As we’ve seen across a bloodsplattered bouquet of major cultural works, weddings are dramatically ripe for massacre — both literal and emotional. It’s hard to think of a single social setting as metaphorically vulnerable, an ephemeral burst of extravagance that sets itself up for a greater Ozymandian collapse. It’s right there in the color palette of weddings: no garment is more easily stained than the white dress that supposedly symbolizes the bride’s soon-to-be-desecrated virginity. (Amusingly, the white wedding dress was not intended by its first major proponent, Queen Victoria, to carry this meaning. Rather, it was supposed to communicate wealth so great it facilitates impracticality — essentially saying to the expenses of stains, “bring it on.”) And, in film and TV, the heightened social expectations and rigidly structured emotional narrative of the event match the stain-courting white of wedding dresses: the formal joy is so amplified in this hyper-social setting that it seems to demand its own disenchantment.
In contrast to the more blatant marital violence of epics and tragedies like Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding, Kill Bill’s central marital massacre, Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding,” and the post-wedding apocalypse of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, comedies often revel in a more social than physical version of the wedding bloodbath. This Sunday, Girls followed in the footsteps of Transparent by beginning a season with an emotionally disastrous wedding. And both came not long after one of the most virtuosic wedding-cataclysm scenes ever made — the last segment of Damián Szifron’s 2014 film Wild Tales, which merges the physical drama of actual marital massacres and the social comedy of the figurative version.
Because a wedding is itself a bold statement of a commitment, it seems an equally dramatic commitment to a different kind of argument about love and relationships when idealized wedding visions crumble on the big or small screen. And that is particularly true in the case of Girls, Transparent, and Wild Tales.
In traditional rom-coms of the ’90s and early ’00s (Wedding Crashers, The Wedding Planner, While You Were Sleeping, Four Weddings and a Funeral), weddings often grind to a halt when a righteous objector (often the deserving lover) responds to the officiant’s exhortation to “speak now or forever hold your peace.” This character exposes what each film posits as the one flaw of the wedding in question: not the institution of marriage itself, but a spouse chosen for all the wrong reasons, when the ideal heterosexual partner of your dreams has been standing right in front of you all along. In these rom-coms, a disrupted wedding leads straight to a brand-new marriage plot. Matthew McConaughey should marry J. Lo, not the other woman! Sandra Bullock should marry Bill Pullman, not his comatose brother!
But for a new generation of film and TV comedies, a wedding to a different partner isn’t always the ideal outcome. The social tensions, and subtextual social violence, underlying the ceremonies aren’t resolved by the simple interjection of a soulmate who will make a better spouse. That standard rom-com storyline was set up as a potential outcome on Sunday’s episode of Girls. But no matter what you think of Lena Dunham, she’s sharp enough not to repeat a tired formula. Instead, she subverted the fairy-tale ending in favor of a statement on the show’s own cynical, self-aware simultaneous ensconcement in and revulsion towards bourgeois lifestyles that masquerade as “alternative.”
Despite being lighter and more openly humorous than Wild Tales and Transparent, Girls’ wedding plot is actually the most cynical of the three, in that it posits no escape from the selves and norms in which the characters find themselves trapped. “It’s like a rom-com that even I wouldn’t want to watch… it’s like a really bad rom-com that’s, like, too obvious and not funny,” says Dunham’s Hannah Horvath about the preparatory process for the wedding that’s about to take place. Thus, as the Washington Post points out, the show gets to participate in rom-com clichés while mining what makes them insufferable, and framing weddings primarily as works of self-annoyance (if not self-loathing).
In the episode, Marnie is about to marry Desi, the douchebag singer-songwriter who we find out has been engaged eight times. Meanwhile, Ray sulks in the background, trying to decide whether or not he’s going to “pull a Graduate” and break up the wedding by telling Marnie he’s in love with her. Simultaneously, Marnie, Hannah, Shoshanna, and Jessa are being tyrannized by the tacky antics of a terrible makeup artist who’s failing to help Marnie realize her vision of a wedding modeled after an “Edward Sharpe music video.” The bad makeup provokes spats between the girls and Marnie and her mother, leading the makeup artist to eventually spew, “You’re all a bunch of bitches.” Hannah refuses to wear a goofy laurel. The groom freaks out and jumps into a stream, thinking he’s going to abandon the marriage altogether, and Ray follows him. Then it starts raining.
The rules of a traditional rom-com state that this wedding should topple, and Marnie should be swept up by Ray. Instead, everyone holds their peace and Marnie just… marries Desi. So we watch with schadenfreude as she capitulates — at her relatively young age — to the pressures of heterosexual partnership ideals in a way that will clearly make her unhappy.
