Cannes 2024 review: Southern Brides (Elena López Riera)

Southern Brides is absolutely worth the effort to find and watch.”

Southern Brides (Las novias del sur) is a short documentary by a filmmaker who never married and wants to tell a story, or at least stories, about marriage. Elena López Riera tells us at the start that she had often wondered about her mother’s marriage, and in her words “wanted to ask others the questions she didn’t dare ask her mother.” And so, for its brisk 40 minutes, Southern Brides glides between interviews with older women asked to reflect on their weddings, loves, husbands, sex, and relationships. The interviews are intercut with videotape of assorted, and one assumes anonymous, weddings which seem mostly to have been taken in the home cinema heyday of the ’80s. Interviewing is done in a classic talking-head style, though I’ll add they are quite handsomely done – well lit, neat backgrounds of creamy bokeh, the wrinkles and other lines of life in clear view. We move from woman to woman as they tell their stories somewhat chronologically – from the wedding to their first sex, to married life, and then what it means to outlive the man you married. It’s engaging and charming, the women are congenial storytellers, and one has the impression of a frankness and unique reflection grown through aging.

There are great insights here, and a general comfortability only older women can bring as they reflect. Is it conceptually new as a documentary? No, at least not much of it. López Riera tries to imbue it with a sense of something bigger and yet personal. The intercut videotape is quite effectively and surreally shown at close-up, finding awkward smiles, odd fashions and moments. Southern Brides uses the technique of holding an image or a moment too long, distending it to unnerve us; something clanks and scratches in the background. As a technique it works on its own merit (it has the feel of gallery video art), but it doesn’t really add anything to the stories the women are telling – partly because they don’t need it, partly because only a small portion of the interviewing focuses on their wedding days, so why are we seeing so much wedding footage? And partly because these are much older women, and to synch with their stories we probably should be seeing footage from the ’50s and ’60s (and earlier in the case of one woman who rather startlingly tells us she is 103!).

López Riera wants to elevate all of this with a secondary narrative about her mother, or her own thoughts about marriage and childlessness; an occasional Herzog-like musing (what does it all mean?). But to me these don’t quite chime as personalization, something is slightly missing from the equation. Likely I’m not the target audience and there are others who it will speak to.

What does feel new is some aspects of the stories being told. For example, hearing that a woman was so proud to have been a virgin she gladly showed her mother the towel she bloodied during her wedding night – a towel she still keeps (“it’s my thing“). What does it tell us about a young woman so fully metabolizing patriarchal societal expectations about her perceived purity, that she still keeps the towel? An extraordinary and telling moment, but it goes no further. We are given this info and then we move on, and that’s a shame – there could and should have been more incisiveness. Another talker is keen to tell us that many an unhappy bride had taken comfort in pleasuring themselves throughout their marriages. She says it isn’t a contemporary thing at all but rather a common way of coping with inattentive or unloved and unloving husbands. Again, another interesting theme emerges, the historical act of pleasing yourself. Southern Brides is good at uncovering them but weaker at exploring them. It is the ultimate skill of a documentarian to recognize in the moment that something said is transcendentally interesting and to home in on it, giving it space to breathe. Though a different genre, I think of the way Louis Theroux can sometimes get people to talk about themselves until they say something deeply revealing which he amplifies till it is fully the purpose of the interview. The only criticism here is that the sage, interesting women were telling us something very powerful and we didn’t get to go deeper.

There are different stories here, some happy-ish, many sad. Marriage isn’t presented here as something very valuable but rather a social activity that excites 20-year-olds but gave no lasting joy to the older women reflecting on it. It is a generally good survey of 20th century customs and how these shape or distend the desires and beliefs of young women. Southern Brides is absolutely worth the effort to find and watch. It adds to a general canon of films about both the 20th century and people and their relationships. It doesn’t hold revelations so much as confirmations. Which is a shame, because hiding in this film is something else, that if laser-targeted would have emerged – I think perhaps it needed to just be about weddings, or it needed to just be about sex. In the end it was about everything, and while that is the point (the contrast of the excitement of a wedding with the reality of marriage), it doesn’t create a bigger whole, but rather a broader survey.

Filmmakers and storywriters should probably enjoy this short documentary a lot, as it could provide them with all kinds of stories they could develop in their own narratives. Older women I assume could watch this with great recognition (perhaps even younger women), and men should seek it out to watch quietly and in good faith to hear its messages.