The story of the corpse bride goes back to a Jewish-Russian folk tale in which a young man, en route to his wedding, sees what he takes for a gnarled stick or tree root poking out of the ground, looking like a bony hand with finger extended like the hand of a bride. Jokingly, he takes the ring from his pocket and places it on the “stick,” reciting his marriage vows and dancing around his “bride” three times singing the Jewish wedding song.
No sooner has he done this than the earth opens up and a bedraggled corpse emerges, clad in bridal white, declaring herself to be his wife and demanding her marital rights. Aghast, the young man flees, seeking the advice of the rabbis, but is pursued by the corpse bride, a victim of murder on the way to her own wedding. In the end, though the corpse bride’s tragic plight is regarded with compassion and sympathy, the tale affirms that the dead have no claim upon the living; the young man is ultimately free to marry his living fiancée, while the corpse bride is laid to rest.
As imagined by Tim Burton in stunning, wildly stylized stop-motion animation overtly reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas yet technically far beyond it, this macabre fairy tale becomes, variously, a poignant meditation on the daunting weightiness of the vows of marriage, a raucous danse macabre in jumping jazz rhythms and florid colors, a visually rich celebration of Edward Gorey Gothic-Victorian and Charles Addams grotesque, and, perhaps most surprisingly, a touching portrait of tragedy, doomed love, empathy, and sacrifice.
Weightiness and sacrifice are concepts often lost at weddings in this age of express-yourself non-ritualism, in which young couples who’ve already drawn up and signed contingency plans for their divorce approach the wedding as an occasion and platform to declare to the rest of the world their own deeply personal insights and theories regarding the nature and purpose of marriage — an estate with which they have, as yet, no first-hand experience, and which five years hence they are as likely as not to have left behind, or putatively re-entered with different partners, and certainly different vows.
Corpse Bride, with its indeterminate 19th-century European setting, recalls a time and place when marriage vows meant something — and more, did something. The film offers, in fairy-tale terms, a distinctly sacramental vision of the recitation of those words prescribed by society and the church — words that are not merely declarative, but performative, that actually bring about a new state of affairs which one cannot then simply abrogate by later changing one’s mind.
It’s true that the fanciful ceremonial phrases that give sensitive young Victor (Johnny Depp) such trouble at the rehearsal for his arranged wedding to Victoria (Emily Watson) bear no resemblance to the actual vows historically used in the Christian tradition, or in any other. (Other religious trappings are more recognizable, though still indeterminate; the contemptible cleric [Christopher Lee!] presiding at the rehearsal has a bishop’s crozier and miter, but my colleague and friend Peter Chattaway notes on his blog that the cleric is called “pastor” rather than “bishop” or “father,” and that his church combines Eastern-style onion domes with Western-style rose windows.)
The larger point, though, is that the words of the vow are those prescribed by Victor’s society and church, not ones he’s cobbled together himself. And at least one key clause of the traditional vows — “till death do us part” — does play a crucial role (though still with a fairy-tale spin).
In our self-oriented culture, “till death do us part,” and the whole vow thing generally, represents a rather alarming prospect — one perhaps not fully exorcised by pre-nups and easy divorce, and better avoided altogether by opting for cohabitation over even noncommittal 21st-century American marriage. After all, who knows at the altar what one is really getting into? What if the person to whom you find yourself married isn’t the person you thought you were marrying? You might say your vows, only to discover that you’re married to a monster.
If the fascination of horror, as E. Michael Jones and others have argued, lies in part in its power to give imaginative voice to the suppressed testimony of conscience, then Corpse Bride perhaps resonates with a deep ambivalence in our culture regarding the institution of marriage.
At the same time, amid the film’s grotesquerie and sometimes rowdy musical numbers (courtesy of regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman), it’s possible to see important truths about marriage. Though the film satirizes the anti-romantic, utilitarian view of marriage represented by the controlling in-laws-to-be, it also suggests that in marriage emotion is secondary to responsibility, and that marriage is less about spontaneous romantic feelings than about learning to love someone within the context of chosen commitment.
As Chattaway again points out, Victor doesn’t start out with romantic feelings for either of the two women in his life, his living fiancée Victoria or his corpse bride Emily (Helena Bonham Carter). In fact, neither relationship is his idea. He doesn’t even meet Victoria until the day before the wedding; their marriage was arranged by their respective conniving parents, for reasons of their own. And of course his “marriage” to the corpse bride is simply a ghastly mistake.
And yet Victor does come to consider himself, at different times and in different ways, to have some sort of responsibility to each of these women, and he is willing to act on this responsibility and make commitments, and what feelings he has are seen in this light. As Chattaway puts it, it’s “a nice illustration of the principle that we should love the one we are married to, rather than — as our post-Romantic culture would have it — that we should marry the one we have feelings for.”
Ultimately, though, Victor belongs with one of these brides and not with the other. The film plays to an extent with an imaginative picture of the afterworld, or perhaps it would be better to call it simply the grave, that is a lot like life on earth, except in a more fun part of town. There’s even a suggestion that our departed loved ones, while they may be less cuddly than in life, are basically the same people we knew and loved while they lived.
Yet ultimately it’s the dividing line between life and death that has the final word. As seen here, the current state of the dead is neither heaven nor hell — and there’s little reason to call it purgatory either, though there is a suggestion in the end that this broken-down version of life after death may not be our ultimate destiny. What that ultimate destiny is is somewhat ambiguous; the film’s final shot can be interpreted in different ways. (Here again the key points are made precisely and clearly in Chattaway’s blog post. Ironically, this particular post begins by crediting my own recent review of Just Like Heaven with making most of the points Chattaway would have wanted to make about that film; clearly, he and I see eye to eye on these two quasi-preternatural romances between, as he aptly puts it, “a man who is living and a woman who, um, isn’t, exactly.”)
Despite the visual (and musical) similarities between Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas, the former is clearly a darker, more mature film. Nightmare put a spooky Halloween twist on the old Rankin-Bass holiday specials like “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but at least there was still room for Christmastown and Santa Claus. Here, the macabre imagery finds no merry counterpoint; the world of the living is in a way more lifeless than the world of the dead.
Yet Corpse Bride is genuinely soulful and heartfelt where Nightmare was merely clever. In its way, Corpse Bride is about real life — yes, and death, whereas Nightmare was perhaps basically about having fun in happy and creepy ways. The land of the dead may be as entertainingly raucous as Halloweentown, but it doesn’t have Halloweentown’s charming naivete; this is not a place a living soul would actually want to visit, even one day out of the year. By contrast, the living world may be gray and chilly, but it does have beauty of a kind, and there is reason to think that good people like Victor and Victoria can find happiness together there.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.