The fact that the lead-up to the wedding is disastrous but the wedding itself goes fairly smoothly is a far more cynical statement than we assume the episode is going to make. Who knows — later this season, characters may find true happiness, but after this episode, it seems fitting for them to exist in a closed loop. Rather than disassembling the institution of marriage, or even, in the old-fashioned romantic comedy way, seeking the “right” partner within it, Marnie has found a way to settle into the stifling comforts of a set of normative standards, disguised in thin Edward Sharpe-ian flourishes. It was a great episode, and one that capitalized on Girls’ greatest strength: though it certainly doesn’t create a realistic, diverse depiction of young-adult life in New York City, it often excels at satirizing the haute-bourgeois, haute-white, faux-alternative types at it center.
The opening of Transparent‘s second season likewise featured a wedding gone socially awry, with Sarah Pfefferman deciding — after the ceremony, while all her relatives are fervently dancing at the reception — to call off her marriage to Tammy, the female partner with whom she cheated on her husband in Season 1. Like the Girls wedding, this was an expensive, extravagant event with a deliberately “I woke up like this” look — an assertion of the privilege to spend a shit-ton on a wedding without acknowledging its momentousness.
But while the characters on Girls use their privilege to lead mostly superficially countercultural lifestyles, the Pfefferman children — Josh, Sarah and Ali — use theirs to almost compulsively experiment with the vast possibility of alternate lifestyles and sexual practices. Their more low-stakes existences lead them through labyrinthine, exhausting, and sometimes enlightening forms of self-exploration. The members of this family, bolstered by the ease that comes from their economic security, are each on an Odyssean journey through the manifold expressions of love the world has to offer, which have been stifled by a long human history of amorous myopia. Their journeys aren’t usually pleasant ones — and the Pfeffermans aren’t usually pleasant people — but this disastrously dissolved marriage represents one opportunity for these characters to launch themselves into new modes of sexual and romantic expression.
The wedding in Wild Tales, meanwhile, comes in the form of “Until Death Do Us Part,” the longest and final of the six unrelated but thematically connected (by revenge) vignettes that make up the movie. Deemed by the Guardian a “great rage at the complacency and mediocrity of Argentina’s ruling classes,” Wild Tales bridges the gap between the literal violence of dramatic wedding massacres and the figurative, social violence of their comedic counterparts. Like the other weddings, this one features an opulent reception — but here, a bride finds out, while she’s dancing with her new husband, that he’s been having an affair. In a rage, she storms up to the roof of the building where her guests are still celebrating and ends up having sex with a kitchen worker. Her husband eventually stumbles upon this scene, at which point she promises to have sex with everyone and take all of his money. But they return to the reception, where the knife reserved for cake-cutting suddenly bears much graver potential — and where the bride flings the woman her husband was having an affair with into a mirror, which shatters all over her. The violence escalates, until finally, as horrified guests funnel out, the newlyweds reunite and commence passionately lovemaking in the middle of the banquet hall.
There’s a reason this scene comes last. The film’s five other tales likewise see social code devolve into violence, but this break from the script is more dramatic in the context of the pomp and circumstance of marriage ceremonies and receptions. In a film that antagonizes Argentinian upper-class mores and makes manifest the otherwise implicit violence that upholds its pyramidal power structures, a wealthy wedding is the ultimate setting to present a similar thesis. But finally, rather than violence, the result here is sex and passion. Through a ridiculous charade, the couple dismantles the pressurized social rite under which they were miserable, and, rather than killing each other, find their passion rekindled. Their reconciliation is ugly and animal and maybe a little violent itself, but the film isn’t arguing against love so much as calling attention to the strength of the societal pressures that can stifle it — and what it takes to overcome them.
There’s a reason (apart from the more obvious, misogynist reason) why the “bridezilla” trope exists, and why we see it arise in Girls and Wild Tales. It’s because so much weight is placed on the performers in these ceremonies that thoughts and emotions that would otherwise be internalized start involuntarily bleeding from their pressurized mindsets. Comedy, it seems, has joined drama in recognizing the grand potential for utter chaos presented by weddings, these moments that fortify the works’ critical relationships with bourgeois social mores. The solution is no longer to just replace Mr. or Mrs. Wrong with Mr. or Mrs. Right. Rather, these works point out that institutionalizing love is not, in itself, a way to ensure that it becomes everlasting or authentic. Indeed, these comedies argue, the wedding can be its own form of massacre.