P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Mamma Mina!: A Crash Course in Musicarelli

One of the most purely joyous moments in our current Movie of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, is the climactic musical number on the bus where the main couple lip-sync to the Italian pop song “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by 1960s icon Mina. It’s the moment when the film fully blossoms into the proto-Mamma Mia! jukebox musical it’s been teasing for its entire runtime and, thus, plays like more of a major emotional payoff than an out-of-nowhere indulgence. However, it’s a moment that I completely misinterpreted when we first discussed the film. At the time, I believed the big “Ta Ra Ta Ta” dance number to be an homage to the similar romantic conclusions of a typical Bollywood production. That made enough sense to me at the time, given the wistful sitars that pepper the soundtrack and the film’s general scatterbrained approach to eclectic musical tastes: Boy George, Wire, The Village People, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, etc. I was wrong, though. That climactic dance number was meant as an homage to an entirely different film genre: the musicarello.

Instigated by the 1958 musical comedy Regazzi del Juke-Box (directed by Lucio Fulci, who would later become infamous in the sleazy world of gialli), the musicarello was an Italian genre of rock n’ roll pictures meant to exploit teenage culture & promote rising pop acts. Combining the rebellious teenage energy of Roger Corman’s drive-in era with the variety show rock performances of television programs like Ed Sullivan & American Bandstand, musicarelli were mostly irreverent slapstick comedies that enabled youngsters to see their favorite pop groups on the big screen in proto-MTV music videos. It was a shamelessly commercial version of teenage rebellion, one that’s lightly anti-conformist & anti-bourgeois messaging did not survive the more radicalized politics of the late 1960s. Ginger & Cinnamon’s climactic homage to miscarello tradition would have been a distinctly nostalgic indulgence, then, which lines up perfectly with its main character’s nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons & club music from the 1980s. It’s the exact kind of outdated fluff entertainment that would have been in heavy rotation on Italian television when she was a kid.

If I had been more familiar with Italian pop culture of yesteryear, I would have known instantly that the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence was a nod to musicarelli, not Bollywood. That’s because the song choice of a Mina tune in particular has strong ties to musicarelli of the 1960s, so that any Italian Woman Of A Certain Age would have recognized the reference. Mina was famous in Italy (and internationally) for many reasons. Her three-octave vocal range as a soprano made her a standout in her field. Her public image as “an emancipated woman” and the mistress to a married man made her a popular topic for tabloid coverage. Her rambunctious stage presence and predilection for song topics like sex, religion, and (in “Ta Ra Ta Ta”) smoking cigarettes earned her the nickname The Queen of Screams. However, one of the biggest boosters for Mina’s career were her starring roles in musicarelli. Mina performed her 60s pop tunes in over a dozen musicarello titles, making her one of the most popular figures in one of Italy’s most popular film genres. Unfortunately, I can’t find any musicarelli featuring Mina available with an English translation in the US, but thankfully there’s plenty performances from them hosted on sites like YouTube.

Below are a few of my favorite Mina musicarello performances that are available on YouTube, a 60s rock ‘n roll primer I wish I had discovered before we discussed our Movie of the Month.

1. “Ta Ra Ta Ta” from Totò Ye Ye (1967)

2. “Mandalo giu” from Pere amore per magia (1967)

3. “Nessuno” from Howlers of the Dock (1960)

4. “Tintarella di Luna” from Juke box – Urli d’amore (1959)

5. “Io bacio… tu baci” from Io bacio… tu baci (1961)

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Ginger & Cinnamon (2003)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month CC made Britnee & Brandon watch Ginger and Cinnamon (2003).

CC: Ginger and Cinnamon is an early-aughts Italian romcom that centers on a thirty-year-old woman, who is reeling from a recent break-up with her long-term boyfriend, and her fourteen-year-old niece, who is unabashedly horny and determined to lose her virginity ASAP. The film combines traditional elements of a romcom and an odd-couple comedy. The aunt, Stefy, is neurotic and repressed. She constantly struggles with the extremely unhealthy body issues our toxic culture promotes to women her age; this mostly manifests in an obsession with losing weight and a delusional belief that eating chocolate will help her achieve that goal. Her niece, Megghy, is her exact opposite. She is entirely confident in her own skin, unconcerned with her own baby fat and convinced that she is an irresistible sex goddess that every man desires. When the two polar-opposite women escape their messy lives in Italy to vacation on a Grecian island, the niece unknowingly attempts to seduce the aunt’s adult, uninterested ex, Andrea. Meanwhile, the aunt is also pursued by a virginal boy half her age who is just as hormonally charged as her niece. A farcical comedy of errors ensues, complete with mistaken identities and near-connections, until all appropriate couples are re-scrambled correctly in a classic manner.

When I first saw this film in the early 2000s, I was the same age as the niece. While I didn’t fully identify with her maniacal level of horniness, I do remember being impressed by her pragmatic ideas about sex. While her delusion that she was going to orgasm three times during her very first sexual encounter was impractical (and points to toxic societal ideas about sexual performance in its own way), I did like the way she reasoned that she shouldn’t lose her virginity to someone she loved because she was likely not going to be very good at it and needed to practice while the stakes were lower. Returning to the film now, I’m much closer to the aunt’s age. Again, I don’t identify with the aunt’s particular hang-ups, but I do feel for her in how she’s so damaged by toxic societal ideals, especially in her neurotic fears of gaining weight. Both then and now, I appreciate the two women’s dynamic. The aunt never passes her own harmful ideas about bodies or sex down to her niece. She keeps an eye on her niece’s disastrous attempts to have sex, but she mostly thinks it’s a bad idea on a practical level, not a moral one. Usually in a romcom where one character is too horny and the other is too frigid, the pair must learn a lesson and meet in the middle, but there’s no real moralizing about sexuality in that way here. Instead, the film mostly plays as dumb, fun summer fluff – as long as you can get past the self-inflicted fat-shaming.

Between its fantastical musical interludes and its island full of maniacally horny young adults, this almost has the same bizarre energy as the first Mamma Mia! film, released just a few years later. At the same time, it often interrupts its Grecian romcom fantasy with realistic documentary touches, like ethnographic interviews with real life people on vacation on the island where it was filmed. Brandon, do you think these cinema verité breaks from the fantasy served any thematic purpose? How did it feel to have the romantic fantasy elements of the film interrupted with reminders that its island setting is a real place that real people visit? By contrast, you never get that with Mamma Mia!, which does not feel like it’s set in a real-world place you can actually visit.

