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

The Big Sick (2017)

The Big Sick might be the sole Judd Apatow production to date that would benefit from a longer runtime. Written by real-life married couple & longtime comedy world mainstays Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon, the film attempts to cram the bizarre true story about their personal relationship into the structure of a traditional romcom. In that respect, it’s mostly successful. The film is touching, sweet, and darkly funny in its awkward, vulnerably human reactions to an impossible romantic scenario. However, by molding a real, nuanced story into the shape of a three act, trope-laden genre structure, the film tends to glaze over some of its most essential relationships in a way that distorts its focus & undercuts its own power. Over time, The Big Sick turns out not to be about romance at all, but about unlikely partnerships that form in its absence. When its romcom genre structure demands that it return to that romance, then, the overall result is a picture that somehow isn’t self-aware of the emotional hook that makes it feel truly special in its best, most distinctive moments. With a little more screentime & a little less adherence to genre that may not have been the case.

Kumail Nanjiani stars as a younger version of himself, an aimless college graduate trying to stay afloat in the Chicago stand-up comedy scene & to maintain a relationship with his devout Muslim parents despite his own secular, Scorsese-esque crisis of faith. A Pakistani immigrant family, Nanjiani’s parents & brother push him to both pursue a more lucrative career & to submit to a traditional arranged marriage romance. Instead, he pays rent as an Uber driver & falls in love with a white girl. It’s a move his brother disappointedly calls cliche & his parents disown him over. The most shocking aspect of this family-destroying relationship isn’t that it bucks against Islamic values, however. Nanjiani’s life is disrupted when his new, white girlfriend, furious that he’s kept their relationship a secret as long as possible, is bedridden with a medically-induced coma and is faced with the precipice of death. He meets her family for the first time while she’s unconscious in the ICU & they’re technically broken up, leaving the parents suspicious as to why he cares enough to wait by her side. The questions this situation raises are vast in range. Will the girlfriend’s family remain cold to Kumail’s concern for their near-dead, comatose daughter? Will Kumail’s own family invite him back to the fold despite his secularism & apparent disregard for tradition? Will the girlfriend accept him back in her life when she recovers? Will she recover at all? These questions have all been answered by the real life history of the couple who penned the screenplay, but their tension still makes for a great dramatic plot for a modern, heartfelt romcom.

Because Nanjiani stars as (a slightly fictionalized version of) himself, the story mostly follows his personal trajectory as he’s alienated by his cultural, professional, and romantic conflicts. This narrow focus works exceptionally well in the film’s second act, but allows the narrative to stray from its most interesting character dynamics in the bookends of that center: Emily’s coma. Before the coma, Kumail’s relationships with his girlfriend & the eligible Pakistani women his parents pressure into him auditioning are rushed, never given enough room to develop in a significant way. Zoe Kazan is endearing as (the fictionalized version of) Emily, but the screentime she’s allowed isn’t pronounced enough to make her relationship with Kumail feel worth the trouble & commitment it stirs. The Pakistani women are even less fortunate in that respect, essentially reduced to a pile of interchangable photographs in a cigar box. A slightly extended runtime could’ve fixed either deficiency, which is a truly strange thing to wish for in an Apatow production. Instead, the most significant relationship formed onscreen is between Kumail & Emily’s parents. Ray Romano (who is staggeringly impressive here) & Holly Hunter (who’s also great, but less surprisingly so) shape the heart of the film as they cautiously allow Kumail into their lives as Emily’s parents. They’re tense, emotionally vulnerable people suffering their loneliest, most terrifying hour and there’s genuine power in the way they recognize that same hurt in their daughter’s estranged boyfriend. That’s why it’s disappointing when the movie’s romcom genre trappings steer its third act back towards Kumail’s less-defined relationship with Emily (for wholly understandable reasons) instead of resolving or deepening the dynamic that made for its funniest & most devastating moments, his relationship with her parents.

Real life is obviously more complicated & unwieldy than any two hour romcom plot could contain. If The Big Sick were to capture the entirety of Kumail & Emily’s bizarre story, it’d be twice as long & half as funny than it is in its current, darkly hilarious, emotionally resonant state. I do think that time constraint limited the film’s potential to be its best self, however, since it downplayed a lot of the potential romantic partners in Kumail’s life to instead fully develop his relationship with Emily’s parents, only to double back to the romantic narrative as a convenient genre tool at the last minute. Obviously, if my main complaint about a film is that there could have been more of it, it’s probably a worthwhile & enjoyable picture as is. The jokes are funny. The romantic triumphs are rewarding. The cultural details of the stand-up comedy world setting & Pakistani familial dynamics make for a memorably specific, distinct experience. It’s just a little frustrating that the most significant, exciting relationships of the movie are sacrificed for a more traditional, Apatow style romcom plot instead of being freely explored in the darkly funny indie film melancholy territory they deserve. There are at least a handful of films that have already detail romantic relationships somewhat similar to Kumail & Emily’s story in The Big Sick, as odd & coma-specific as it is, but Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents is something much more unique & worth examining. A better, more self-aware film might have reconciled that, either by narrowing its focus or extending its runtime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Sick, Sad Art of the Rear Window Romcom

One of the more immediately bizarre aspects of April’s Movie of the Month, the deliriously silly Mark Waters romcom Head Over Heels, is that it’s a low-key reimagining of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Although Rear Window does have its own sly, delicate sense of humor operating under its murder mystery thriller beats, it’s hardly the light-hearted romantic romp Waters later fused with Zoolander-style fashion world parody in Head Over Heels. A blood pressure-raising thriller plot about a shameless voyeur spying on his neighbors​ through his apartment window and possibly witnessing a murder isn’t the first place you’d expect to find inspiration for a by the books romantic comedy, but Waters amplified & broadened the once subtle humor of the Hitchcock classic to do just that. The strangest thing about that choice is that he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to get there. Rear Window had been hammered into the shape of a generic romcom before, one that was even more faithful to its almighty genre tropes.

