I used to teach this movie over and over to creative writing classes. First of all, it enchanted me, then I began to notice the structure, the repetitions, the mirrored scenes, the composition of the scenes, the rhetorical flourishes, and finally I began to think about so-called realism and the romantic comedy. The romantic comedy, a genre I adore, is a deeply conservative confection, a bon-bon based on the idea that out of all the people in the world, there is one true love for you, a person with whom you’ll form a mystical attachment and have many babies and people the earth (these kinds of dramas have their roots in ancient fertility rites, which existed long before we realized that lots of people only meant pillaging the countryside and causing global warming). Nevertheless, they appeal to us because deep down we’re programed to believe that somehow our sexual instincts, love and society will/should converge and create many years of happiness (and babies). This movie is just full of weddings, not just the four in the narrative, but the funeral itself is coded with wedding thematics, and then there are a bunch of after-plot wedding photos at the end.
In any case, what you have here is my teaching outline for taking people through the movie. I am an incredibly tedious person when I have the AV remote in my hand. I describe things, let you watch a few seconds, replay it again and again, whole scenes are repeated, then I explain again and digress and so on and so on. But invariably you begin to see that though this seems (aside from the fantasy aspects of the genre) a fairly realistic treatment of a bunch of young friends looking for love, the movie is actually a carefully constructed artifice, every word, action, and scene carved to contribute to the larger work. And the writing is superbly witty (and full of classical Greek rhetorical devices). The screenwriter was Richard Curtis, who also did Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually (which repeats the ensemble cast/multiple plot structure of Four Weddings and a Funeral).
If you watch the movie with the notes in hand and use them to trigger a deeper technical analysis of what is going on, then watch it again and again, till you can really FEEL the repetitions, catch the nuances and tie-backs, see the thematic passages inserted, watch the multiple plots each advance step-by-step, if you pay attention, you’ll learn a good deal about the structure of narrative. Or you can read through the notes and watch the example scenes first.
For as long as it’s available, you can stream the entire movie here for free.
Genre: Romantic comedy (true love); ensemble structure with multiple subplots. A fanciful, socially conservative genre, much like the ancient tales told around campfires in caves that educated the audience in the ultimate mores of the tribe. Get married, have children. An ancient, conventional genre, the art is in manipulating the conventions in a witty and original manner.
Basic composition principles:
1) Repetition is the heart of art. Watch for repetition of all kinds: large structural repetitions, subplots, thematic passages, bookends, motifs, anaphora, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, tie-backs, simple word repetitions. Distinguish also between repetitions that work to organize the whole work and those that are used to organize smaller segments only. Note also how repetitions are varied to keep them fresh. Note the repetitions of “meringue” and “lovely” and “sheep,” e.g.
2) Strict time control. In this case by using invitations, text time markers, and the clock (lateness) comic motif throughout.
3) Plots are organized into clear, simple steps.
4) Each step, event, or event sequence has a simple informing desire and some dramatic interference. The informing desire varies and can be quite simple. E.g. In the the movie’s third segment, Charlie must simply not be late meeting David. Many small dialogue scenes begin with a simple question. The interference can take many forms as well: not-answering dialogue, scene crunches or interfering scenes, speech impediments (in this movie), suspensions, nested scenes (a version of parenthesis, or what I call in a different jargon nested globs), intercut scenes. Often the desire/interference structure can be expressed grammatically as a but-construction.
5) Clear announcement of thematic material. In a movie, this has to take place in dialogue.