Brandon: The island of Ios, where Ginger and Cinnamon is set, self-brands as “the Island of Love,” so even in real life its reputation as a tourist attraction is built on romantic fantasy escapism. This film’s earliest scenes establish a classic romcom dynamic where the audience is primed to expect that fantasy to be fully indulged, Mamma Mia! style. Our adult protagonist’s profession as a bookstore owner is one of the romcommiest jobs imaginable; her differences with her ex are traditionally gendered to an absurd degree (when they go to the video store to pick out date night rentals, she likes romcoms but he likes gialli); the ex is a bit of a callous brute, but he makes absolutely divine chocolate cakes that melt her heart. We’d fully expect a film with that first-act foundation to dive into the deep end of wish-fulfillment romcom fantasy once it reaches Ios, but Ginger and Cinnamon is stubborn in its decision to show the island as it truly is. Instead of “The Island of Love,” Ios is portrayed here as “Crazy Teenager Island,” a hedonistic hell-pit swarmed by horned-up youths from around the globe. All the background extras look like they’re tertiary members of dirtbag 90s bands like Sublime & Sugar Ray; they’re all delirious from day-drinking in a punishing overdose of sunshine then partying late into the night, fueled only by a dangerous cocktail of hormones & sugary liquor. Even the long-distance ferry ride to the island is about as unromantic as it gets, with dumbass kids sporting hideous aughts fashions hooking up in an endless sea of sleeping bags – like a hostel on the water. As jarring & obtrusive as the interviews with real-life vacationers in Ios sometimes felt, they helped reinforce a greater contrast between romantic expectation vs grotesque reality that runs throughout the rest of the film. Our two lovelorn (and/or sex-starved) leads struggle to reconcile the fantasy of what’s in their heads with the disappointing reality of the men they have to work with, and the romantic fantasy of the island clashes with its slimy reality in a similar way.

That’s not to say that Ginger and Cinnamon doesn’t find traditional romcom escapism elsewhere. If nothing else, the movie concludes on two different romantic fantasy topes: the last-minute sprint to the airport (or, in this case, the ferry dock) to stop the love of your life from leaving without hearing your true feelings and the break-with-reality Bollywood dance number. While I did eventually come to understand how that romcom conclusion fit in with the film’s general contrasting of expectation vs. reality, the Bollywood fantasy that followed was much more of a surprise. That might just be because the music choices throughout the film were so scatterbrained & erratic that I had no idea what to expect from minute to minute, much less where it would conclude. Whereas Mamma Mia!’s own romantic escape to Horny Teenager Island is tonally anchored to its function as an ABBA jukebox musical, the needle drops in Ginger and Cinnamon are all over the place. Italian opera, romantic sitars, Boy George, The Village People, Wire, and theme songs to Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s all clash in a spectacular tonal gumbo that’s just as jarring as the film’s mix of fantasy & reality. Concluding on a Bollywood-style dance number set to an Italian pop song about smoking cigarettes displays just about as much tonal consistency as it would to conclude with black metal, polka, or Miami bass; it’s all chaos anyway, so practically anything could fit. Britnee, were you more delighted or distracted by Ginger and Cinnamon’s erratic soundtrack choices? Did any one musical moment stand out to you as a particular favorite?

Britnee: The soundtrack for Ginger and Cinnamon was like setting your music library on shuffle, which is how I already listen to music for the most part anyway. I’m typically never in the mood to listen to the same genre of music for longer than an hour or so, and shuffling songs keeps the music fresh and exciting. In Ginger and Cinnamon, the mystery of what song could be lingering around the corner and whether or not it would include a dance and lip sync performance was very enjoyable. Although the songs didn’t have much in common as a collection, they were all very fitting for each individual scene. For instance, the Ios bar crowd drunkenly singing along to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in the wee hours of the morning was so spot-on with reality. As for my favorite musical moment, the kooky “Ta Ra Ta Ta” musical number at the end of the film between Stefy and Andrea was my absolute favorite. It was so much fun in that Mamma Mia! sort of way (it seems like we are all on the same page with the Mama Mia! similarities). Their performance had me bopping my head and smiling to a song that I never heard before and couldn’t understand whatsoever. I’ve actually been listening to “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by Italian pop singer Mina Mazzini on repeat every day since, and I’ve fallen in love with Mina’s music and scandalous presence in the Italian pop music scene in the 1960s. Ginger and Cinnamon is the gift that keeps on giving.

I really enjoyed the fabulously random music’s contrast to the tranquil Grecian background. At first, I was a little confused as to where Stefy and Megghy were vacationing. I assumed that because this was an Italian film that the two were heading to the Amalfi Coast or some other Italian beach destination. I was surprised to find out that they were going to the Greek island of Ios, which is quite a ways away from Italy. No wonder that ferry ride looked so miserable! I know that Mamma Mia! has been brought up a few times in our conversation, but it’s so bizarre how the two films share so many similarities – mainly horniness and musical numbers on a Greek island. CC, is there just something about the white sands and white buildings of Greece that serves as a great blank canvas for quirky romcoms? Would you have felt differently about Ginger and Cinnamon if the setting were different?

CC: I think the only absolutes required for this setting was that it was a beach and that it was far enough away from Italy that they couldn’t just go home when they stopped enjoying themselves. I think any “Horny Teen Island” would have done. I’m not familiar with European beach-party culture, but surely Ios isn’t the only beach where people sunbathe all day & club all night. (Isn’t Ibiza a thing?)

Nevertheless, we’ve now got at least two quirky romcoms set on Greek islands, Ginger and Cinnamon & Mamma Mia!, so what about that setting is a siren song for the genre? Perhaps it’s a little bit of snobbishness from Mainland Europe? A major aspect of the plot in both romcoms involves our protagonists traveling to a remote locale where communication with the “real world” is limited and life is lived at a slower pace. And, as Greece didn’t really have a strong economy even before the recession, perhaps the stereotype of being backwater had some truth to it? I couldn’t see any romcom, unless it was about the 1%, being set on the French Rivera; romcoms usually feel the need to appear at least semi-attainable as wish-fulfillment. The affordability and the supposed Old World authenticity of the locale make it a perfect place for a dream vacation where European women can imagine themselves being swept up in a grand, passionate romance, so of course it’s enticing to set romcoms there.

Brandon, we’ve talked a lot about the music and the ambiance of the movie so far, but we haven’t really gotten into the interpersonal drama. There are two types of relationships depicted in Ginger and Cinnamon: the romantic bonds between men & women and a familial bond between aunt & niece. Did you find either category more satisfying or compelling than the other?

Brandon: I found them almost equally compelling, but in entirely different ways. The romantic tension of Ginger and Cinnamon is compelling the way that a horrific car accident can be, as we cringe through the colossal mistake of a teenage girl believing her only path to happiness would be to seduce an adult man. To make matters worse, we know something she doesn’t: the specific man she’s after is the same scoundrel who broke her aunt’s heart, the same one who she’s been hearing complaints about the entire vacation. That’s what makes the near-connections of the two ex-lovers almost running into each other in Ios such an effective throwback to the type of Old Hollywood farces that were usually set in fancy hotels. We know that as soon as everyone realizes that the aunt & niece are pining for the same man there’s going to be an awful mess of hurt feelings & mangled relationships to clean up, but the film obviously prolongs that release of tension for as long as it can.

