Rachel Getting Married

It’s amazing how films act as Rorschach ink blots, both for us as members of the movie-going public as well as for the critics who review them. What we say we like (or hate) about a film is as sure an indication of our mental and emotional constitution as anything else. And Rachel Getting Married surely provides a measure of this, particularly since its subject invites us to experience – and reflect upon – the ties that bind families together, in all their intricate beauty and perversity. And what other occasion affords such a display of the best and worst that families have to offer than a wedding, for which everyone wants to be at their best but so often fail?

I should confess: I’m writing this primarily as a reaction against what others have had to say about the film, particularly since they’ve clearly missed the point. As I understand it, at least. For the film is not merely about the tediousness of dealing with the black sheep of the family. Neither is it merely a celebration of a “new” multi-ethnic America. Nor is it about the pure joy of the kind of music so well showcased throughout the film. (You can find an overview of the critics’ reactions here and here.)

Yes, I may just be reacting against interpretations that do not coincide with my own. But the filmmakers provide us with clues about how we are to understand this story. One of them is the song performed by Robyn Hitchcock in the midst of the wedding reception, called America:

How do you know when you’ve gone to far?
Look in the mirror, that’s who you are
People go by on their legs and their hands
Bury their heads in the evening sand

Another song, Up to Our Nex in Love, also by Robyn Hitchcock, was specifically commissioned for the film. Surely, taken together, these highlight a different set issues about which the movie is concerned.

Then there’s this picture from the film’s promotional materials, which makes quite clear what it is that binds this family together: a memory from the past which can only be included in absentia. It’s also clear this is a portrait of a family on the brink of fracture, with each member somehow lost to the present, and to each other. It is only Kym who looks straight into camera. And it is only she who is clear about her relation to that absent – and painful – element that holds the family together.

In fact, it can be said that it is she who carries what the others are unable or unwilling to bear. It is probably this more than anything else which makes her an embarrassment to the others. She is the living and breathing memory of the ghost that has not been confronted and which, as a result, continues to haunt the family. Even on a happy occasion like a wedding. Perhaps especially so.

If we take this portrait seriously, the film is not about Rachel, or even her wedding. Neither is it really about Kym, her sister. Instead, it is about their relation to that missing Other that hounds them all.


This is goodbye, yeah, I’ve said it before
This time you’re not going to see me no more
America, Robyn Hitchcock

We’ll all the stars of the drama of our own lives. (We probably even see ourselves as the stars in the movies we love to watch.) And this is what we witness in the film. The wedding preparations and festivities bring together all the dramas – and their “stars” – to a single place which, of course, has the potential for disaster. For obvious reasons, Rachel hopes to be the star of the day, given it’s her wedding that’s being celebrated. But so do her parents, in particular Rachel’s father, whose large country home serves as the setting for the big event. There is also a battle over who gets to serve as Rachel’s Maid of Honor. Should it be her best friend since childhood, Emma, or does her sister Kym who deserves the honor, having received a day-pass from drug rehab just for the occasion?

Each of the public gatherings, particularly the rehearsal dinner on the eve of the big event, serves as an opportunity to witness the clash of these aspirations for stardom, a moment on center stage. For, as we know, those who cannot be in the spotlight – or who realize they should not hog it – find different ways of showcasing their special talents, their unique love for the honored guests, their particular brand of humor, or their gift with words, even as they pay homage to the bride and groom. Despite her best efforts, for Kym it becomes abundantly clear that that she is nothing but a source of discomfort, even as she attempts to raise her glass in honor of the celebrated couple:


Kym’s effort to toast the soon-to-be wed falls flat. In fact, her effort to establish her relation to her sister (and family) and to share in their celebration turns out to be an embarrassment for all who hear her.  She is seen as drawing inappropriate attention to herself and her history with the family. And this awkward moment is as much a negotiated solution to the problem of competing dramas – and stars competing for center stage – as any of the other interactions we witness over the wedding weekend. Each of them give evidence to a constellation of positions they take in relation to each other, all the more weighty since they are performed for the benefit of public consumption.

