ollie interested in the puzzle and, soon, the butler, a cabby, a cop and a cross-eyed telegram messenger are crowded round the table sorting pieces.
Finlayson’s patience finally expires when Stan sends a funeral wreath instead of a bouquet and his arrival at 6311 Old-Fashioned Way sparks a punch-up that anticipates the wedding cake-flinging finale of Carry On Loving (1970). So simple, but so inspired.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Director George Cukor
The picture that rescued Katharine Hepburn from the ignominy of being branded ‘box-office poison’ was adapted from the Broadway hit that Philip Barry had modelled on the marriages of Philadelphia socialite Hope Montgomery Scott and Hepburn herself, whose family had remained close to her former spouse, Ludlow Ogden Smith. Exuding patrician wit and assurance, Hepburn excels as her upcoming wedding to ‘man of the people’ John Howard is jeopardised by the prospect of a fling with bashful tabloid reporter James Stewart and a reunion with dashing first husband, Cary Grant (parts that Hepburn had earmarked for Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable).
Bold in its day for the satirical snipes at the sanctity of matrimony, this sublime screwball was remade by Charles Walters as the Cole Porter musical High Society (1956), with Grace Kelly assuming the role of Tracy Lord in what would prove to be her final feature before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Father of the Bride (1950)
Director Vincente Minnelli
It’s tempting to speculate whether Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of Edward Streeter’s episodic novel would have caught the moviegoing imagination in quite the same way had its release not coincided with star Elizabeth Taylor’s well-publicised marriage to hotel heir Nicky Hilton. But Taylor and Joan Bennett (as her mother) very much play second fiddle to the Oscar-nominated Spencer Tracy, who not only has to reconcile himself to the fact that fiancé Don Taylor is good enough for his little girl, but also that he needs to recalibrate his relationship with her now she is leaving the nest.
The Oscar-nommed husband-and-wife writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett ensure it’s not all sentimental introspection, however, as they subject the peevish Tracy to mounting bills, sleepless nights, meetings with the in-laws, a raucous engagement party and a chaotic wedding. Steve Martin would endure the same ordeal, alongside Diane Keaton and Kimberly Williams, in Charles Shyer’s 1991 remake.
The Wedding (1972)
Director Andrzej Wajda
Brought to the screen with fidelity and insight by Andrzej Wajda, Stanislaw Wyspiański’s 1901 play ranks among of the masterworks of Polish theatre. Inspired by a 19th-century vogue for the intermarriage of the intelligentsia and the peasantry, the action takes place at the wedding of Kraków artist Daniel Olbrychski and country girl Ewa Ziętek. Ethnic, provincial, social and generational tensions start to simmer as the guests become increasingly inebriated. But it’s the appearance of four historically significant spirits that casts doubt on the efficacy of any alliance between the urban bourgeoisie and the rural masses to restore the divided nation to its former glory.
Dense, dark and difficult, this is an early example of the Cinema of Moral Anxiety that would help undermine Polish Communism and it’s intriguing that Wojciech Smarzowski’s savage 2004 satire of the same name should lie at the heart of what critic Michael Brooke has dubbed the ‘Cinema of Moral Disgust’.
A Wedding (1978)
Director Robert Altman
All the ingredients needed for a traditional family wedding are present and correct in Robert Altman’s audacious social satire: class snobbery, racial prejudice, lechery, nymphomania, adultery, jilted envy, a whiff of incest, senility, alcoholism, drug addiction, and death. And it takes 48 principal characters to do justice to these and the many other taboos that Altman and his scriptwriting trio alight upon as southern blue blood Nina Van Pallandt and her Italian husband Vittorio Gassman welcome nouveau riche Chicago trucking tycoon Paul Dooley and his brassy wife Carol Burnett for the wedding of their children, Desi Arnaz Jr and Amy Stryker.