1. Overture: Music closing with the words “when every happy plot ends with a marriage knot.”
2. Wedding #1 (Broken up into segments: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception. Each segment then broken up into separate steps and scenes.)
a. alarm clock motif (note how it repeats and varies throughout; call it a species of anaphora)
(1) Note how the lateness+alarm clock anaphora is used in a series of parallel structures to introduce the various characters economically
b. wedding invitation+time switch device (time control)
c. lateness motif
Lovely dialogue: The only words used are “fuck” and “bugger” (only once at the end).
d. wedding ceremony (ring issue; meringue word repetition starts up)
(1) The chief technical problem here is that weddings are all the same. The writer had to invent technical ways of creating dramatic interest in each wedding ceremony. Obviously, the ceremonies are all cut down one way or another. But also note the different other devices that make the weddings interesting. In this case, the device of the scene crunch: while the ceremony is going on, Charlie also has to find replacement rings.
e. wedding photo motif
f. walking to reception (Gareth/Mathew thematic scene structure established)
(1) Secondary subplot (Bernard and Lydia) starts up and goes through preliminary steps, leads to second wedding
(2) David’s romantic subplot starts up
g. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MEETS CAREY
h. bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man
i. speech motif (Charlie; sheep word and image repetition begins; note suspension in speech)
Charlie begins with a joke narrative, leads to a suspension (“there are now skeletons…or so I thought”), followed by a moment of truth-telling about himself and his awe of people who get married, then the suspension ends: “But now back to Angus and those sheep.”
j. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED BUT SHE LEAVES NEXT DAY (Note word play in sex scene, esp. the repetition of “skulk”.)
Sex scenes: difficult to write; three different strategies offered in this movie.
1) word play over sex scene, e.g. skulking;
2) scene crunch (Charlie trying to be alone while Lydia and Bernard have sex);
3. Wedding #2 (Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception)
a. alarm clock
b. wedding invitation+ time switch
(1) Bernard and Lydia subplot advances
d. wedding ceremony (mispronunciation gaffes)
e. wedding photos
f. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE SEES CAREY BUT SHE’S ENGAGED
g. speech (Tom’s travesty of Charlie’s speech)
(1) Fiona’s subplot (dialogue scene)
(2) Scarlet’s subplot (dialogue scene)
(3) David’s subplot advances (meets love interest)
h. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED AGAIN
4. Non-Wedding Interlude Segment (Broken up into: waking up, wedding dresses, list of lovers, conversation with David, Charlie’s near declaration of love.)
(1) Note here how the wedding motifs are dragged into a non-wedding segment: invitation, wedding gifts, trying on wedding dresses, etc. (This is an example of thematic forcing.)
b. alarm clock
c. wedding invitation
e. backfill: gorgeous scene with a LIST and a SUSPENSION.
f. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE ALMOST SAYS HE LOVES CAREY (lovely word repetition begins)
5. Wedding #3 (Broken up into: wedding, reception)
b. lateness (this time not comic)
c. wedding (truncated by Charlie’s lateness; note the point at which he enters the wedding ceremony and how this segment of the ceremony is repeated in the next wedding)
d. Gareth/Mathew thematic scene
(1) Scarlet’s subplot (meets Chester)
(2) Fiona’s subplot (admits love to Charlie)
(3) Hen’s subplot (new boyfriend)
e. speech again (Carey and Hamish)
f. PLOT STEP: GARETH DIES
6. Funeral (Funeral and post-funeral dialogue)
(1) Note how the language in this segment turns the funeral into a wedding: the church setting, the various tie-backs to ongoing plots, the opening words of Mathew’s speech, the dialogue between Tom and Charlie in which Mathew and Gareth are identified as being married
(2) Note also the way the comic motifs are omitted: no alarm clock, lateness, no time switch (because the funeral follows so quickly upon Carey’s wedding)
b. speech again (Mathew)
Note how the camera marks the various plot and subplot characters through the poem.
