But I'm Beautiful

Film still for But I'm Beautiful

Muriel's Wedding? One of the best films of all time? Surely not? In this latest Top Ten provocation, Andy Medhurst argues for a film about girl love that 'real men' won't watch.

Lists of 'Best Films' are simultaneously fascinating and infuriating, indeed they are fascinating because they are infuriating. To read through any such list is to plunge into a pool of disbelief, bafflement, admiration and shock. To check this out, look at the Top 100 Movie Lists website, which archives the lists compiled by publications including Sight and Sound, Time Out and Village Voice, those arising from quasi-official polls taken by such bodies as the American Film Institute, and also, best of all, posts top hundreds sent in by anyone who has found the site and has time on their hands. A glance at these personal lists reveals the deranged and seductive capriciousness of the exercise. The contributor whose three favourite films ever are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Sherlock Jr and Battleship Potemkin, for instance, might find it tough to establish common ground with the one who plumped for Escape to Witch Mountain, My Favorite Martian and Home Alone 3. Taste, of course, is a minefield - we get so defensive about what we love because revealing what we love discloses so much about ourselves - which is perhaps why the question of taste is an uncomfortable spectre hovering around the process of list-making. Asking for a list of 'best' films, or, even more weightily, 'greatest' films is an attempt to escape from the personal-taste world of 'favourite' films, an attempt to put subjectivity in its place. Best and greatest sound so much more detached, serious, considered (so much more manly than favourite), because in the favourite zone it's perfectly plausible to say that Escape to Witch Mountain stands at the top of the heap.

So while I could easily rattle off, let's say, my favourite 15 films from the past 15 years (all right, if you insist, but only in alphabetical order: The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Beautiful Thing, Boogie Nights, Brassed Off, Do the Right Thing, Edward Scissorhands, Gods and Monsters, Heavenly Creatures, The Last Days of Disco, Muriel's Wedding, The Opposite of Sex, Starship Troopers, Strange Days, Unzipped, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), could I stage any kind of case for them being among the best or greatest films of recent years? There's only one way to find out, but only space enough to do one of them justice, so let's zoom in on a single candidate. The easiest option would be to clutch the safety blanket of directorial authorship and trot out a sweet little essay on Almodóvar or Spike Lee, but it might be refreshing to look through another lens, if for no other reason than the fact that most of the other articles in this series are using a director-based approach. In which case, may I invite you to Muriel's Wedding?

A plot summary may be helpful here, though it's a widely seen film. Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) lives in Porpoise Spit, a provincial coastal town in Australia. Twenty-two, hefty, unemployed and saddled with an unsympathetic family, she has little to look forward to, but takes refuge in fantasies of the perfect wedding as an escape route from the depressing limitations of her everyday life. She tries hard to be friends with a gang of old schoolmates, but they cruelly ridicule her appearance and tell her to keep her distance. Stealing some money from her family, she goes to a holiday resort where the schoolfriends are also staying, and there she meets Rhonda, another contemporary acquaintance, but one who is much more sympathetic. They befriend each other, and Muriel goes to stay with Rhonda in Sydney rather than face up to her responsibility for the theft. Rhonda discovers she has cancer, while Muriel's father, a corrupt local politician, blames his daughter's theft and disappearance for his own misdemeanours. Rhonda survives but has to use a wheelchair, and her hopes that Muriel will look after her are shattered when Muriel agrees to marry (for money) a South African swimmer who needs an Australian passport to compete in the Olympic Games. Muriel has her glamorous wedding at last, but returns home on hearing of her mother's death. Rhonda is living back in Porpoise Spit, but Muriel rescues her and they return to Sydney.

