There's been a 61 percent decrease in marriage in Argentina. Worried they'll never experience a proper wedding party, young Argentinians are now paying to go to the closest thing they'll ever get.
Nico's having a shitty Saturday night in Buenos Aires. He's just been jilted at the altar by his stunning bride, and the registrar is about to call off the nuptials. Me and 699 other guests look on, mortified, some bellowing insults at the would-be wife. But one minute: best man Juan Simón is down on one knee, proposing to the bridesmaid. Julieta instantly accepts. A live telenovela is unravelling before our eyes.
A wedding – though not the planned wedding – is back on. The new happy couple swiftly exchanges vows, but more importantly, our eagerly anticipated fiesta is about to shimmy into action. Of course it is. This is all part of the script penned by Trineo Creativo, the production company whose Falsa Boda (fake weddings) are captivating young Argentines with their soap opera-style plot twists and all-night parties.
After ten years of living in Buenos Aires I've attended my fair share of bodas. Besides numerous registry office services, I was witness for a gay couple and travelled 500 miles for a full-on marquee bash in The Pampas. And while the similarities to getting hitched in the UK are numerous – meringue frocks and tossing the bouquet – what Argentines really crave is the fiesta.
The problem is that there just aren't enough bodas to go around (my last invite was in 2013). The number of couples in Argentina saying I do dropped a huge 61 percent between 1990 and 2011, according to the Vatican Annual Report. Argentine millennials – who, thanks to predominantly Italian and Spanish heritage, are very family-oriented – feel they're missing out on participating in this life experience. It's a sentiment shared by the organisers themselves.
Gastón Gennai from Trineo Creativo says: "Three years ago, we were five bachelors talking about the fact we'd only get to go to a wedding together if we had girlfriends in common. That's when we had the idea of organising a mock event, complete with a script. We rented a space – imagine the owner's face when he found out no one was actually tying the knot – and around 300 people came to that first falsa boda."
The groom and immediate entourage are actors, tonight's bride clearly isn't a natural blonde and even the cake's a fake. Everyone is under 25 – except me and plus one Daniel – so there isn't even a generational cross section toddling or staggering around the dance floor. The only glimmer of reality? Legit booze and a massive party. That, however, doesn't perturb the Argentines who are hoofing up canapés, getting pissed at the open bar, taking selfies and getting on the pull (after all, where better to get lucky than at someone else's wedding night?).
They certainly don't mind paying the price tag, which is pretty real at 650 pesos (£32). Because not only is marriage a dying institution in Argentina, it also costs an average of 200,000 pesos (£10,000) to hold a romantic, big white wedding. Few can plan – or afford, given the average 164,000 peso (£8,000) annual wage – for something of that magnitude in a country where inflation hits around 30 percent each year.
Shelling out isn't an issue, says Florencia, 22, who's on her second fake wedding at the same venue in the Palermo neighbourhood with two friends; she just wants a fiesta. "My mum and dad got together when she was 16, and they've been married for 30 years. There's no way in hell I can see that happening to me," she says. "Honestly, I love it, it's utopia, but marriages that last that long are strange nowadays. If I love someone, I don't need a piece of paper to prove it. But I do want to go to the party."
Gisela, 25, adds: "I was four the only time I went to a real wedding, so this is my chance to go to one with my friends. I didn't even see the couple get married last time – we just came for the fiesta!"
Since the first event was staged in La Plata in 2013, Falsa Boda has rolled out to other cities including Córdoba and Rosario, staging weddings every few weeks that sell out within a few days. From intimate sit-down dinners for 100 guests to vast celebrations catering for 1,000, Falsa Boda's success is based on life imitating life in the shape of an Argentine wedding experience: video messages recorded by "friends", the nuptials themselves, a live band, classic cumbia tracks everyone sings along to, cotillón wigs and comedy spectacles, dancing until dawn and endless Fernet and cola. And, as neighbouring Uruguay and even Russia have latched on, it proves the pseudo wedding isn't just an Argentine fad, according to Buenos Aires-based psychoanalyst Dr Megdy Zawady.
"It's a cultural movement that obeys the fact that the lines for important ideals such as marriage and family have blurred," he says. "The majority of people no longer believe in eternal love or a commitment forever, and relationships don't last as long as our parents' or grandparents' have done. This type of event does, however, trivialise a mundane link between two people, making a fun parody out of something that used to be solemn, that of accepting a commitment for life. And I don't think it just applies to Argentina."
But blurring the lines is part of the attraction, says 23-year-old Quillén: "Marriage is pretty formal nowadays, and I've come here because I've never been to a 'real' wedding. The couple [marrying] isn't the main event, though. I'm here to have a great time, plus it's fun to play my role as a guest: it's very theatrical and I like that."
Aspirational and inspirational images on social media are obviously key to Falsa Boda's raging success: the proof is 47,000-plus Facebook fans who tag and hashtag like crazy before, during and after the ceremony. And make believe is more popular than real life, given that just 12,500 couples wed in the city of Buenos Aires in 2014. Instagrammer @natalitiaaa wistfully commented on a recent photo depicting the fictitious nuptials of one glowing "happy" couple: "It's my dream to have a wedding like this." Additional personal touches by Trineo Creativo reel in the first 60 guests who pay to play the bride and groom's "friends"; added to a WhatsApp group, they're assigned tasks such as filming those messages of support.
Gastón adds: "People get to live an experience they don't usually have – we give them a protagonist's role they'd never get at a nightclub. Everyone who comes to falsa boda has a part: besides being a party, it's also theatre."
Wandering around the falsa boda, I'm taken back to the 1990s, when 14-year-old me and my friends would go to balls – parties in a safe environment for middle-class teenagers wearing posh frocks. Here, I feel like an ageing extra in this matrimonial farce, and after a few vodka and Sprites to make the cumbia more tolerable, the lines quickly blur: I can't quite tell whether the guy passed out on the sofa, firmly clutching a glass, is pseudo wasted or really wasted, or whether Bride One is happier with or without Nico, or just loves having her photo taken.
Everyone else is having a ball, though. That is, until the fiesta is closed down by local authorities at 3.30 in the morning for failing to stock condoms in the men's bathroom. Just another, albeit unexpected, plot twist on fake wedding night.
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