Why do we love romantic comedies?
The best of the modern rom com genre, and what makes it so irresistible, despite its flaws
Glasgow Film Festival opens on Valentine’s Day this year with fifties-set French romantic comedy Populaire. What is it about the romcom genre, despite its flaws, that makes it so irresistible, asks Hannah McGill?
Did you and your partner meet a) at a friend’s dinner party, b) smoking outside a pub or c) when the heartless multinational company they work for bulldozed your cosy little wedding dress shop to make way for a heartless multinational office block?
The last time the two of you had a fight, did you a) act pissy for a few days and then make up, b) peek at their Facebook messages while they were in the loo, thus storing up resentments that can now never be aired, or c) make a mad dash to the airport just in time to catch them before they gave up on you forever and moved to South America?
Do you have a best friend who is a) a bit like you, really, b) not like you at all but you’ve known each other since school and it’s just sort of stuck, or c) an outrageous, loudmouthed eccentric with a mild weight problem, a hilarious line in hats, and an even more disastrous love life than your own?
If your answers to these questions are mostly ‘c’s, then congratulations: you are a character in a romantic comedy. And you don’t exist. All film genres sustain themselves through a delicate negotiation with cliché - otherwise we wouldn’t recognise them as genres – but it is perhaps the humble little romcom that relies the most upon a set of pre-existing conventions. Far more, indeed, than they rely upon any accurate imitation of real life. It’s arguably not that often, for instance, that people who have utterly zero in common, who STRAIGHT-UP HATE EACH OTHER on first meeting, or whose jobs entail trying to destroy each other end up being stable life partners. It’s not that commonplace for large and lavish weddings to be abandoned at the last moment because one of the participants suddenly realises that they’ve made the wrong choice and should be marrying, I don’t know, the bride’s mousy but sharp-witted sister instead. And the airport dash? Have you tried that, post-9/11? Me neither, but it can’t be a picnic.
Reality hardly makes for an effective movie plot, however. If it did, we wouldn’t need the movies. People would hardly be lining up for a film in which two people got it on because they liked the same stuff, and had a quick chat on the phone rather than making impulsive and humiliating romantic gestures in public places. So romcoms cosset us with clichés that don’t really say much at all about real-life romance, but which cater to the private fantasies of the long-single and the unhappily attached. Your beauty is there to be discovered; you simply hide it under a veneer of frumpiness because you’ve been hurt before. Your unmarried state is not down to unattractiveness, but your flinty independence. The person who will finally accept you as you are (only more gorgeous) and love you forever is already in your life; you just haven’t noticed them yet because they are pretending to be obnoxious and to hate you.
Such guiltily pleasurable conventions are perhaps most closely associated these days with the oeuvres of Nora Ephron, Garry Marshall and Richard Curtis, though they date back to the era of screwball comedy, if not much earlier (Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice and Benedick wrote the book on spiky love/hate dialogue). And of course being as ingrained as they are, they are ripe for subversion; can hardly be used, in fact, without an element of winking at the audience. A romantic comedy that adheres to tradition is by now a touch self-parodic by definition. And so the modern romcom-maker must decide not only which clichés to permit into play, but how and how far to subvert them. Game-changers like High Fidelity and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind defied starry-eyed restlessness by asking not where new love might lie, but how old love might be reignited. The likes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Bridesmaids, all from Judd Apatow’s phenomenally successful comedy production company, are subversive in the sense of using a lot of very rude jokes and foul language (thus reducing candy-coatedness AND getting blokes in the door); but they stick loyally to the tradition of having the true compatibility of the improbable romantic couple be apparent from day one to everyone except them. Populaire, the French romcom that opens this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, foregrounds its debt to convention by setting its story in a period-perfect 1950s; even The Artist, with which it shares a star in Bérénice Bejo, was a romcom in its retro way. The likes of Bachelorette (American, brilliant, and unaccountably buried), I Give it a Year (British, dire, and coming soon) and countless others constantly try to conjure with the happy-ever-after myth of the perfect wedding and marriage, with varying degrees of success. The romcom comes in many forms, and yet it’s always recognisable. For unlike many of the relationships it tends to portray (come on – do you ever buy that ANYTHING’S going to work out with a character played by Matthew McConaughey?), this genre has some serious staying power.
Populaire opens the Glasgow Film Festival on Thu 14 Feb and is also showing on Fri 15 Feb. Glasgow Film Festival runs from Thu 14- Sun 24 Feb.