At first glance Muriel's Wedding fits into that niche of glitzy, garish, kitsch-and-camp Australian romantic comedies that were global hits in the early 1990s. It was certainly marketed that way, and it is still usually thought of as Strictly Ballroom's daughter and Priscilla's straighter sister. Clearly all three films share a number of stylistic and thematic similarities - brash decor and costumes, a strong emphasis on music, a concern with gender roles, a fondness for caricature and a weakness for the grotesque. All three are knowing and playful about established film genres and character types, all three set out to champion underdogs against the stifling forces of normativity, all three delight in glamour and excess while being shrewd enough to present them through filters of irony. Given the parameters of that unofficial trilogy, however, Muriel is the least at home there. Yes, it piles on the kitsch at times, yes, it has an unashamedly schematic fairy-tale story, and yes, there is lots of Abba, but to see it in those terms and no more is to overlook its darker underside. It's a film about rejection and betrayal, a film where life-threatening illness and suicide play key narrative roles, and there are moments where the label of 'comedy' seems pitifully inadequate to convey its tone or feel. It is also far more interesting politically than those other two Aussie dazzlers. Strictly Ballroom, for all its camp finesse, is profoundly patriarchal, while Priscilla can make its queer stars triumphant only at the expense of its female characters. As Richard Dyer says in The Culture of Queers, Priscilla may be "a drag celebration of femininity" but its real women are treated with either ridicule or condescension.

Muriel, on the other hand, is one of the great lesbian love stories in film history. That might sound like a startling claim, given how much of the story is concerned with Muriel's search for Mr Right and how often she and Rhonda talk about men, but for those with creatively skewed eyes, the evidence is clear. When Muriel and Rhonda meet on Hibiscus Island, they lock eyes and hardly relinquish that eye contact for the rest of the film. Rhonda's early question to Muriel, "Are you married?", looks innocuously straight in terms of the film's surface narrative, but more subversive the more times you replay it. Shortly after, Rhonda confronts the loathsome Tania, ringleader of the high-school harpies who are the film's pantomime villains, by telling her, "I'm not alone, I'm with Muriel." Note, too, how at the end of the talent contest they win with their energetic performance of Abba's 'Waterloo', a performance they punctuate with yet more sizzling eye contact, it's the line "knowing my fate is to be with you" which accompanies their sauntering swagger up stage, arms around each other. As they do so, Tania and one of her gang are cat-fighting in the dust over the revelation of marital infidelity, offering us a scene where heterosexuality leads only to trauma while women who stick with women get to celebrate on stage and win prizes.

Some readers may by now be preparing letters of complaint about how I'm 'reading too much into' this aspect of the film, but I've heard those complaints before. Giving a talk about the film at a London arts centre, I put forward my speculation about Muriel's queer tendencies. The result was not exactly outrage (audiences at London arts centres like to see themselves as unshockably liberal), but there was a significant outbreak of seat-wriggling and a discomforted question of 'how could you possibly see it like that?'. My answer, then as now, was that after the film's ending, how could you possibly see it otherwise? Rhonda is incarcerated in Porpoise Spit, fussed over by her well-meaning but smothering mother and hemmed in by Tania and her coven, when Muriel arrives, not exactly on a white charger but not far off it, to save the princess from the evil tower. Princess Rhonda is not overjoyed at first, still hurting from Muriel's decision to abandon her for the great straight ritual of the glittering wedding. "What makes you think I'd go anywhere with you?" she snaps. "Because I'm your friend," Muriel replies, emphasising the last word with quiet yet irresistible strength. And so they leave (prompting one of the film's most iconic moments, Tania's hoarse and affronted shriek of "But I'm beautiful"), gazing lengthily into each other's eyes one last time, then drawing back slightly from the declaration of love that is on the tips of both tongues to fling farewells out of the car as they speed away from the hyper-hetero constraints of the sperm-spurtingly named Porpoise Spit to a new life together in Sydney, queer capital of the southern hemisphere.

