Wednesday, May 26

Pulling Rabbits: On Movie Romances

Movie critics tend to dislike so-called "romantic" movies. So do I. This has several possible explanations. Most films in the genre are not terribly unique, the characters tend to be quite stereotypical and the humor is mostly either crude or family friendly. But critics also tend to be bitter, jaded and, most importantly, male.

However, romance doesn't always have to fall flat. There are some love stories that can easily be described as masterpieces. Think Casablanca. Think Amelie. Think Notting Hill or Moulin Rouge. What makes these movies stand out from the rest? What makes their romances work?

Before I begin, I want to make one thing clear. I am only going to be discussing movies I actually liked. It's not hard to pick on movies that suck anyway, but picking out the flaws in otherwise great movies will  hopefully spawn something interesting.

I think there are three points that make a movie romance work or not. The importance for the plot, the predictability and the characters.

To start with the most important point: the importance a romance has for the plot.
   A while ago, I was watching TRON. The movie is about a dude (who happens to have a girlfriend). The dude discovers some secret plot, and calls the help of THE dude: Jeff Bridges. Bridges then gets sucked into a computer and walks around a bit in a fancy suit. Also, in the computer he encounters the avatars of the dude and his girlfriend. They set out to defeat the evil computer dude. But just before Jeff Bridges makes his heroic final move, he seems to think: "well, here goes nothing" and kisses the girl. If you have seen the movie you might remember that this comes from absolutely fucking nowhere. They decide what to do to kill the evildoer, look at each other intensely (this is the first time they show even the remotest bit of interest in each other), kiss, and off he goes. The same exact thing happens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Except that that guy was married.
   I understand that romance is marketable and relieving and stuff, but this is just bad filmmaking. It comes out of nowhere and it goes nowhere. They are just meaningless shots. If it would show them brushing their teeth it would make more sense.

Sense: it can be severely lacking.

On the other hand, take something like Casablanca or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or Bridget Jones' Diary. The whole point to those movies is one essential question: will they get together in the end? You hope they will, but you can imagine why it would go wrong, yet they fit together so well...
   What we have here, dear readers, is conflict. And that just so happens to be the most important driving element behind every story ever. And if there is no conflict, romances very rarely work. Even in a subplot this is important: think of Sam's reluctance to court Rosie in The Lord of the Rings.

This is closely related to my other point: the predictability. I know I might anger some people with this, but I fucking HATED Love Actually. The filmmaking wasn't terrible, but every single plot line had the same basic formula: 1) they like each other 2) "problems" 3) problems resolved (4: profit). You see, for conflict to actually work, it has to be believable that the main character is in actual doubt.
   One of the most beautiful examples of this is from a very old movie you probably never heard of. It's called Brief Encounter, and was released in 1945. And at the time, it was rather risky.
   The film is about a middle-aged woman who has a rather boring life. She has a husband who hardly notices her, a kid, the whole shebang. Then, while on one of her weekly trips to town, she meets a man. He is everything her husband isn't: passionate, handsome, and genuinely interested in her. He, too, is married. They fall in love, and meet each other every week. The relationship is warm and sincere, but mature: no giggling, no holding hands, but mutual respect and genuine interest in each other. They could divorce their spouses and marry, but that would cause quite a stir. And besides, is it worth it to throw away all their securities in life? In a movie, sure, but in real life? The question is really there. And while the movie is kind of slow and old, if you can appreciate this sort of thing I really urge you to see it.

Hot damn, is that ever a sexy hat.

But what really makes or breaks a romance are the characters. Take my favorite genuine romance movie, Notting Hill. The most endearing moments of the movie comes when Honey, the protagonist's crazy sister, quietly proposes to Spike, the protagonist's crazy roommate. Spike and Honey have up to that point been providing most of the comic relief in the film (Spike has lines like "Just going to the kitchen to get some food, then I'm going to tell you a story that will make your balls shrink to the size of raisins"). But when Honey confesses her love to him, he seems to be as unaware of her love as we, the audience, were. He looks at her, completely dazzled, and says: "Yeah. (...) Groovy". The two are a match made in heaven.

The characters don't have to be very deep and complex, mind you. Flat characters can work just as well, as long as they are endearing, relatable and, most importantly, fun and interesting to watch. Because if you watch someone long enough on the screen, you will fall a in love with him or her just a little bit anyway.


I didn't even had to think about this one.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree that Notting Hill is a great movie. It's not only one of the few romantic movies that I can stomach at all, but it's genuinely FUN to watch.
    Nice overview of the topic!