In the meantime, while we’re holding back the urge to scream, the familial dynamic between aunt & niece is much more compelling & satisfying in an emotional sense. As toxic as the aunt can be when tearing herself down with body shaming & sexual repression, she doesn’t weaponize that cruelty towards the teen in her care at all. If anything, the horned-up niece is allowed almost too much bodily confidence & sexual freedom in a potentially dangerous environment where they can get her in trouble. At least, that’s what the aunt allows her niece to believe as she keeps a close, protective eye on her. The men that could potentially stand between them are useful for generating comedic & dramatic tension, but the curious relationship between repressed aunt & carefree niece (and how they gradually become more like each other in positive ways) is the true heart of the film.

For all of this film’s wild sexual energy and over-the-top farcical mishaps, a lot of what stands out to me are its small grace moments of pure, wholesome sweetness. Besides the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” & “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” dance numbers previously mentioned, I also thought it was sweet when the aunt buys a slice of chocolate cake (made with ginger & cinnamon, of course) that was, unbeknownst to her, made by her ex. She enjoys the familiar taste of the recipe, but remarks that her ex made it better. Since we know that he made the exact same cake she’s eating in both instances, using the exact same recipe, she’s effectively just saying that food tasted better when he was around to enjoy it with her. I found that disarmingly sweet, especially considering how callous & raunchy the film can be elsewhere. Britnee, were there any other moments of Ginger and Cinnamon you could single out as being especially sweet or endearing, despite the film’s hedonistic surroundings?

Britnee: I found just about all of the heart-to-heart talks between aunt and niece to be especially sweet. The one that stuck out the most in my mind was when Stefy and Megghy were lying in the bed with their legs resting up on the wall, talking about all the issues weighing on their hearts. It’s the sort of thing that young girls do at a sleepover when talking about their school crushes. In that moment, there was no age difference between the two. They were just two girls sharing their thoughts with each other, and it was incredibly heartwarming.

I also found the moments when Megghy was desperately trying to get Andrea’s attention surprisingly charming. The obnoxious teenage qualities of Megghy reminded me so much of myself when I was her age, and I cringe to even think about it. Andrea’s reaction to her chatter is something I found to be both funny and sweet. He knows that she has a crush on him, but he doesn’t make her feel stupid or embarrassed. He responds to her without feeding into her advances, which I was so thankful for. I really didn’t want this movie to be about a 14 year old girl having a summer fling with a grown-ass man.

Lagniappe

CC: So many embarrassing final thoughts! Okay, so my chocolate cake recipe—for years—was the hot-water Hershey’s cocoa powder recipe with added powdered cinnamon & ginger (and I never let on that I got the idea from a romcom). And my other confession (oh god, why am I admitting this on the internet?) is that in high school I would walk up and down the halls singing “Ta Ra Ta Ta” even though I do not have any vocal talent. At all. I should apologize to those who had to endure me in that period of my life, but I don’t want to remind them.

Britnee: I always thought that the terrible Smash Mouth look that so many teenage guys sported in the early 2000s was strictly something that existed in the USA. According to crowd on Ios (aka Horny Teen Island), it was a tragedy that spread across the globe. I am forever thankful that it’s over.

Brandon: My favorite throwaway detail of the film is that even the pet animals of Ios are overcome with maniacal horniness. In a café scene, the film foregrounds a hamster cage where two animatronic puppet hamsters continually hump throughout the aunt & niece’s conversation, as if we could pay attention to anything anyone’s saying while the little rodents are going at it right in front of us. It’s such a delightfully bizarre detail for the film to distract itself with, especially once you pause to consider how much effort must’ve gone into creating those literal fuck-puppets.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

-The Swampflix Crew

Shirley Valentine (1989)

Years ago, I came across a movie clip of a middle-aged woman yelling out of an open window, “I’m going to Greece for the sex! Sex for breakfast, sex for dinner, sex for tea, and sex for supper!” I thought it was hilarious. Recently, I found out that this was a snippet from the 1989 British rom-com Shirley Valentine. Well, I finally got around to watching it last night, and I absolutely loved it. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert (Alfie, The Spy Who Loved Me), so I expected nothing but the best to start with.

Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins) is a bored, middle-aged housewife in Liverpool. Her marriage has lost its spark and her children are no longer living at home. This is an archetype we’ve seen time and time again, but Shirley is different. She’s a wild and witty woman at heart, and she reveals this side of herself when breaking the fourth wall at the beginning of the film. This technique worked well for me because I felt like Shirley was having a genuine conversation with me over a cup of tea. I love that sort of intimacy in a film. It gets me personally invested in a character, and the film gets my full, undivided attention until the very end. During these intimate little conversations with the audience, Shirley reveals that she always wanted to travel, and her dreams come true when her feminist friend Jane (Alison Steadman) wins two tickets to Greece and wants to take Shirley with her. The way the film pokes fun at “feminist” Jane has not aged well at all. Jane comments that “All men are potential rapists” and is paranoid of every man that is around her.  It’s probably the only aspect of the film that I disliked.

Traveling to Greece without telling her family, Shirley fills the gap in her life that was making her so miserable. She gains the confidence she so desperately needed, and she even has a fling with one of the locals! When her trip comes to an end, she bails on her flight back to Liverpool and returns to Greece. At this point, the film makes it seem like she is in love with her Greek beau and wants to be with him, but that’s not what happens. She runs into him sweet-talking another tourist with the same pick-up line he used on her, and just when I thought she was going to slap him or break down crying, she puts a big smile on her face and asks for a job at his restaurant (I’m not sure if he owns it or just works there). I loved this little twist so much. It’s nice to see women in late 1980s film doing things for themselves and recognizing their worth.

Apparently, the film Shirley Valentine is based on the play of the same name that also starred Pauline Collins. The play was an international hit and had a successful run on Broadway and London’s West End. The world of Shirley Valentine is much bigger than I expected, and I plan on exploring every bit of it.

-Britnee Lombas

Movie of the Month: Love Me If You Dare (2003)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month CC made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Love Me if You Dare (2003).

CC: When I was a culturally starved teenager, it was incredibly rare for me to program my own media intake. I desperately wanted to watch pretentious art films and feel like an intellectual, but at the time I was living in a FoxNews and Tim Allen comedy world, stifling my artsy-fartsy dreams. However, I do remember one pivotal weekend when I was around fourteen or fifteen where I got to indulge myself on those impulses. Left alone to set my own schedule, I spent an entire few days’ vacation from others’ control sunbathing and eating bagels all day, and binge-watching the Sundance & IFC movie channels all night. I don’t remember most of the movies I watched that weekend, but a few really stood out to me as gems, including the 2003 French romantic comedy Love Me If You Dare. Something about Love Me If You Dare‘s subversive tone (and bizarre ending) struck me as extraordinary and, importantly at the time, sophisticated. This is before I had even seen Amélie, so I had truly not experienced anything like this unconventional, artsy, French romcom before.

