Great melodramas focus on the particular emotional state of an ordinary life, amplifying it onto the big screen and strengthening its force of feeling. A great recent example is Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, which, for all its raucous and riotous comedy, is a deeply perceptive distillation of intensely felt feelings. Mediocre melodramas, of which Johan Cronje has made an exemplary work, the new Afrikaans release Wonderlus, stretch emotions thin across the screen rather than expanding them; they reduce feelings not to their essence but to their semblance; they distill bathos instead of distilling experience. As I’ve remarked before when writing about South African films, the approximation of feelings they grasp at is one prompted and affirmed by the heavy professional emphases on bland superficial production quality, and the default industry gearing towards television.
Read others’ responses to Wonderlus here.
The set-up of the drama involves starting off in the wake of the rougher, tenser moments, and jumping back and forth between the two time periods (the night of, and the morning after) to weave together the various plot strands involving the handful of featured characters. In true South African romantic melodrama/comedy fashion, it centres on a picture-perfect destination wedding, on some luxury farm location a few hours out of the city; there’re chalets and a dam amidst golden highveld grasslands; there’s an irritable guest and her obtuse boyfriend, who bicker constantly and fruitlessly; there’re immature groomsmen and their tittering bridesmaid counterparts; there’s the groom himself, gracious and forthcoming, and even prettier than his young bride; and there’s a nervous air of unanswered doubts and unsettled bodily drives.
Cronje endeavours to ladle the romantic kitsch from the very beginning, as one couple of serial one-night standers wake up together in a car with a high-handed “Nunc dimittis” (a religious work, taken from the Song of Simeon, given in Luke 2:29–32) — written specifically for the film by the young Afrikaans composer Franco Prinsloo — playing loudly over the soundtrack (it’s on a CD still playing in the car’s CD-player). Most of the action that follows is shot on a handheld camera, ostensibly to heighten the realism or immediacy of what’s going on, but wholly conventional editing techniques and the actors’ air of studied naturalism keep the experience of the movie from rising anywhere above the pedestrian. There are breaks in the style, but only for what are generally in real life the most central and memorable parts of the occasion — that is, the wedding itself, and the celebration during the reception, which are both filmed like television adverts, as surface-skimming feel-good montages of people dancing to indistinguishable rock or indie music.
What has been singled out by many commentators is the distinctive language and unconventional plot of what would normally have been considered a commercial romcom movie in the Afrikaans film industry. It’s true that characters swear a lot more, discuss or at least mention sexual acts and aspects a lot more, and engage in formerly transgressive behaviours such as smoking and sex a lot more than in other mainstream Afrikaans releases, but none of these in themselves are markers of aesthetic distinction. The merit is in what a filmmaker does with them, and, sadly, in Cronje’s case, it’s not very much. They don’t highlight particular sections or cross-sections of Afrikaans society in any meaningful way, and, since all characters talk the same way, it doesn’t distinguish any one of them from the others. Sex itself, often exploited by filmmakers for supposed realism or to blandly signify a particular relationship between characters, is no different from that disappointing norm here; the sex scene is without eroticism and without insight. (Notice, too, as usual, that the female actor was expected to be filmed nude, but not the male actor.) And, with the emphasis on the apparently realistic ways that people actually talk and behave in modern society, there isn’t even any pleasing note of transgression or willful individuality in either the crude discussions or their fleshly realisations. As for the unconventional plot, the sequence of events may differ from its precursors, but each event itself is a tired old retread of antiquated devices and tricks. What happens between the bride and the groom may be shocking, but isn’t surprising, and any subplot or side development between any other characters (such as the very common notion of a bridesmaid’s tryst with a groomsman) turns out only to be hackneyed and predictable.
When it comes to the substance of the drama, which pivots on a woman’s choice between a future with one of the two men facing her, and a man’s choice between the woman he’s chosen out of duty and the captivating woman who’s chosen him on impulse, matters become muddier, not clearer. The brief but supposedly impassioned discussions that happen between two couples (one in the throes of first-encounter bliss, the other in a swirl of long-standing pain and frustration) include only the most banal and general varieties of conversation. What are the distinctive qualities of each woman? What are the crucial goings-on in each one’s inner life: her plans, desires, and terrors, the stuff of her unique and variegated identity? We’re given scant clues to any of it. As for the men, whatever there is supposed to be to separate them, in essence and experience, is not evoked, and the conflicted woman isn’t filmed experiencing the presence of either with free and true emotion. Are we perhaps to gather that the primary disconnect between the central man and woman is some sexual dysfunction, since both have rough, rash sex with their alternates as soon as they’re rid of the first?
Wonderlus’s story ends where a great drama would begin: with the doubts, secrets, resentments, desires, compromises, and co-dependence that kick off life together as a married couple. Perhaps the filmmakers’ most singular moment of insight is in the film’s final shot, which moves to make a big reveal of the plot’s romantic outcome. Perhaps love is more of an arbitrary mess than we often care to admit, tangled as it invariably is within a web of practical considerations, unrealised plans, unfulfilled aspirations, and the apparent randomness of decisive human will and impulse. “Wonderlus” can be translated into English as a desire for wonder, a yearning for marvel, sensation, or spectacle. I suppose it’s meant that the characters feel it, but the experience of seeing the movie induces it as well.