One of the most interesting scenes in any film is the one all spectators are obliged to write and shoot for themselves: the scene after the film ends. Filling that gap reveals a lot, both about the film's own internal narrative logic and about what each spectator has made of what has gone before. What, for instance, are Charlton Heston's options after he sees the Statue of Liberty wreckage in Planet of the Apes, or what will James Stewart do after he looks out of the bell tower at the end of Vertigo - jump to his death just to be with Kim Novak? Go home and patch it up with Barbara Bel Geddes? Thump that intrusive nun? It is plausible, I suppose, that the scene-after-the-end in Muriel's Wedding is a scene where Muriel and Rhonda resume a life of man-hunting in Sydney, but how much more glorious to think of them realising at last that all heterosexuality has ever brought them is disappointment, distress or a consolation sex bout, and that the most sustaining relationship they'll ever have is with each other. Wild speculation, perhaps, but the raw material of such a conclusion is all there in the film. Muriel's Wedding must end before Muriel's love affair can begin.

The joyfulness of the film's ending (both its actual ending and the after-ending I supply whenever I watch it) is all the more remarkable after the way earlier plot twists have cut short every move towards happiness with a tug back in darker directions. Muriel first flourishes on Hibiscus Island, but she has got there only by deceiving her poor, downtrodden mother. Much later, her glowing, giggling glee on her wedding day soon runs aground on her pseudo-husband's cold indifference. In Sydney she is about to take the sexual plunge with the endearingly gormless Brice (whose three seconds of bad dancing in the club scene may well be the film's funniest image) when everything goes haywire. She learns about her father's corruption, the sex turns into farce as dimwitted Brice unzips the beanbag chair instead of Muriel's trousers, the American sailors who have been servicing Rhonda appear - naked, absurdly phallic, simultaneously hilarious and desirable and threatening - and then Rhonda suffers the first jolting signs that she is seriously ill. This is the most daringly multi-layered scene in the film, where sex, slapstick, violence, family revelations and tragedy buffet crazily against each other in a few seconds, resulting in a complexity of emotional tone few films can match.

The darkest scenes of all centre on Muriel's mother Betty, a woman so crushed by years of verbal (and, quite plausibly, physical) abuse from her husband, and so accustomed to sullen indifference from the majority of her children, that she seizes on Muriel's chance of a decent job as a rare space for the investment of hope. Once both Muriel and her husband have snuffed out her last shreds of trust, she kills herself, only for that last act of exhausted desperation to be reconstituted as noble sacrifice by her scheming spouse and his grasping lover Deirdre, who tells Muriel, "She'd be glad in the end that her life amounted to something." Betty's death, and its cynical exploitation, provide the final wake-up call Muriel needs to alert her to the fact that women who live only through men are doomed to the status of trophy at best and drudge at worst. Muriel treats her mother appallingly through most of the film (another example of its refusal of emotional easy options) yet learns from Betty's tragedy, and in no time at all has left her sham marriage and reunited herself with Rhonda.

Jeanie Drynan's moving and understated performance as Betty is one of the film's three acting triumphs. Toni Collette captures every ambivalence of Muriel's blundering run towards enlightenment with expert skill, all the more remarkably since this was her first film role of any substance, while Rachel Griffiths as Rhonda relishes every sharp line and knowing look. As the centrality of these three roles underlines, Muriel's Wedding is very much a women's film (a phrase with multiple implications). It has a male writer-director (P.J. Hogan) but it is both a film about femininity and, in its emotional tenor, a feminine film; and it is perhaps these qualities that have led to it being so underrated. It's a white-wine film not a red-wine film (though it's a sharp and acidic Sauvignon Blanc rather than a blowsily bland Chardonnay), and it's no surprise that a film which so assiduously exposes the limitations of masculinity has so little appeal to 'real men' (whoever they are). Look again at most of the Best or Greatest Films lists and they palpitate with testosterone - men running newspapers, men with guns, men in the Mafia, men leading the Bolsheviks, men in space, men not giving a damn, men tormented by existential angst, men riding camels - need I go on?

Muriel's Wedding is also, for all its shocking sadnesses and undercurrents of anger, a comedy, and those Best lists rarely stray into comedic zones apart from venerating safely dead silent comedy or wheeling on token laugh-ins like Some Like It Hot. We're so culturally conditioned to equate solemnity with profundity that we overlook the serious truths comedy can reveal. Feminine, funny and unfooled by masculinity, it's no wonder Muriel's Wedding has never been seen for the classic it is.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012