Elizabeth Sankey's Romantic Comedy (2019) is exclusively showing May 7 - June 6, 2020 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
After spending two years watching romantic comedies, editing and cataloging their tropes—meet-cutes, big white weddings, declarations of love (rain optional)—and turning those into my essay film, I thought I’d spent more than enough time thinking about the genre. But then lockdown happened.
What always appealed to me about romantic comedies is that they’re as completely obsessed with human interactions and love as I am. For me, the idea that two people can meet and feel a connection—any sort of attraction—and be taken on a journey together is the most thrilling and exciting experience a human being can have. We are rational, logical creatures but we allow ourselves to step into this shared madness with a stranger. Sometimes the insanity is only short—a few minutes, a night—but sometimes it’s for the rest of our forevers. It’s miraculous.
I mean, yes, of course it’s primal, ubiquitous and essential. But in a way that just makes it even more incredible that for centuries we’ve so desperately transformed this extremely functional urge into stories. I guess we do the same with food—we could all subsist on a milkshake of essential nutrients but most of us choose not to, perhaps because it’s not as fun to share a foaming protein drink with friends and families as it is a huge bowl of pasta or a technicolor birthday cake.
Many films which aren’t romantic comedies feature love stories, but in rom coms it’s the only story, which proves how engaging and powerful those narratives can be. It’s an incredibly formulaic genre: few rom coms deviate from the tried and tested arc, simply because that arc works so well—yet another indicator of the power these films can have to elicit strong emotions and fill cinema seats.
And now we’re in lockdown and we can’t see or touch anyone outside of our homes. People have asked me if there could be a rom com set in our current situation—When Harry Met Sally (On A Zoom Quiz). I don’t know. I’m dubious about any future culture that references this time as I don’t really think it’s something we’re going to want to remember, but check back with me in two years when the romantic comedy sequel, You’ve Got Zoom starring Meg and Tom is the summer’s smash hit.
What I do know is that while I miss a lot of things, restaurants, cinemas, just the chance to do anything outside other than—ugh—go for a walk, what is really making my heart ache is the longing for other people. And while I’m lucky enough to live with my husband so I don’t miss the romance, and there are far more terrifying things happening right now, I keep thinking about those most magical human moments that have been put on pause. Everything from the tears over cancelled weddings, to the sloppy kisses at sweaty parties, to the comfort of a soft warm body on a cold night.
I think it’s easy to dismiss romantic comedies as frivolous or unworthy of serious critical analysis, and I understand why—many of them have dubious premises, and with their happy endings and embrace of fantasy they can feel like fairy tales. But in dismissing them we dismiss a part of ourselves. I’m watching romantic comedies now because they remind me of what I love most about human beings—the desire we all have to connect with other people, and the thrill we feel when it happens—and currently I’m missing that more than ever.