If anything is consolidated during the rehearsal dinner, it is this: this is an evening filled with the joyous babble of celebration … except when Kym rises to speak.

It’s Crowded In Here

How do you know you’ll recognize me?
I’m not too clear, but I’m easy to see
Moving alone through a fossilized crowd
People in motion who feel so loud
America, Robyn Hitchcock

Perhaps Kym earned her reputation as the black sheep of the family. But, ironically, it is the constellation of relationships that have formed in her absence, and which are on full display upon her return, that invite her wrath. For not only has she been replaced by others, but her marginalized position has solidified in her absence. And this provides little room for someone seeking to establish a new place for herself.

On the Margins

Perhaps it is understandable that her father does not trust her to drive the family car, or behave herself. And perhaps it is understandable that her sister prefers that someone else serve as her Maid of Honor, or that she be excluded from the head table at the wedding reception. Perhaps it is understandable, too, that their mother is less than eager to play the maternal role, or revisit the pain of past events. Perhaps it is also understandable that Kym’s drug addiction and rehabilitation is used to “explain” her outbursts of frustration and anger. Her reactions to the place to which she’s been consigned.

But the filmmakers induce this sympathy for her family’s point-of-view, in part to provide us with a sense of Kym’s alienation from the family and the emotional labor involved in trying to attend to her needs and desires. Each of her complaints requires that the performances already underway – and the constellations within which they are embedded – be interrupted. To accommodate Kym would mean to step out of the roles to which they’re already committed. Obviously, for all involved, this is nothing short of exasperating.

On the other hand, if we pay attention to how these encounters are framed by the camera, it becomes quite clear what we are witnessing. Kym is an interloper, rather than a beloved daughter or sister. What she brings to the celebration is painful and unwanted. In fact, it is extremely difficult not to come to the conclusion that everything would be fine if she were not there, if only she had the sense not to show up. In this sense, the bonds of kinship do not trump the imperative to celebrate. And this is what Kym is reminded of. Repeatedly.

If nothing else, what we learn from these framings is that the family is stuck in a stalemate. There is no exit from the family constellation that has become ossified in this way. No matter how much her sister and parents would like her to acquiesce, Kym will not quietly accept her non-position in the family. And no matter how much Kym would like to be embraced into the family on terms that do her honor, that is not likely to happen either.

Music from Another Room

The children we were have grown into us
You in a car, and me in a bus
America, Robyn Hitchcock

One of the recurring motifs of the film is the absolute lack of privacy, which means there are absolutely no “backstage” moments during which the family can sort through these difficulties. As a result, each confrontation and argument plays-out in the midst of others, for all to see.

What is also made abundantly clear – as with the family portrait organized around a shared absence – is that beneath the urge to celebrate is another sort of silence, one that worms its way into the festivities, despite all efforts to keep it at bay. Kym and her sister’s father embodies an almost hysterical need to find reason to rejoice, for it is this which keeps the darker and unspoken truth at bay, an agony that is almost impossible for him to bear.

Their mother, now married to another, is similarly haunted. But rather than neurotically clinging to the pleasures of the present, she has chosen a certain kind of exile. In contrast to her ex-husband, she is happy with the incidental role she has been asked to play in preparation for the festivities, since it allows her the freedom to come and go, unencumbered by ties of affection or obligation. When Kym confronts her about a nagging question about their shared past, penetrating this protective shell, the mother reacts, first, with rage, and then, almost immediately, with denial.

Beneath the noisy babble of the wedding is a plaintive melody that comes from elsewhere, one that directs the behavior of Kym and her family in ways not everyone is willing to admit. The constellations that regularly confront Kym upon her release from rehab do not merely remind her of her place as the pariah of the family. Neither do they merely indicate the extent of the emotional banishment she suffers at their hands. It is this secret – this music from another room – that she bears, even as the tell-tale signs of its awful melody are evident all around her.

For she is the unwanted reminder of that which all others find too painful to face. More than this, in the narrative that everyone tells, this is not something they “share” since, according to them, it is Kym who brought tragedy upon the family.

