“You wait 20 years for a dad and then three come along at once.”
Mamma Mia, as we all know, is a film based on the music of ABBA, and not really very much else. The story of a twenty-year-old bride-to-be, Sophie, who invites three of her mother Donna’s one-night-stands to her wedding in the hope of finding out which one of them is her father, and starring a motley cross-section of international stars (Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Julie Walters), it is enormously campy, colourful and generally raucous.
What is impressive about the film, though, is the way it often eschews contrivedly easy narrative choices for more emotionally honest and often more feminist ones. Rather than making a meal of the limited and misogynistic comedy potential of a woman’s three exes all turning up at once, it focuses on exploring and developing the relationships between the various characters: between Sophie and Donna, Donna and her lovers, Donna and her friends, Sophie and her friends, Sophie and her potential fathers, Sophie and her fiancé.
It’s important, I feel, that Mamma Mia is set in Greece, in the kind of charmingly rural holiday destination that in reality only exists if you have about a million pounds to spare or if you know the area really, really well, in which case you’re probably too sick to the back teeth of it to want to spend any more time there. Holidays are, sort of, the modern-day equivalent of the Twelfth Night celebrations of the seventeenth century; times when the ordinary course of existence is put on hold, reversed, made strange. It’s in this respect that the exaggeratedness, the campiness, of Mamma Mia really comes into play: the word is carnivalesque – it’s a film freed from ordinary social norms so that it can, ever so gently, and under cover of irrelevance, prod at and subvert cultural paradigms.
More specifically, it’s a film that feels quite free to ignore the cultural paradigm of patriarchy. The film is centred squarely on two women, a mother and a daughter, and not a little on their relationship. It’s significant, too, that the central story concerns a search for paternal authority (a traditional element of the Hero’s Journey if ever there was one – see Star Wars for a good example of patriarchal paternal angst) which is very obviously feminised: not only in that it’s a daughter rather than a son searching for her father, but also in that she, along with the film, gives up on the search for an objective singular truth, choosing to accept three fathers instead of one, siding with a multiple and emotional truth. Marriage, too, is feminised, the traditional comedic ending ironised by subversion: the young bride chooses not to marry her fiancé but to go travelling with him, remaining on holiday, occupying indefinitely that carnivalesque space where anything goes; the old mother marries one of her long-ago lovers, a divorcee, not in order to fulfil the patriarchal purpose of marriage, which is to secure the purity of the male line, but to satisfy an emotional truth of the film. Patriarchy depends on hierarchy, on singular objective authority (as defined by Gilbert and Gubar), on the establishment of true parentage; Mamma Mia, effectively, sticks its middle finger up at this reductive idea of truth.
A word, too, on its treatment of female desire. It’s important, of course, that despite all the complications raised by Donna’s multiple one-night-stands, the film never judges her for them. Quite the opposite, in fact: in one scene, she bemoans her own foolishness (referring to herself, I believe, as a slut), at which point her two friends and ex-bandmates tell her with the kind of gusto only Julie Walters can really muster to get over herself and stop sounding like her mother. Which, huzzah! There is also a fantastic, celebratory scene in which Donna dances through the Greek town in which the film is set singing “Dancing Queen”, trailed by an almost Bacchanalian parade of women symbolically flinging aside their housework to take part in liberated eighties-style dancing down on the quayside. The women of Mamma Mia belong to no-one but themselves.