c. Tom/Charlie thematic dialogue on true love (thunderbolt repetition begins)
7. Wedding #4 (Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, non-wedding, aftermath and real not-wedding)
a. alarm clock
b. invitation (note suspension)+time switch
d. bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man
e. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MARRYING HEN, BUT CAREY SEPARATED
(1) Fiona subplot advances
(2) Scarlet advances
(3) Tom subplot advances (meets Deirdre)
(4) First marriage couple advances (now have twins)
(5) Second marriage couple advances (Bernard is “exhausted”)
f. Mathew/Charlie thematic dialogue in vestry
g. wedding (interrupted by David; note use of suspension)
h. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE PROPOSES TO NOT-MARRY CAREY; SHE SAYS, I DO
a. multiple subplots end in marriage (except for Fiona)
Anadiplosis: “Repetition of the last word of one sentence, or line of poetry, as a means of (sometimes emphatic) liaison.” Dupriez
Epanalepsis: “Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.” Lanham
Parenthesis: “The insertion of a segment, complete in meaning, and relevant or irrelevant to the subject under discussion, into another segment whose flow it interrupts.” Dupriez
Suspension: A narrative moment when some crucial information is promised but held back till later in the action.
Tie-Back: Textual reference back to earlier material in order to remind the reader, create rhythm and add textual density.
Anaphora: Multiple repetitions of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of successive textual elements.
But-construction: Grammatical construction using the word “but” or some cognate to create dramatic interruption, interference, or contrast at the level of a sentence.
Have you seen The Family Stone? While cooking and baking this Christmas, I watched it several times, and was struck by the character gradation and mirroring that occurs in this film. Disguised as a comedy, the film subverts expectations, working on a much deeper level to illuminate its title’s meaning, and hence, the aboutness of the story. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it for you, but I think you’ll find that much of what you are discussing here occurs in this story, too. There is one fabulous scene at the end–among many–but one that I like in particular. Two people–unwashed, bruised, exhausted– lie on a bed looking up through a skylight at the Christmas sky–the firmament–(mirroring other bed scenes of affection) as it snows. It is an evolution of a moment earlier where two people–groomed, perfect, untouched–stare at themselves in a mirror, enclosed in another bedroom, inwardly focused. And the film is rife with romance, in all its inconvenient and beautiful variations.
Have not seen it. But you make it sound delightful.
You absolutely must put it on your to-do list. Some critics turned snarky: they said it hit all the politically correct notes, and maybe the film did, but who cares? That criticism took the place of a more deft analysis. Lazy bums.
Thank you for your amazing analysis. I love it when different art forms are compared for common elements, and your discussion of narrative form, complete with graphics, is so helpful and enlightening.
I strongly recommend the film “The Reluctant Conformist” to anyone who will listen to me! This is for a variety of reasons (political sophistication wonderful acting) but what especially stuck with me was the subtle use of imagery to show pivotal moments in the protagonist’s life. In one scene , a young Pakistani finance professional is at a lunch in Turkey. His two spiritual fathers (a cultured book publisher from Istanbul and a non-nonsense investment banker from Wall Street) battle for his soul. In a very subtle gesture, the publisher reaches out his hand and scoops a large lettuce leaf from the younger man’s plate, a very intimate gesture that speaks volumes. One more scene shows the young man sitting atop a roof in Istanbul, surrounded by the harbor and the shores of Asia and Europe, linked by a span bridge. He has been butting heads with his Wall Street boss and sits there in a beautiful, liminal moment, suspended between two stages of his life. Shortly after returning to New York, he quits his job, packs up, and begins a new life back home.
Best regards, will look forward to more of your work!
Drat. Mis-titled the movie. I am writing above of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” I am given to malapropos. I think “The Reluctant Conformist” is either another film or a novel…. Cheers!
Many thanks, Maureen. I will look up that film. Absolutely. Glad you found the post interesting.
Just one more comment. I found your opening to this lovely piece very thought-provoking. As you taught “Four Weddings” you advanced from simple enchantment with the film to a close observation of its structure and “mechanics.” My former husband was a close-up card magician and we had the pleasure of watching an Argentinean man who had lost a hand as a boy, then miraculously persevered to become a great close-up card and coin magician. A very powerful narrative! He had one trick (technically an “effect”) that wove the story of his accident and career progression into the routine. During a single magic convention, I saw him perform it a half-dozen times, and he consistently moved each fresh audience to tears.
After two viewings, my own tears stopped, and I became more and more conscious of the effect’s construction. Each time, the routine slowly but surely won over all viewers. Interesting lesson in process.