Let me tell you a story. It is a true story and it is of a romantic nature. A lady, let’s make her twenty-nine, lives in love with her husband, an older man of say fifty-two. They live in a suburb of London with their two children and yet it has always been his dream to live in Cornwall and so they eventually make the move and his mother comes with them. She is old and not particularly well and so the lady, who had previously been a nurse and loved it, doesn’t take a new job in Cornwall and instead begrudgingly looks after the mother. He keeps his job and so spends the week in a London hotel and then drives back at the weekend. This goes on for a year or so when the lady finds an internet page open with his email up and she realises that he has been cheating on her with an even younger lady that he works with. She reads a few and works out that the ‘lads holiday’ that he was supposed to be going on the coming weekend is in fact a holiday with this mistress. She emails her and asks for her not to meet him at the airport, pleading that he has a family. Unsurprisingly the mistress doesn’t take any notice, they go on holiday and he ends up leaving the lady, and in some ways his mother, to move in with the mistress.
Nice story? No, of course not. But now imagine that you cast Bill Murray as the man, Scarlett Johansson as the mistress and whoever you want as the lady and you basically have Lost In Translation, a film that I personally love.
Watching that movie you, as the audience, are made to want Bill Murray to leave his aggravating but otherwise innocent wife and Johansson to dump her loving husband just so that the two of them can be together. And you really do want them to be together; through a mixture of shared experiences, mini-adventures, and ambient music you are manipulated into forgetting your morals and you just want these two people, who appear lost but seemingly only temporarily, to find themselves in one another. When you then sit back after watching the film and look at it objectively, you realise that Hollywood has managed to make you a bad person. Without spoiling the movie there is a point towards the end where one of the characters does something that is definitely wrong but you are left not thinking of how their wrong will affect their spouse but instead the way it will damage the relationship with the other travel companion. Ultimately, I was ashamed of myself.
I wish that this was an isolated incident, but it is not. Romantic comedies/dramas are, unsurprisingly, the worst for this with the lead characters regularly ditching their ‘other halves’ without any real care just to reach the conclusion that the audience have paid their money for. I could list hundreds of movies where this applies, where these ‘other halves’ get lumped in with controlling parents, disparate economic situations, distance, race and timing in being nothing but obstacles that the two characters must shrug off so as to end up in each other’s arms. The best type of romantic drama for showing this are those spanning an entire lifetime, and one of the best romantic dramas to do so in the last decade is The Notebook.
Here we get an elderly man reading his wife the story of a young couple and the troubles that they face as they grow through the ages. The two lovers are played by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams and they are initially torn apart by her controlling parents who are concerned by his lack of wealth, then distance (she moves to go to college), then circumstance (World War 2) and, finally, McAdams being engaged to another man (James Marsden). Both Gosling and Marsden are good men who love McAdams greatly but, while Marsden is a sophisticated lawyer from a wealthy and respected family, Gosling has sweeping romantic gestures. Obviously we, the audience, want Gosling to get the girl. The film makes it imperative that this be the response even before you enter the theatre what with the posters themselves having the two of them embracing passionately in the rain. However, this does of course mean that I am left hoping for a good man to have his heart broken with my only consolation being that he would otherwise be married to a woman who loves another man above him. However awful that might be for him it is not enough for me to not begrudge Hollywood for putting me in such a quandary.
However, the one defence of how mainstream romantic dramas and comedies treat these characters is that they tend to either leave them undeveloped so that the audience spend no time investing in them, or else give them an aggravating or irredeemable flaw that makes it easier for us to accept them being discarded. This does not make it any better of course, but it is more palatable for the audience when film-makers ask you not to care for the end of a narrative device rather than the demise of an actual, well-rounded person. It is actually in more ‘credible’ movies that it becomes harder for you to not hate yourself.