With more secrets and lies floating around than flakes of confetti, this is a cluttered compendium of sitcomedic and soap operatic clichés and caricatures spun into cinematic gold by a master of his craft. The odd subplot stalls, but the balance of savagery and poignancy is as perfect as Mia Farrow’s scene-stealing, two-word performance.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Director Mike Newell
Richard Curtis supposedly wrote his best screenplay after attending 72 weddings in five years and realising that movies kept focusing on the wrong aspects of the ceremony and its aftermath. Thus, he weaves his checklist of neglected tropes into this gentle lampoon of middle-class manners to tick off the bumbling cleric, the testy top-table relative, the horny bridesmaid, the indiscreet best man, the embittered ex, the lovelorn singleton and the serial monogamist. He also deftly captures the way numerous transitory subplots develop away from the bride and groom and how dutifully reticent guests shed their inhibitions once the alcohol starts to flow.
But Curtis, director Mike Newell and the excellent ensemble also convey the sadness behind the photo smiles and the dancefloor gyrations. Consequently, the most poignant moments come not from W.H. Auden’s stopped clocks, but from Kristin Scott Thomas’s lingering sideways glances and brisk pecks on the cheek before she marries the wrong Charles.
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
Director P.J. Hogan
Joanie Heslop (Gabby Millgate) has it right in P.J. Hogan’s deliciously bittersweet comedy when she tuts “You’re terrible, Muriel”, after her reckless sibling’s latest indiscretion. Although she appears to be the victim of her politician father’s disappointment and the disdain of her snooty friends, Muriel (Toni Collette) steals, lies and exploits people (especially her trusting mother) while deluding herself. She’s the ugly sister who gets an Olympic swimmer prince and, in the process, breaks the heart of the cancer-stricken Cinderella (Rachel Griffiths) who had tried to save her from herself.
But it’s easy to get swept out of Porpoise Spit on Muriel’s belief in the transformatory power of marriage and the feel-good combination of romcom, slapstick and ABBA music. Hogan would return to matters matrimonial with Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), while the link between tying the knot and ABBA would be reforged in Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! (2008).
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Director Mira Nair
Numerous wedding pictures centre on the complications arising from an arranged match. In Mira Nair’s bustling saga, the supposedly virginal bride is having an adulterous affair. But her crime pales beside that of the rich uncle helping to bankroll the lavish celebration and his exposure turns out to be the Festen-like dramatic high point of a masala that blends eruptions of Bollywood extravagance with moments of intimate humanism worthy of Satyajit Ray.
Compelling though the domestic melodrama is, though, the real fascination lies in the way Nair presents the subcontinent and the shifting relationship between its resident and Desi populations. Touching on everything from the Partition to the dot.com boom, her film has been compared to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Robert Altman’s A Wedding. Yet its closest cinematic companion is Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), as it also depicts a nation ‘dancing on a volcano’, albeit to a pulsating score by Mychael Danna.
Rana’s Wedding (2003)
Director Hany Abu-Assad
Forget the meticulous preparations for an unforgettable day in a dream venue. Sometimes merely exchanging vows is enough, as Hany Abu-Assad suggests in this excruciating exposé of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. Given 10 hours to wed to avoid having to emigrate to Egypt with her father, 17-year-old Clara Khoury has to travel from East Jerusalem to Ramallah to propose to theatre director Khalifa Natour. Even then, she still has to choose a dress, collect the necessary paperwork and find a celebrant, and each task requires her to run the gamut of armed Israeli soldiers and endless roadblocks.
The ceremony itself, conducted through a checkpoint fence, is perhaps the most poignant screen wedding of them all, as there is absolutely no guarantee of a happy ending. However, things are sometimes no easier on the other side of the divide, as Rama Burshtein demonstrates in the Hasidic nuptial drama, Fill the Void (2012).
[REC] 3: Génesis (2013)
Director Paco Plaza
Anyone who thought Jeanne Moreau and Uma Thurman were fearsome in François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology (2003-04) respectively should check out Leticia Dolera wielding a chainsaw in her wedding dress in this gleefully excessive Spanish horror. Essentially a prequel to the three episodes directed by Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza’s instalment largely foregoes the found footage approach, but still has fun mocking a wedding videographer who cites Dziga Vertov and cinéma vérité among his influences.
The service itself is rather sweet, with Diego Martín serenading his bride. But everything kicks off when an uncle who has been bitten by a dog throws himself off a balcony at the reception and distant figures in hazmat suits lose the battle to keep some infected flesh-eaters at bay. The carnage is consciously cartoonish, but the sly wit and the self-reflexive nods towards George A. Romero and Àlex de la Iglesia are irresistible.