Monday, May 31, 2004

I fell in love with ABBA songs again after seeing P. J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding. ABBA, the Swedish group, incidentally was the first whose pop music I bought (and liked). Later of course, it faded and was replaced by the more 'serious' and angst-ridden songs of Pink Floyd and Nirvana. Sscored almost incessantly - and endearingly - to ABBA songs, Muriel's Wedding leaves you humming ABBA again. Muriel and her friend Rhonda do an amazing lip-sync of Waterloo in a talent contest and later hum Fernando looking at the clear starlit sky; Muriel tries on various wedding gowns to the tune of Dancing Queen; and even Muriel's wedding starts with her walking the aisle to the strains of I do, I do.

The movie itself though is a sometimes unsettling combination of pathos, humor and striking cruelty. It is ruthless in it's caricature of characters. Muriel herself is the kind of character you would find in other movies as the hero's dotty fiancee or as the comic prop. Here, however, she's the heroine, portrayed by the astonishing Toni Collette. Collette's portrayal of Muriel is fearless, and it is her fearlessness that lends poignancy to what is essentially a rites-of-passage story.

The movie does not really walk the thin line between parody and misery. Instead director Hogan, who also wrote the screenplay, leaps straight into cruelty. He is merciless to his small-town characters who are all portrayed as mean-minded and mind-numbingly shallow. Hogan never redeems his characters, especially that of Muriel's father, played by Bill Hunter. It's hard to figure out sometimes who is being more cruel: the director to his characters or the characters to each other. But this same hard-headedness makes Muriel's Wedding a movie of substance, unlike say movies like Miss Congeniality, which start by satirizing the beauty-queen culture but ultimately are too gormless to go all the way and end up endorsing it instead.

There are two other female characters. Rachel Griffiths is the free-spirited Rhonda who saves Muriel from her town and her family. In a portrayal that could have gone either way, into gruesome satire or fake pathos, Jeanie Drynan correctly underplays the role of Betty, Muriel's mother, who essentially precipitates the final crisis, that brings Muriel to a better understanding of herself. Now characters have always been functions of plot in movies but Hogan, in self-circular way acknowledges that. In a dialogue of astonishing cruelty, that had me literally squirming, a character calls Betty's death the "ultimate sacrifice for her husband" and says that "betty would have been happy that her life had not been in vain". (Dialogue not accurate).

The equation of marriage with happiness afflicts all the female characters in this movie. The movie's unconventional final act ends not with marriage but with a renewal of a life-affirming friendship. Is Muriel's Wedding an unacknowledged lesbian love story? Maybe. Maybe not. It is however, the best female buddy-movie I have seen!!!

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