In Marta Bergman’s heartfelt directorial debut, Alone at My Wedding (Seule a mon mariage), the wedding described in the title never happens, although being alone is very much what the movie is about.
Following a young mail-order bride — played with gritty allure by newcomer Alina Serban — who travels from Romania to Belgium in order to marry an older man she met on the internet, this intimate character study drifts a bit during its two-hour running time, yet remains a keenly observed look at how marriage can sometimes be more about survival than love. Premiering in the Cannes ACID sidebar, the film could see sales in Europe and festival play elsewhere.
A well-observed tale of one woman’s exile and unhappy engagement.
Pamela (Serban) is a Roma woman who lives with her grandmother and two-year-old daughter in a snow-covered village on the outskirts of Bucharest. Her parents are dead and there are no real job prospects in the area, so Pamela — who looks to be in her early 20s, although her age is never mentioned — clearly wants to get out of there.
After a fight with grandma, she decides to sign up for an online wedding service that will hopefully take her abroad. The sequence where she’s interviewed by a receptionist there, and then has an awkward Skype conversation with her possible future spouse, is both touching and somewhat tragic. Pamela puts on a dress, does up her hair and forces a big smile, but her expectations are so low that she says she just wants to find “a man who takes showers.”
She soon lands one in Bruno (Tom Vermeir), a creepy and older Belgian salesman whose photo belongs in the dictionary next to the term “milquetoast.” This is not a match made in heaven but in some sort of computer algorithm, yet it’s an excuse for Pamela to start a new life. The problem is that she also needs to leave her daughter behind — in order to get hitched, Pamela never mentions she has a kid — and the separation will cast a shadow over an already troubled decision to marry someone she has nothing in common with, and with whom she can hardly communicate.
Debuting director Bergman does a good job setting up the stakes for the irreverent and feisty Pamela early on, even if she takes her time doing so. Generally, Wedding suffers from a languid pace that’s not always justified by the story, which could probably be told with the same effectiveness in ninety or so minutes. Once Pamela moves to Liege and settles into Bruno’s depressing abode, the film does pick up the pace a bit, offering several strong moments where the would-be couple tries and fails to hit it off.
Indeed, the two opposites never manage to attract, beginning with the second Pamela arrives in her new home and Bruno, who dresses like Mister Rogers but acts more like Norman Bates, decides to put on his favorite Flemish death metal record to show her what a fun guy he can be. The man clearly has issues — we get a whiff of them when his parents stop by for lunch, in one of the film’s more memorable scenes — and, instead of allowing Pamela to thrive in her new country, he keeps her cooped up in the house while he goes out to work or for late-night drinks with his colleagues.
But Pamela will have none of it, and Serban gives an excellent performance as a woman caught between her thirst for freedom and the limitations imposed on her as a foreigner and single mother. Vermeir is also good as a walking sad sack who, in some ways, truly wants to help his future wife out, yet is unable to grant her the space she needs. He won’t even let Pamela take real French lessons, setting up a home schooling system on his iMac where she’s forced to repeat words like some kind of parakeet.
The tone of Wedding is more bittersweet than dour, with Serban’s lively presence and Vermeir’s deadpan turn giving the drama, which lags in places, a needed boost. The film manages to work itself toward an emotional finale when Pamela’s daughter comes back into the picture, forcing her mother to choose between her old life and her new one. But those scenes ultimately feel more formulaic compared to some of the earlier ones that show, with compassion and a shred of humor, how a rebel like Pamela tries to adjust to a world that seems so far from both who she is and where she came from.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (ACID)
Production companies: Frakas Productions, HiFilms Productions, Avenue B Productions, Zelila Films
Cast: Alina Serban, Tom Vermeir, Rachel Anghel, Marie Denarnaud, Marian Samu, Viorica Tudor
Director: Marta Bergman
Screenwriters: Marta Bergman, Laurent Brandenbourger, with the collaboration of Katell Quillevere, Boris Lojkine
Producers: Jean-Yves Robin, Cassandre Warnauts
Director of photography: Jonathan Ricquebourg
Production designers: Marina Obradovic, Igor Gabriel
Costume designer: Claudine Tychon
Editor: Frederic Fichefet
Composer: Vlaicu Golcea
Sales: Cercamon World Sales
In French, Romani, Romanian, Flemish