Love Me If You Dare is the story of a boy and girl duo (Guillume Canet and Marion Cotillard) who are locked in a life-long game of romantic oneupsmanship. They first meet as children when the girl is being bullied and the boy cheers her up with the gift of a cookie tin. From there they develop a mischievous game, where whoever possesses the cookie tin can issue a dare the other has to complete, no matter how outrageous. They pass the tin back and forth this way with each completed dare, with no end to the game in sight. Told from the boy’s POV, the story follows this game’s escalation from relatively harmless childhood anarchy to catastrophically destructive mayhem as they hit adulthood and sexual maturity. The film is set up like a traditional romcom, but it’s weirdly antagonistic towards its audience in a way that genre usually isn’t. Its sweet setups usually lead to sour payoffs, subverting expectations established by traditional romcom patterns.

Brandon, given this film’s devious deviations from genre, would you even consider this a romcom? Is there any other genre that would be a more apt description?

Brandon: I don’t think I would readily describe Love Me If You Dare as a romantic comedy, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s romantic; it’s (darkly) humorous. Yet, classifying it simply as a romcom feels no more accurate than it would be to describe Heathers or Heavenly Creatures as such. This is, at heart, the story of two adrenaline junkies whose violent attraction to each other’s mischievous spirits only leads to destruction. Something about the volatile clash of their thrill-seeking energies (and overactive imaginations) is a Biblically destructive force, crushing the lives of any innocent bystanders in their vicinity who are just trying to get through the day while they are daring each other to tear the world apart. It’s like visiting a world where two Bugs Bunnies are anarchically attempting to out-Bugs Bunny each other, when one is already far more than enough. Sure, the hetero romance at its core (where two characters who are obviously made for each other eventually find a way to be together forever) is a textbook romcom dynamic, but the devilish details veer so far off the rails that its romantic beginnings are a faded memory by the time we reach the life-threatening oneupsmanship of the bonkers third act. We’ve covered romcoms for Movie of the Month before with similarly subversive escalations of unromantic danger: the Hitchcock-riffing Head Over Heels & the noirish Mrs. Winterborne, to be specific. Those examples feel like extreme outliers in the genre, however, and Love Me If You Dare‘s own maniacal self-escalation might even best them in its sheer audacity.

If I had to ascribe Love Me If You Dare to a single genre it might be this: twee mayhem. In general, twee is a much more difficult genre to recommend (or even to define) than the romantic comedy, as it was specific to a very distinct time & sentiment. As I was also a culturally-starved teenager in the early aught, I’m personally predisposed to being helpless to twee pop culture. Where more cynical audiences were revolted by the whimsical imagination, visual fussiness, and cutesy musical cues of twee, I found a desperately needed respite from the grotesque, macho muck pop culture was stuck in for the nu-metal end of the late 90s & early 00s (not knowing at the time that I was mostly watching ideas repurposed & repackaged from French New Wave artists half a century prior). I’ll concede that a lot of twee has aged horribly in the last couple decades; I’ve rolled my eyes at many a Zooey Dechanel project & Etsy store as the years have trudged along. However, I don’t think the loosely-defined genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just below its meticulously curated surface. Artists like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet often handle topics like depression, abuse, dead pets, and terminal illness with childlike vulnerability & outsized emotions – crafting art that looks pretty but is often surprisingly sinister. That’s exactly where I see Love Me If You Dare fitting in. It’s a darkly romantic comedy that starts with themes like cancer, poverty, and nationalist bullying before escalating to full-blown torture, murder, and suicide. How sweet! Even considering similarly morbid twee romances like Pushing Daisies or Amélie, this film reaches a level of destructive mayhem that feels remarkable for its cutesy tone of childlike whimsy.

Boomer, how does Love Me If You Dare fit into the twee romance template for you? Does it feel at home with how you typically experience the genre or does its level of destructive mayhem make it as much of an outlier in that context as it is as a romcom?

Boomer: It’s funny that you mention Wes Anderson, a director that I love; while watching Love Me if You Dare, my roommate got up and left the room twenty minutes in, saying “This is what I see when I look at a Wes Anderson movie” (he’s not a fan). I think that I might have a slightly different idea of what comprises twee filmmaking; my go-to example of the genre is God Help the Girl, the 2014 film project of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander (of queerpop band Years & Years), and Hannah Murray (Skins, Game of Thrones, Bridgend) – a musical featuring songs from Murdoch’s 2009 concept album of the same name. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian – they’re one of my top 5 all time bands – when I finally found a copy of God Help the Girl I hated it for the first fifteen minutes before realizing that I could just give into it and have a good time, and a good time I had indeed. I would also note that I, too, am generally disposed to be forgiving of tweeness when I find it, and for much the same reasons, and I’d add Stranger than Fiction, I ♥ Huckabees, and the most recent TV version of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective to that canon. It’s fine to enjoy things. I even spent this last New Year’s Eve watching a Friday the 13th marathon on TV with my best friend while we listened to Françoise Hardy records she brought back from France; since those films are mostly young adults wandering through the woods, skinny dipping, and angsting about getting laid, having Le premier bonheur du jour play on while little Corey Feldman watched the horny teens next door get down to business turned the whole film series into a franchise of French coming-of-age films that just happened to have a hockey masked murderer show up from time to time (relax Mrs. Voorhees “well, actually” purists: they were only showing III-VII on a loop). So you could say that even when there is no twee, I might end up adding it in myself.

You also mentioned Heathers, and around these parts it’s no secret that it’s my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never really imagined that it fell into the “twee” category (the musical version notwithstanding) simply because it’s so weirdly and unabashedly dark (“Corn. Nuts!”) and even its lighter elements are still part of an all-encompassingly nihilistic worldview, even with Martha doing a little doughnut on the scooter in the hallway of Westerberg High at the end. I understand where you’re coming from, though, as Love Me if You Dare has a lot of the same hallmarks, and I think that the difference for me comes from the fact that, ultimately Veronica recognizes that her suburban dissatisfaction and the town-wide ignorance of parents and school administrators alike has led her to go all-in on J.D.’s menacing plans for the future. It feels right, in the same way that if Julien and Sophie had pulled back from their life-and-death game of dares it would have felt wrong. Any cutesiness that arises from their ever-escalating dare tag is belied by how utterly committed they are to the whole thing: even the first dare endangers a school bus full of children (granted, they were a bunch of racist little shits who deserved a good scare if nothing else). If that level of intensity had ever been subverted, it would be a different story, but by starting with that platform of playful malice and going from there, there’s never a moment where you really question how cute the whole thing is, until the leads are buried in concrete (or are they?). As it stands, I’d say that it’s just as much a subversion of romcom standards as it is of performative cuteness, so it’s equally an outlier for both but the gentle ribbing it gives to both genres is born out of fondness and affection, rather than something like Heathers (which specifically aims to undermine the supposed harmlessness of eighties teen romances à la John Hughes) or my dearly beloved trash masterpiece Head Over Heels (which asks the question: what if the misunderstanding that separates the two romantic leads involved a murder, maybe?).