When describing Head Over Heels in our initial conversation about the film, Boomer explained, “It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life.” I’m not sure he knew exactly how accurate he was when he wrote that. The 1997 Meg Ryan romcom Addicted to Love shares far more with Head Over Heels’s basic DNA than I could have imagined any film could, considering how uniquely ridiculous the Mark Waters picture feels as a novelty. Not only does Addicted to Love feature Ryan, the Queen of the 90s Romcom, getting wrapped up in a Rear Window-inspired plot, but the film itself is named after a Robert Palmer song, while Head Over Heels was titled after a track by The Go Go’s. As Boomer also pointed out in that initial Head Over Heels conversation, the art of “romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music” has somewhat died off since Meg Ryan’s heyday, so it’s amusing to me that both of these Rear Window romcoms would be titled that way.

It’s worth noting that, unlike with Head Over Heels, the Addicted to Love version of the Rear Window romcom involves no investigation of a possible murder. Matthew Broderick stars as a small town yokel/brilliant astronomer whose heart is broken when the love of his life (Kelly Preston) moves to NYC and falls for another man. Broderick, in his devastated state, sets up shop in the abandoned warehouse across the street from this couple and becomes a full time voyeur, spying on their relationship through the window, waiting for an opportunity to win back his love. One night, he witnesses a break-in and the masked criminal in the apartment catches him spying. After scarily barging into his hidey-hole, they’re quickly revealed to be a no nonsense, biker chick Meg Ryan, who is seeking to exact revenge on the ex-fiancee that just happens to be Broderick’s old love’s new beau. Through various tools of the astronomy trade, the miserable pair of vengeful saps start to spy on their ex-lovers as a team, occasionally venturing past simple voyeurism into revenge-in-action. And, wouldn’t you know it, the more time they spend together the less they care about what their exes are up to. It’s a match made in miserable wretch Heaven.

The theme of voyeurism and the inability to act that runs through Rear Window makes it just about as odd of a choice for romcom inspiration as its central threat of violence. Head Over Heels dives into the spiritual darkness of this premise head first, not only keeping the witnessed murder aspect of Rear Window as a central part of its romcom plot, but also dragging its poor protagonist and her supermodel roomates through a long line of degrading encounters with adulterous lovers, horny dogs, child molesters, and human feces. I dare say that in its own moments of pitch black despair Addicted to Love manages to get even darker than that Mark Waters work, however. Matthew Broderick’s brokenhearted voyeur stops shaving and takes to chugging hard liquor. While spying on his ex, he meticulously tracks her daily routines on astronomy style charts, even documenting her smiles based on frequency and enthusiasm. Meg Ryan also gets dragged down to this desperately sad level once she finds herself squatting with Broderick in his spy nest/shit hole, at one point crawling across its unswept floorboards, pawing at cockroaches to use in a prank at her ex’s expense. She also uses Broderick’s pain against him, exclaiming, “The only way that girl is going to come back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window,” and going on to describe the enormity of her ex’s dick to be “like Godzilla’s tail; he can take Tokyo down with that thing,” (which is especially funny now, given Broderick’s eventual run-in with Godzilla, tail and all). And if all that weren’t enough pain & degradation already, the big dick Cassandra from across the street eventually goes on an alpha male tirade where he threatens Broderick with the line, “I will rip out your eyes and rape your skull. Excuse my French.” This is a romcom, though, don’t forget. Ryan and Broderick do eventually become romantically linked, even if their first night together involves them getting black out drunk and dressing up like each other’s exes. Yikes.

Objectively speaking, Head Over Heels is a far better film than Addicted to Love, which is fine, but not nearly as memorable or as genuinely funny. Considered strictly on its merits as a romcom adaptation of Rear Window, however, Addicted to Love is the bigger success. Head Over Heels maintains the witnessed murder aspect of the Hitchcock classic, but branches off from there to cover everything from fashion world fantasy to ZAZ-style parody humor to Farrelly Brothers gross-outs to action comedy beats surrounding a diamond heist. Addicted to Love is much more faithful to the perverse, depressive aspects of voyeurism that humored Hitchcock in Rear Window and had a sort of novelty to the way it sticks more closely to that seminal work. It even finds a striking visual palette in its voyeurism-aiding astronomy equipment. Broderick builds a camera obscura to more easily spy on his & Ryan’s exes in his squat, and the two often watch that machine’s projection as if it were a 24 hour soap opera. All of the telescopes, flow charts, and depressive bouts of alcoholism in the world couldn’t save the picture from being just one of many titles in a long line of Meg Ryan romcoms, though. It’s a fairly generic example of a Meg Ryan Picture, except for its novelty as a Rear Window-inspired romcom, but the basic absurdity of that combination can’t be overlooked and the fact that there are at least two movies that fit that description is highly amusing to me.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander, and this piece exploring the similarities in the premise and humor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ramen Girl (2008) & What Ever Happened to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Welcome to Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-eighth episode, Brandon makes new co-host Britnee watch the Tampopo-riffing Brittany Murphy romcom Ramen Girl (2008) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon discuss the cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and its much less prestigious made-for-TV remake from 1991. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet