I saw After the Wedding last night, and while I am not sure it is a good movie, I enjoyed it a lot. I’m putting it in the pile of “research” for my Rich People Novel. The film itself is such a perplexing, rambling slideshow that I found it difficult to figure out if I was supposed to laugh or feel sad or feel nothing at all in moments of high emotion. There was also an incredible inconsistency in the way it was shot. Sometimes in a standard, realist way. Other times, there was such a saturated light draped over the scenes that it resembled less a movie than a Cialis commercial. Weird, sweeping shots. Odd deployment of flashbacks. And, at times, it was so heavy-handed that you almost wanted to laugh just to give yourself a little breathing room. It’s a film about a woman who fled the materialistic West for India who is forced to return when the orphanage she runs is offered a windfall by a mysterious benefactor. The film is full of secrets that are not secrets, and anyone who pays even a little bit of attention through the first ten or fifteen minutes knows exactly how it will end and why.
Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams were great though. The way they squared off across tables and fired statistics and data at one another, countering cold, brutal fact with piercing emotional clarity was really something to see. This film was a remake of another film, except that one starring men, and this one starring women. You could tell that the director had something he wanted to say about women and work, the sacrifices they must make, etc. The problem was not the messages themselves, which could make for a really robust and interesting dilemma. The problem was that the director/screenwriter does not...believe in subtlety. Or at least, he believes in the wrong kind of subtlety. In a series of truly bizarre scenes, characters confront one another, but the most important parts of these conversations get erased via transitions. Characters get up and leave. Characters stop talking. It’s emotionally dishonest and manipulative, frankly, and more than that, it’s kind of cowardly. I can understand how it looks like subtlety and deference to the difficulty of saying what needs to be said and our inarticulateness in the face of real emotional and intractable moral quandaries, but that wasn’t this. This was just bad scene making.
That said, I loved the clothes. Isabel (Michelle Williams) throwing her shoes off to pound down the stairs of Theresa (Moore) literal glass and chrome tower was stellar. The meaty slap of her feet. The gorgeous dark blouse she wore with the high-waisted but voluminous slacks. The hard tack tack tack of her shoe soles on the hardwood of Theresa’s Westchester-y compound. Theresa’s gorgeous goldenrod stunner at her daughter’s wedding. Isabel’s red shawl wrapped a variety of ways. That beautiful wool suit worn by the douchey husband of Theresa’s daughter. Billy Crudup plays Theresa’s husband, and he appears in a series of chore coats that made me groan in the theater. Chambray. Denim. A light linen blend. And his jeans, god. Billy Crudup’s recent pivot to middle-aged dad who wears glasses is a vibe.
Let’s dwell here for a moment. The first scene we see with him is when he’s at a gallery space sampling lightning for his show. He is a sculptor. But those first shots. First him in profile. Then him turning, slowly, looking, studying. Close-up to his face, which has gone suddenly architectural, weathered, and moody. His hair pulled back, that fantastic front of his forehead, furrowed slightly in thought. He is intent. He is focused, thinking. Suddenly, the phone rings. It’s his daughter. He goes soft, is encouraging, gentle with her. It’s her big weekend. She’s nervous. He gets home. You see him swaggering into the bathroom where Julianne Moore is submerged in soap bubbles. There is an easy, gentle calm about him. He rubs her feet. Then climbs into the tub, fully clothed, an antic gesture, and something that has been tense goes away. I don’t know, friends. I never found him hot before? I never found him that attractive. But between this film and Where’d You Go Bernadette? I think I might be having a moment of being incredibly into Billy Crudup? Maybe it’s the flannel. Maybe it’s the chore coats. Maybe it’s the gentleness of his hands when he’s working on his art. Maybe it’s the vulnerability he displays in this role—not so much impervious caretaker as gentle, sensitive, permeable human? I don’t know. But I am into it. It’s all very confusing.
I also loved the trappings of wealth. The artbooks stacked tastefully on end tables. The tall, wide windows. The very expensive porch furniture. All of the beautiful glasses and decanters. The beautiful countertops in their huge bathrooms. The fountain pens. There’s a way that wealth in films tends to translate into sterile ultra-modern, showy, chrome-based wealth. All skinny suits and $500 haircuts. Wealth of the new day. Gatsby wealth. But I think what I find most appealing is secretive wealth. The kind of wealth that almost gets by you, wealth that whispers in the background, keeping everything going, and it’s only when you stop to think, wait, this house is enormous, how on Earth did you afford this? Wealth that strikes like a bad thought on the edge of sleep, sudden and undeniable.
I think that’s why I read Anthology and Kinfolk, and what drew me to Vogue and Vanity Fair when I was younger. I was always interested not so much in wealth so much as the trappings, the lived-in-ness of it all. I mean, I don’t want to be rich exactly so much as I want material comfort and to live in a cabin far away from everyone. But even that has been co-opted by the wealthy. The idea of retreating from the world is such a privileged notion, and yet, if I were to describe the way I grew up: away from the world is pretty high up on the list. And we were not wealthy. But enclave has certainly become a synonym for wealth. Isolation one of the operating means of wealth, its ability to self-aggregate and segregate like hydrophobic materials in water. But yet, I love beautiful clothes and beautiful things. I love polished floors and reclaimed wood and tall windows and great decks and good views. I love material comfort.
For me, all a movie has to do is gesture toward the vague notion of quiet family money, and I will absolutely watch it to the very end. A little cinematography and a beloved cardigan, and I’m set. Although, interestingly, this film had a lot of wealth porn, which I loved, but it seemed weirdly determined to make a statement about wealth. And it was always in these desperate, apologetic scenes and dialogue, a hasty, aren’t they monsters? energy about the place that made the film kind of crack apart for me. As much as the film insists upon this moral dichotomy between those who have and those who don’t, I still found myself laughing a little at the way the film treated those porn orphans? They come up only to remind us what Isabel misses about being back in India. We do not really dwell in the material of their lives. It all feels very superficial and manipulative. So, in a way, this film itself is a perfect example of the kind of thing it’s trying to indict, and had it just, I don’t know, not tried to indict the culture in which it is embedded, it probably would have made a rather convincing moral case about wealth and the disparities of the global economy.
I guess it makes me wonder about a certain strain of criticism running through American fiction these days. Almost anyone who’s been in a workshop recently, has probably heard some iteration of it: Where do they get their money? How can they afford this? I don’t want to read about middle class problems? God, this white people money shit. Okay, but I found myself wondering, could a poor person do this? And on. What irritates me is not that we are finally talking about class and wealth in terms of art (because it’s about time). Rather, what irritates me is that suddenly everyone is an economist? Suddenly, everyone wants to trot out an economic critique of a story without any real understanding of economics? Or class? It’s a bunch of mewling cats, honestly. And it’s not just in workshops. You see it in response to novels and short fiction published, too. This kind of facile, virtue-signaling discourse around wealth in fiction like it’s somehow new to write and think about rich people. I don’t know.
I’m just thinking a lot about wealth and the responses to wealth in terms of art and what are the limits to what art can do re: a critique of economic disparities and entrenched social injustices. But then all this thinking gets in the way of the breezy city novel about rich people I wanted to write. And then I just feel sad. It’s all a work in progress.
But definitely go see After the Wedding, if for no other reason than the clothes and the beautiful houses and the gorgeous shots of Michelle Williams in twilight, telling a man to get the hell away from her.
ALSO: I have a new short story up at Guernica today. It’s called “Anne of Cleves.” Hope you enjoy.