Britnee, with regards to romances that take themselves more seriously than Love Me if You Dare, they often have a lot of the same tropes that are present here: the angelically perfect parent with vaguely defined medical problems, resentment from the remaining living parent, economic and/or social stratification between the two romantic leads, etc. Do you think these work here, or do they undercut the smirking self-awareness that the movie has? Are there any that I’ve missed or that you felt should have been present here?

Britnee: Love Me If You Dare had a way of making the basic tropes of romantic films very unsettling. Were we supposed to laugh when Julien was being an insanely rambunctious kid while his mother was dying in her hospital room? Was his relationship with his dad supposed to break our hearts or make us roll our eyes and chuckle? I’m still not sure what the answer is. I love how the film challenged my emotions and really got me to question my humor and sensitivity.

Another romance trope that the film pokes fun at is the reunited lovers living happily ever after. Both Julien and Sophie marry other people and have completely different lives with their significant others. Once the two get together for real without prolonging the game, they don’t run off to start a new life. Instead, they drown in cement at a construction site while making out with each other. It’s so wonderful and silly.

What I enjoyed the most about Love Me If You Dare is the beginning of the film that focuses on Sophie and Julien’s blossoming childhood friendship. Their childlike imagination is brought to life on the screen with whimsical visuals and slanted camera angles. Some scenes even looked like they were taking place in a lifesize pop-up book. Their innocent shenanigans (for the most part) were quirky and adorable, but once the two were pulling the same crap as teenagers and adults, they seemed like total monsters.

CC, did you find young Sophie and Julien to be more likeable than grown Sophie and Julien?

CC: Absolutely! If a teacher lectures a child and said child starts to pee themselves, it’s hilarious. If another adult pees on you, it ruins your day and both parties feel a great deal of shame. Sophie and Julian were two troubled children who used their game as a means of coping with poverty and emotional isolation, respectively. As adults we expect them to either “grow up” and stop playing the game or to get professional help. I’m not saying that children aren’t capable of daring each other to commit heinous crimes, but in the context of this film, the crimes Sophie and Julian commit as adults destroy the lives of everyone in their path. It’s one thing to utter a string of scatological expletives during class in elementary school; it’s another to frame someone for attempted murder and call the French equivalent of the SWAT team on them as a prank.

I think what is most frustrating about their relationship as adults is their refusal to admit their feelings for each other. Neither one is brave enough to declare their love and end the game so it just drags on and on, destroying everything in its path.

Brandon, this film feels very French to me, but do you think it had to be set in France to work? Would it have read as “twee” if it were set elsewhere?

Brandon: It’s more than a vague cultural sensibility or sense of morbid whimsy that makes Love Me If You Dare feel distinctly French. It’s that the film feels so in line with French Cinema of its era. The sickly green digital palette of its early 00s aesthetic is unmistakably akin to the look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s works. The artificial hand-built theatrical sets of the early childhood fantasy sequences are pure Michel Gondry (who was mostly popular as a music video auteur at the time). It’s like a Greatest Hits collection of early aughts twee aesthetics in that way, except that the limited scope of its CGI budget and the . . . moderate visual talents of debut filmmaker Yann Samuel sometimes make it feel like the kind of Greatest Hits collection you find in a grocery store checkout line or gas station CD rack. What truly makes the film special, then, what distinguishes it among its French cinema peers, is the increasingly morbid nature of its central romance. You can see its absurdist dynamic of two volatile minds who are unavoidably drawn to each other reflected in works from other countries: Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds – films far outside the realm of twee. Clashing that inevitably tragic relationship dynamic with the overactive imagination of childhood whimsy does feel distinctly French to me, though, even beyond its adoption of twee visual tropes specifically.

Of course, twee has been exported globally to the point where it is no longer explicitly French, if it ever was. Michel Gondry made most of his iconic works in America. Wes Anderson, a hipster Texan, is a cornerstone of the aesthetic. 2010s twee devotees like the Australian dreamworld comedy Girl Asleep and the aforementioned Scottish musical God Help the Girl are twee as fuck, undeniably so. I’d like to think you could export Love Me If You Dare to practically any urban setting without losing what distinguishes it as twee. What I’d be more concerned about losing in that translation is one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does and one of the defining tropes of artsy-fartsy French cinema at large: the bleak ending. It’s almost a cliché to say that Hollywood productions are more inclined to have a happy ending than their French film counterparts, but I could very easily see an American remake of this film sidestepping or undercutting its tragic conclusion while maintaining the twee whimsy free of morbidity, zapping it of its magic.

Boomer, am I being my own worst nightmare (a pretentious art film snob) by assuming that this quirky French romance must have a tragic ending to succeed on its own terms? Is there any satisfying way you can see this story about two thrill-seeking hedonists who express their affection through torturous dares concluding without them dying in each other’s arms, locked away from the rest of the world? Would a traditional “Hollywood ending” have ruined the appeal of the film’s otherwise sinister romance dynamic?

Boomer: If I’m being completely honest, at the moment that Julien (supposedly) crashed into that truck while speeding away from the police and apparently died, I thought the film was over. When it continued and there was more to it, I thought to myself, “Oh, how French.” It’s not that the French are without morality, of course (I saw enough Earth Day demonstrations in Lyonne last year to know that there are things about which they care deeply and passionately), but their different viewpoint on the relativistic ethics of sexpolitik are pretty different from ours (or at least mine; I’m not trying to project onto anyone else in this group). For me, I kept expecting a more American moralistic standpoint to leap out of the shadows and take over this viewing experience; as a result, I expected that this purely hedonistic joy that Julien declared to be better than [insert your drug/sex position/adrenaline junkie activity of choice here] to be his last moment, and that we were being treated to a Hays-lite moralization that “This may look like fun but it is bad and you will be punished.” And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely opposed to that? Interpreting from a purely American perspective is tricky; while I was watching the scene of Julien’s mother’s death, which Britnee mentioned above, I found myself consciously thinking that this would be treated differently in an American film. Here, I think it demonstrates that Julien is deeply unaware of just how unwell his mother really is, and reflects the way that children fail to understand the articulation of the adult world, and that tragic failure to read the situation may even be the instigating factor in his inability to navigate the adult world with any kind of joy outside of his game with Sophie. That’s not explicit (although it would be in an American film), but it gets to the heart of your question: is there anything tragic in this film (like, as you asked, the ending) that is treated with the deference due to tragedy? Even if death at the bottom of a concrete pylon is a tragedy in theory, the film doesn’t treat it this way, instead acting as if living to a ripe (and ribald) old age is just as emotionally satisfying a “happy” ending as being buried alive. Honestly, seeing the elderly Julien and Sophie together is the Hollywood ending, and it’s not nearly as thematically resonant or tonally consistent as (what I assume is) the real ending. That’s not necessarily being artsy-fartsy to say so, but it does underline all of the ways that this differs from the mean.