“Shiva the Destroyer and the Harbinger of Doom”

We’re lost in my heart again
So what?
It’s all my fault, you say
Well, maybe … or maybe not
Up to Our Nex in Love, Robyn Hitchcock

Yes, Kym is fully aware of her role and at times enthusiastically – if not also awkwardly – embraces that which has been projected onto her. Sometimes, there is little else for her to do than interject, disrupt, and protest, since she is repeatedly patronized, silenced, pampered, and set-apart, which sends its message loud and clear: It’s o.k. to be seen, but not heard. Be quiet!

But this is not what she wants. If she had her druthers, she would have a place, just like everyone else, at the wedding party. All she wants it to stand next to her sister, included in the fold of celebrants marking the joy of this blessed occasion. And for a brief moment, this is what she finds, inhabiting that sacred place that has been refused her for so long, and perhaps may never return. But for that second, almost suspended in time, there is nowhere else she would rather be.

Home ... finally

But just for that instant. Because the precarious settlement Kym and Rachel might have negotiated cannot withstand the larger constellations that remain. This quiet moment of happiness cannot survive those other arrangements that have calcified around them. The weight of the world – including the ostrich-like choices of others – cannot accommodate such a truce, much less nurture it.

The two giant figures in their lives continue in their efforts to escape the past: Mom whisked away under cover of night; Dad lost in the shadows of what dare not speak its name. This not only abandons Kym and her sister to come to terms with it – and each other – on their own. It also leaves to Kym the lonely task of carrying what has been left for her to endure … and of bearing witness to the repressed that binds them all.

This is what qualifies her as a “destroyer and harbinger of doom,” since she makes visible and gives voice to what cannot be acknowledged. She challenges the fictions that have been built up around – and covered over – the past. Not only does she falsify the stories that hold the constellations together, her “truth” undermines the very personas around which those tales are constructed.

In other words: to love and accept Kym as sister and daughter would mean putting an end to that façade


Forgive yourself, forgive yourself
and maybe you’ll forgive me
Forget yourself, forget yourself
and maybe you’ll forget me
Up to Our Nex in Love, Robyn Hitchcock

It makes sense, then, that the film would close with Kym returning to rehab. Her family cannot provide what she ultimately wants from them; and neither can she provide them with what they desire. Each of them must turn elsewhere to meet those demands, and to address the demons that lurk in the dark.

For Kym, this is what her “rehabilitation” is all about. And this is why – even amidst the wedding celebrations – she takes time out to attend the meetings of a local twelve-step group. Despite what her family and friends might think, when she’s there, she doesn’t need to be the center of attention. She is content listening to the stories of others, their struggles with their own personal hells, their battles against various forms of escape and addiction, their valiant efforts at self-transformation, and the imperative to lead honest and healthy lives.

There is a different constellation at work there, one in which the “star” of the show is neither an individual or even the group itself. Instead, it is the shared belief in the power of confronting the ugliest aspects of oneself in order to dissipate their power. (In some circles, this is what used to be called Sin and the work of expiation.) It is the commitment to forego the dramas that inflame and infuriate – and thereby ensnare – one’s emotionally laden relations to others. It is a commitment to relinquish the roles that constellate – and thereby entrap – one’s performances with and for others. And it is a commitment to surrender the dangerous – and ultimately unnecessary – props that one has relied upon to survive the drama.

In other words, the meetings are a labor of love. Where the central focus is learning how to re-inhabit oneself and honor one’s relation to others.


~ by mistified on May 26, 2009.

One Response to “Rachel Getting Married”

  1. A fantastic appreciation of a great movie.

    There’s an aspect I’d be interested in hearing your opinion of though. It’s obviously not an accident that the best man at the wedding was also a recovering addict and someone with whom Kym made a real connection. I’m curious to know what you think his purpose was and how he fit in to the whole thing. Was it to demonstrate there was a way back from darkness for her? He himself was an interloper of a kind and yet got along very well it seemed. Was it to show that Kym’s path forward (and maybe eventually back into the fold) was first by finding someone outside that constellation, a new reference point from which to steer?

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