Drive is a good example of this. My favourite movie of 2011 and one of those on almost every person’s top ten for the year. As much as the film is about driving, the burgeoning romance between Gosling (again!) and Mulligan is the epicentre of the movie, the thing which every action and reaction is influenced by. It is in their first real meeting that Mulligan’s husband is introduced as being in prison. You know then that he will feature later in the film but, as it has been established that he is a criminal, you start to feel safe that he will be flawed enough to not have to like. Wrong! He arrives and he is composed in the face of Gosling and Mulligan’s obvious connection, content in knowing that he loves his wife and child unconditionally. Instantly you become torn, you don’t want this character, who repents and accepts that his past must stay in the past, to lose everything he has in the world, but then you’re also aware that Gosling and Mulligan seem a better fit. The writers and directors have you invested in this relationship and you are now in the position where you have to either accept the new status quo and suffer cinematic heartache, or wish suffering on an otherwise likeable character. I won’t say which way it goes, but I will say that I definitely wanted Gosling and Mulligan together. Perhaps this is because I’m a romantic, but it also makes me a bad person.
And that is where my problem with this lies. I have experience from my life of someone who’s life has seen them repeatedly attempt to get over a partner before having to accept that they can’t and swiftly returns to them. This has caused a great deal of romantic collateral damage but then who is to say that the heartaches handed out by the person in question are not now regarded as plot-points in the ex’s romantic dramas? In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan decides to end it with Greg Kinnear so as to pursue Tom Hanks. When she breaks up with him, he is totally understanding and had started to have feelings for a previously mentioned chat-show host in the film. Who’s to say that Kinnear and Chat-Show Host didn’t end up having a more spectacular love story than Hanks and Ryan? No one, but then do I feel content to assume? Not really. However, if the alternative is film-makers tying up every loose end of a film, which would I prefer?
I can see only two alternatives. The first is more films like Young Adult. Instead of painting the character as a soul-mate of one of those in the relationship they are trying to destroy, instead show them as nothing more than truly horrid creatures with next to no morals. This was the most refreshing part of Young Adult and the reason that I will return to it again, but whatever charm it has derives from this being an alternative look at that situation and is not viable as a solution to the current romantic framework.
The second option is more doable. So we have, what I have now coined, ‘Romance Origin Stories’ and the premise is that each discarded lover then has their own movie spinning off the original allowing the then discarded lover in the second movie to be the focus of the third and so on. It might sound daft but I can’t really think of any problems. Those writing and directing romantic films generally stick to writing and directing romantic films and so they would have no issue writing a series. You could get stronger supporting casts as they would then know that they will have their own film next. And finally you could build up a loyal fan base over the series meaning guaranteed numbers through the doors each time. Hell, it could even culminate in all of the couples coming together in one movie where they end up stuck in the same airport due to some kind of volcanic ash cloud or something and we are treated to The Terminal meets The Avengers.
Obviously this cannot be the answer (surely it has to be attempted at some point though?) meaning that I am not sure there is an answer. Without padding out every character which would either cause no real characterisation (Valentine’s Day/New Year’s Eve) or a film so long that it has to become a TV series, some characters must act as narrative devices. The same happens in all film genres of course, in slasher movies people must die and in ‘on the road’ movies the protagonist must leave the people he meets along the way behind him, and so romantic movies must do the same. Problem is that the audience are supposed to dislike the killer in slasher flicks, the entire cast face the same torment and the killer tends to get his comeuppance in the end, while in romances the issuer of pain is actually rewarded in the end.
Perhaps I am too sensitive and should just accept that love, regardless of whether on screen or not, is harsh and unforgiving on those who are not lucky enough to have their love reciprocated. Problem is, in movies, there’s no way of consoling the unfortunate. So next time that you’re sat in a movie theatre watching Katherine Heigl or Ashton Kutcher break someone’s heart spare a thought for them; but try to remember that Hollywood is merely hoping that you don’t find their movies realistic enough for you to care about those characters that they show absolutely no compassion for.