Britnee, you mentioned above that you found the first act which took place during our leads’ respective childhoods to be more endearing than the rest of the film. I agree, although I wasn’t as cold to the rest of it as you were. How would you have preferred to see this play out? What changes would you have made?

Britnee: The romcom-loving side of me would want to see Julien and Sophie get together for good in the dinner scene when he fake proposes to her. That was probably the most upsetting scene in the entire film. The secondhand embarrassment was so bad and made me hate Julien so much. After the proposal, the rest of the film would be a quirky journey to their wedding day. Julien’s father would have a come-to-Jesus moment and embrace his son on his wedding day, letting him know how proud he is of him and how much he loves him. Sophie’s sister would give a heartfelt toast at the reception explaining how she forgives her sister for ruining her wedding cake. Their families would just come together in the comic style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Basically, I want My Big Fat French Wedding to be a thing.

I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate the darkness of Love Me If You Dare, because I do. I just have to be in the right mindset to watch two people lose their minds on a path of destruction.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Man, Julien’s father is such an asshole.

Britnee: Part of me still doesn’t think that Julien and Sophie really died in the end. It’s very unlikely that they lived, but based on all the other times I thought they died when they didn’t, I just don’t trust them.

Brandon: I do think this movie’s greatest asset is the unpredictability of its storytelling, which makes it feel as if anything is possible from minute to minute, as long as that anything is emotionally cruel. What impresses me most about that unpredictability is that the storyline still manages to maintain a clear, logical progression in its tone & aesthetic; it’s not all chaos. The dreamlike pop-up book sequence Britnee described feels totally in tune with the characters’ childhood imaginations, which later give way to the visual tropes of action thrillers, romantic melodramas, and wedding ring jewelry commercials as they grow into adults. I also greatly admire the trajectory of its central romance, which does not shy away from the impossible scenario these two characters have set up for themselves where “Happily ever after” cannot be achieved without a few casualties, if not the end of the world. For all of the film’s visual showiness as an excited director’s dressed-to-impress debut, its value as an off-kilter feat in morbid, fluid storytelling is what really makes it a gem.

CC: I’m really glad this film held up! Once I saw Amélie a couple years later, it obviously replaced Love Me If You Dare as my favorite darkly whimsical French film, but this still holds up on revisit.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2013)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

-The Swampflix Crew

The New Romantic (2018)

There was much discussion & hand-wringing about the death of the modern rom-com around the time that Obvious Child revived the genre in 2014 with a newfound emotional honesty & political bent. Since then, the traditional rom-com has made something of a lowkey comeback in films ranging in scale from small-budget Netflix streamers like Set It Up & To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to big studio political gambles like Love, Simon & Crazy Rich Asians. Few have directly wrestled with the formula & legacy of the traditional rom-com the way that Obvious Child did, however, choosing instead to participate in the rom-com ritual without self-aware critique (beyond a significant shift in representation politics). The New Romantic is not that kind of traditionalist rom-com; it openly interrogates & subverts the romantic escapism of its chosen genre in the way that Obvious Child did, just with a new political topic to drive its central conflict: sugar babies & sugar daddies. The New Romantic continually cites the Nora Ephron rom-com as a reference point (with specific titles like When Harry Met Sally & Sleepless in Seattle lengthily discussed in its script), but it undercuts any & all head-over-heels romance with aggressively Millennial, non-judgmental, transactional, blasé (and occasionally disastrous) sex work. There are plenty of rom-coms being produced in the modern era, but few feel this modern.

The End of the Fucking World’s Jessica Barden stars as an aspiring journalist college student, frustrated both by the debt her education is sinking her into and the uninspiring dating pool populated by her peers. She uses her sex advice column in the school newspaper to declare romance dead after a few unfulfilling Tinder dates, which leads to her column’s cancellation. With the encouragement of her roommate (Riverdale’s Hayley Law) and a new chance acquaintance (Camila Mendes, also from Riverdale), she decides to win her column back (and thus increase her chances for tuition scholarships) by venturing into bro-friendly, Vice style gonzo journalism in a new, uneasy life as a “sugar baby.” Entering a transactional relationship with a much older, much wealthier man, she begins having sex in exchange for lavish gifts (and professional opportunities). This opens the film to a “very zeitgeisty” conversation about sex work & the transactional nature of all romance. It also subverts the schmaltz of the traditional, Nora Ephron-style rom-com by depicting a developing “romance” that looks chivalrously orchestrated on the surface but is actually a business transaction with little-to-no emotional development. This is tricky thematic territory that’s been attempted before but, unlike in Pretty Woman, The New Romantic sticks to its guns in not allowing the temptation of genuine romance to overtake the transactional sex work dynamics of its premise. It remains honest about the separation between the two, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Politically speaking, this movie can play a little iffy, depending on how much weight you want to give this one sugar baby experience as a representation of all sugar baby/sugar daddy relationship dynamics everywhere. Our naïve, in-over-her-head, overly romantic protagonist is not fit for the business, and ultimately has a negative experience with her short life getting pampered by older men in exchange for sex. The movie never judges her for experimenting with sex work, however, letting the fault for her few disastrous sexual mishaps fall entirely on the shoulders of the shady older men involved. It also goes out of its way to offer a counterpoint in a fellow sugar baby character who wholeheartedly enjoys her transactional-sex lifestyle without apology. If you want a more politically aggressive take on this Millennial sex work subject matter, you’re much better off looking to Cam. Cam is also much more interested in the sex itself than The New Romantic, which is more tied up in romance & identity than anything resembling eroticism. The New Romantic has no qualms discussing the benefits nor the flaws of sugar babies & their financial supporters. Even its casting of the childlike Barden (who makes for an uncomfortably young 26) feels intentionally provocative, especially when she’s zipping around town in an adorable bike helmet. The movie is more about her character’s sugar baby experience than the sugar baby concept at large, however, no matter how “zeitgeisty” the subject is.

