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‘A Paper Wedding’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 16, 1991


Michel Brault
Genevieve Bujold;
Manuel Aranguiz;
Dorothee Berryman
Not rated

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It's both fortunate and unfortunate that Michel Brault's 1989 Canadian feature "A Paper Wedding" should be released here so hot on the heels of Peter Weir's "Green Card." Without question, Brault's film presents itself with a greater degree of conviction and urgency. It doesn't have some of the more superficial pleasures of Weir's film, but then it also doesn't bust into a sweat trying to inject romantic bubbles into flat champagne. It plays it straight.

The stories are virtually identical. In each a marriage of convenience is arranged between a woman and a foreigner who faces deportation. In this case the fortyish college professor (Genevieve Bujold) may be bored with her married lover, but she's anything but thrilled when her lawyer sister suggests that she enter into a marriage of convenience with Pablo (Manuel Aranguiz), a Chilean dissident, so that he can remain in Canada and avoid being sent back to jail and probable death in his homeland.

Eventually, though, she agrees. After all, it's pretty cut and dried -- little more than a couple of hours out of her life. As Bujold plays her, Claire is a tough little nut to crack. Nobody's fool, she prides herself on her clear-eyed lack of illusions. There's no fuzzy romantic cotton candy between her ears. But when she's left alone in her apartment after the ceremony, all decked out in her wedding dress, her calculated pragmatism provides very cold comfort. Is this the way it was supposed to be for me?

Bujold is magnificently subtle in these scenes. Whenever a hint of emotion creeps in, her features seem to clench as if she were fighting desperately not to feel. Mixing sadness with self-possession, and dignity with turbulence, she shows the downside to lowered expectations. When the immigration officials begin to snoop around to see whether the couple are indeed married, she reacts with the petulance of a spoiled child. She feels violated, forced to open up, and when Pablo moves in to prepare for their interview with immigration, she blocks his questions about the details of her life as if she were fending off blows. She refuses to let down her guard.

Slowly, though, as the paper bride and groom cram for their interrogation, they begin to reveal more of themselves -- and become more important to each other -- than they had expected. As a character, Pablo isn't allowed much depth; what comes across, though, especially in the scenes with his countrymen, is his low-key, masculine solidity. He's a type, a broad-shouldered shelter from the storm like Alan Bates in "An Unmarried Woman" and Kris Kristofferson in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." Even though his nights are overrun with nightmares from his imprisonment back home, he's rooted in a way that Claire can't help but envy.

Brault has to walk an emotional tightrope in these scenes; both characters are forced to play their cards close to their vests. But he keys the mood of the film to Claire, and her entrenched reserve makes it impossible for us to know how the hand is going to play itself out. "A Paper Wedding" isn't a great movie, but it is a pleasingly modulated, honest one. And Bujold's performance gives it a kind of grandeur. She shows us the way real grown-ups think.

"A Paper Wedding" is in French with subtitles and is unrated.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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