The New Romantic is uncomfortably honest about how its naïve, Nora Ephron-obsessed protagonist is not emotionally prepared for transactional sex work, but its tone as a deliberate Ephron descendent is still true to genre formula. The film is often super cute in the way most head-over-heels romances are, even if its subject matter comes off as largely cynical about the usefulness of modern romance. It’s a character-driven piece about a lovably open, vulnerable character in a modern world that’s unkind to vulnerability – allowing its politics & genre critiques to derive naturally from that conflict in a smart, endearing fashion.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is just about the phoniest movie you’ll see all summer, but that’s by no means an unintentional effect. The movie opens with the giant hotel lobby setting, swanky music, and block lettering text of an Old Hollywood comedy – promising all the laughs, romance, and lavish imagery you’d expect from that traditionalist fare. The main update to the formalist Hollywood spectacle offered in Crazy Rich Asians is the one indicated by its title. This is a type of film usually populated by and targeted at white people reclaimed for a more historically underserved demographic. While the romantic comedy and wealth porn pleasures offered by the film are generic to the point of pastiche, its Asian & Asian-American cultural context anchor them to a specificity & a social politics POV that distinguish it from the phony Hollywood fare we’re most used to seeing on its scale. It’s damning to the reputation of mainstream filmmaking to consider that this well-behaved, phony romance spectacle is a subversive work merely for casting non-white leads, but that’s how representation-starved most POC audiences are on the pop culture landscape. Crazy Rich Asians is both a cookie-cutter Hollywood romance fantasy we’ve seen plenty times before, and paradoxically a political breakthrough for a cultural dinosaur that’s stubborn to change with the times.

The romcom A-plot pretty much writes itself. An NYU economics professor falls for a hunky bachelor who describes his family as “comfortable,” but is secretly one of the wealthiest lines of unofficial royalty on Earth. The “What if you accidentally married a prince?” fantasy offered in the film only takes on a specificity & a subversion when adapted to its cultural setting. Here, an Asian-American academic with a poor immigrant mother is dropped into a fish-out-of-water fantasy where she meets her secretly-wealthy beau’s absurdly monied family in the most extravagant corners of Singapore. Her culture clash of being an Asian-American woman in an alienating Asian environment is best exemplified in her icy relationship with her boyfriend’s mother, who subscribes to traditionalist divisions of class & culture that make her an unworthy candidate to marry into the family. The wedding preparation drama, makeover montages, and social power struggles that result from that conflict are all genre-faithful romcom material, but the specificity of their circumstances are consistently distinct & defiantly foreign. It’s no surprise, then, that Crazy Rich Asians’s best strengths lurk in the details outside its main romance plot.

Since Crazy Rich Asians is largely faithful to the familiar payoffs of Old Hollywood spectacle & the romcom genre, its more distinguishing details are hiding in the periphery. The wealth porn on display in Singapore’s more extravagant settings play almost like a travel ad, but that same luscious photography being applied to street food & homemade dumplings is a more rarified, gorgeous wonder. The central conflict established in the main romance is familiar to the genre, but the comedic sensibilities of weirdo side characters played by Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Nico Santos are an anarchic presence that transform that genre formula into a new, exciting beast. You just have to be all-in on the typical payoffs of romcom & wealth porn indulgences to fully appreciate those deviances; this is a fun, beautiful film, but it’s one that’s aimed directly at wide, mainstream audiences. Culture-clash drama between Asian & Asian-American people can be found in select small-budget indie films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; what’s significant about Crazy Rich Asians is that it balloons that perspective to a massive, big budget, Old Hollywood scale. If you’re more likely to watch an escapist fairy tale that’s unashamed of reliving Old Hollywood phoniness than a small-scale indie drama aimed at artsy fartsy types, the cultural specificity of Crazy Rich Asians is a revelation. Old Hollywood romantic spectacle has been a traditionally all-white affair, so it’s wonderful to see that hegemony broken up by something so unashamedly fun & beautiful, even if narratively generic.

-Brandon Ledet

Le Mariage de Chiffon (1943)

Typically, when we discuss French Cinema as a hegemony, we’re talking about creatively adventurous arthouse pictures that follow in the tradition of the French New Wave movement that arrived in the rebellious days of the 1960s. France’s more frivolous screwball comedies & trashy genre pictures tend to land far outside our radar, whereas the USA globally exports so much of its pop culture glut you’d be forgiven for assuming our own cinematic landscape was comprised entirely of Transformers sequels & Paul Blart Mall Cops. What I’m even more unclear on, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 60s. With the cutesy frivolity Galia, I got a glimpse of what it looked like when an old-guard French director attempted to appear as hip & With-It as his New Wave dissenters, a disguise few people bought. Stately, well-behaved French cinema before the New Wave’s arrival is more of a mystery to me. Like with modern commercial comedies & trashy crime pictures (think All That Divides Us) that don’t make it to American shores with any significant impact, France’s stately, pre-New Wave cinematic past is an export lacking any kind of an immediate hook to draw in contemporary American audiences. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. The first of four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII, Le Mariage de Chiffon has enough extratextual, cultural value to earn a prestigious spot in the Criterion Collection canon, something that’s usually reserved for the rebellious New Wave brats who sought to challenge Autant-Lara’s traditionalist approach to filmmaking. It’s also a frivolous romcom, charmingly so.

Odette Joyeux, who would go on to appear in all four of Autant-Lara’s German Occupation comedies, plays half her age as the 16y.o. aristocratic brat Chiffon. While running wild in the darkness of nighttime Parisian streets, she innocently flirts with a noble military man who immediately takes a liking to her prankish charms. He also mischievously pockets her left shoe as a keepsake, hoping to stage a Cinderella-inspired investigation of who, exactly, stole his heart in the dark. The answer is ultimately unsatisfying, as Chiffon is obviously & obliviously in love with her own uncle (by marriage, but still), a disgraced innovator in the early discoveries of aviation who is widely understood to be a dandy & a kook. Set in the pre-War past of the aristocratic 1910s, Le Mariage de Chiffon chipperly offers pop entertainment escapism though romance & humor, a much-needed distraction for German-occupied France. The hotel settings, mistaken identities, and absurd misunderstandings of the classic comedy structure are prominent throughout, but in a distinctly charming way. This is a genuinely, enduringly funny picture, thanks largely to Joyeux’s hijinks as Chiffon. A total brat who squabbles with her uptight mother for sport, refuses to corset her body, and documents her teenage mischief in a journal she titles The Boring Diary, Chiffon is an adorable element of chaos that breaks down the rigid social rituals of high society elites. It’s the exact social anarchist function you’d want in any comedic lead, from Harpo Marx to Divine to Tom Green and beyond. The picture that contains her just happens to be more well-behaved than she is. The most Autant-Lara deviates from traditional comedy & romance beats is in a couple quieter moments of dramatic fallout, where the camera lingers on the downer imagery of a dilapidated house foolishly purchased as a love offering or aviation equipment being seized in a bankruptcy proceeding. It’s difficult to know if there’s any subversive intent behind these tangents, though, since most of the film is concerned with the follies of a deliberately frivolous girl who is in love with her own uncle (by marriage).

If there’s anything illuminating about how Le Mariage de Chiffon stacks up to its American contemporaries, it’s how more honest traditionalist filmmaking could be without Hays Code censorship breathing down its neck. The moral center & gender politics of the film seem to belong to a Conservative past, where it’s romantic that older men, even strangers, feel entitled to carry Chiffon around in public or lead her by the small of her back in private. The way she openly discusses adultery & sexual desire (specifically that she’s afraid to marry anyone because she knows she’ll be tempted to cheat) is far too honest for the heavily-censored American films of the period to echo. The soft-incest implied by her desire for her uncle (by marriage!!!) also feels morally risky for the time, especially in scenes where they “innocently” help each other undress, practically panting throughout the process. As traditionalist as the film can feel on a formal level, too, we always understand Chiffon’s troublemaking as the admirable alternative to high society stuffiness, especially when she’s being admonished in statements like “A woman is more womanly in a corset” and “Your behavior shames us all.” Chiffon may be a brat, but she’s our brat. When her elitist nemesis is perplexed by something as simple as a misplaced shoe, they shout with incensed incredulity, “It’s a prank to ruin me!” Chiffon, as aggressively frivolous as she can be, is portrayed to be the sensible one by comparison. I’m not sure that a bratty harbinger of chaos would have been allowed that moral upper-ground in a contemporary American film (without being pushed to change their ways). I do know for damn sure she would not have been allowed to be so honest about her sexual desires & the blatant hypocrisy of how adulterous impulses are reconciled in the social institution of marriage. That’s not something I’m used to seeing in 1940s comedies, stately or otherwise.

Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he disgracefully booted from his position in the European Parliament after exposing himself as a hard-right Holocaust denier, which is more than enough to justify labeling him as The Enemy. Still, there is a kind of defiance to making escapist entertainment in the face of military occupation, or at least there is a value to the comfort it could provide. Either way, the truth is that you would never assume that wartime context watching Le Mariage de Chiffon if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the picture is Odette Joyeux’s endlessly lovable performance in the titular role, a mischievous character who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic picture that (barely) contains her. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedy, even if it is nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most its wartime context benefits it is in affording the film an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit it as a cultural object, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.

-Brandon Ledet

Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)

The opening gag of Bridget Jones’s Baby is the entire movie in a microcosm. Alone on her birthday, Rene Zellweger’s now middle aged romcom anti-hero opens this years-late sequel on the exact note where she started the first film in the series: blowing out a single candle on a cupcake & lip-syncing to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” in an amusingly over-the-top moment of self-pity. She asks her series-sparking diary “How in the hell did I end up here again?” in voice-over and as an audience I can’t help but breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even with all of the uncomfortable weight-cataloging & desperation to land a husband, 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary holds up nicely as a smart, darkly funny romcom that modernizes & subverts the Jane Austen classic Pride & Prejudice for the hard-loving, hard-drinking thirty-somethings of its era. As a protagonist, Bridget Jones is a little dopey & off-kilter, but personifies for her audience the Inner Idiot we all feel like we come off as whenever we’re anxious in public. 2004’s follow-up, the inexplicably titled Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, completely misinterprets the character’s appeal and makes her out to be an Actual Idiot in one of the most insultingly vapid romcoms I can ever remember seeing. That’s why it’s such a relief, over a decade later, to see Bridget Jones return to square one: drunk, alone, and once again personifying our collective Inner Idiot in a recognizably human way. It’s even more of a relief when this familiar beat is interrupted by Bridget switching the track to a modern pop song and deciding to celebrate her current middle age state instead of moping about her apartment, a welcome taste of what’s to come.

As necessary as Bridget Jones’s Baby was in undoing the damage wrought by Edge of Reason, it doesn’t find much else purpose for its existence besides transporting its protagonist to a modern context. The movie’s plot is centered on a simple “Who’s the father?” mystery as Bridget finds herself pregnant & caught between two potential lovers: Colin Firth’s eternally uptight Mr. Darcy from the first two films & the out of nowhere addition of an American billionaire played by 80s TV heartthrob Patrick Dempsey. I suppose as an audience we’re supposed to fret over which beau she (and her titular baby) will end the film with, but it’s difficult to care too much about that dilemma (especially since Mr. Darcy has been a kind of recurring inevitability since film one). The true conflict here is in watching Bridget navigate the 2010s, now a total outsider to the youth culture she drank her way through exiting in her original appearance. Surrounded by *shudder* millennials, Bridget weighs in on the cultural evils of music festivals, man buns, “ironic” beards, brand managers, “vegan condoms,” and (in an extended featured cameo) Ed Sheeran. I despised the trailer for this film for its regressive fretting over the fear of dying “alone” as a single mother, but the movie is much less concerned with the baby of its title than it is with ribbing a young, inauthentically hip culture it’s getting too old to understand. Bridget Jones is an awkward & as dopey as ever, but as a relic of the past she’s become a kind of Gen-X anti-hero tasked with cutting through the bullshit of modern culture in the name of middle aged women everywhere. That’s a huge step up from her blithering idiot persona who “hilariously” doesn’t know how to snow ski or navigate Thailand’s prison system in the miserable Edge of Reason.

There’s a comfort in familiarity to romcoms as a genre that Bridget Jones’s Baby delivers expertly. Rescuing its protagonist from the Idiot Plot screenwriting hell of Edge of Reason, this damage control sequel makes everything pleasantly familiar again. Bridget is back in her proper apartment, surrounded by her same cast of friends (including the always-welcome Shirley Henderson), and back to worrying about her same self-defeating anxieties over romance, her career, and her body. This return to normalcy is the cinematic equivalent of an electric blanket in a cold snap, to the point where any developments in Bridget’s romantic or professional life almost don’t matter at all. At its very last opportunity, Bridget Jones’s Baby introduces a plot twist that leaves the door open for a sequel that sounds pleasant, but unnecessary. Now that the damage from Edge of Reason has been undone there isn’t much a fourth Bridget Jones movie could possibly offer besides more comforting familiarity. At least that’s far from the worst thing a movie could accomplish. I’ll admit I was even tickled in this sequel by seeing Emma Thompson seemingly reprise her irreverent natal physician from Junior as Bridget’s smartass doctor. It didn’t really improve or even alter what I’d already seen her do before, but it was still a familiar, comforting reminder of a past pleasure. Bridget may despondently ask, “How in the hell did I end up here again?,” at the start of this movie, but her audience couldn’t possibly want to be anywhere else. Bridget Jones’s Baby doesn’t attempt to disrupt or subvert the romcom formula like recent bomb-throwers WetlandsObvious ChildSleeping With Other PeopleAppropriate Behavior, etc., but it does feel essentially redemptive for restoring a beloved character who deserved so much better in her previous outing to a comfortably familiar place.

-Brandon Ledet