Film genres are usually named after an emotion, or the experience of one. A horror film brings horror. A fantasy film brings fantasy or wonder. Love is hard to define, let alone see, so romance films are a tad more complicated. It’s easy to tell if a character is horrified, screaming is a dead giveaway, but how do you tell if a character is in love, especially when every person experiences love differently? Some films will have their character announce that they are in love, and trust that this is believable. They’ll do a few shot reverse shots with classical music and be done. Love at first sight might feel like a cop out, but it’s easier than the alternative. How can you transform something broad and undefinable into a single story? In order to make these films relatable, the romance genre, and other genres, turn to an underlying structure which everyone can agree to.
Romance films are never just about romance. They are governed by complex political and ideological structures which influence not just the genre, but specific films in specific ways. These structures can change, evolve over time, but there are consistent elements. Having these structures is not a bad thing, film, like any media, has a certain intention. Most audiences can already agree to that intention before seeing the film, just based on their background and morals. Some films will try to challenge the audience’s expectations around these ideology and politics, giving them a unique perspective. These however still have an underlying intention, a reason to portray a relationship in one light versus another, from one person versus another. Even the move to challenge expectations has an intention and ideology to it. The romance genre is perhaps the most visible example of intention. There is something about the genre that makes these structures more apparent to the point where we can all joke about it, call romance films cheesy. To elicit a big emotion like love, a romance film will often go out of its way to really show the audience that yes, these characters are in love. There is less room for ambiguity here, so we get these big orchestral swells and dramatic settings against poetic shots of people gazing at one another. It’s not realistic, but it was never meant to be.
“I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.”
– You’ve Got Mail
Love is political, or at least ideological, in film. The next time you watch a romance film, ask yourself, who does the protagonist pick and why? What is the alternative? Let’s say our protagonist is a market executive who is engaged to a savvy and successful businessman, but in love with a poor bookshop owner. What would the film’s message be if they end up with the businessman? What if they choose the bookshop owner? I know this example reads like You’ve Got Mail (1998) meets Hallmark, which I will get into, but it does show how the narratives in these films arrive with certain intentions. Should she pick the businessman, the film might be a tragedy about family duty and commercialism, or a comedy about success and changing as a person. Alternatively, if she picks the bookshop owner, the film might be a critique on capitalism, even a metaphor for the customer choosing between big business and small.
Everyone has a different tolerance for romance films, things that they will enjoy, ridicule, or just hate. When I use the term ‘romance film’, I am referring to everything from Hallmark to gritty Drama, which might seem radically opposed, but arrive through similar methods. It’s the kind of broad genre that mixes well with others, like drama, noir or mystery, fantasy, and comedy, which is arguably the best-known mix. Each of these combinations arrive with their own expectations that the film will either critique or encourage. For instance, the happily ever after phenomenon found in most Hallmark romance and romantic comedy films. It defines what is ‘good’ by rewarding certain figures while also suggesting that we (the audience) should behave as they did. It likewise illustrates what is ‘bad’ behaviour and what kind of personalities and choices we should avoid. Love becomes a disguise for the commentary in these films, the ‘spoonful of honey’ method. It’s something sweet to distract or temper whatever ‘medicine’ is going down. Without close reading, we absorb these ideologies without noticing, which again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s an interesting thing.
I want to make it clear, when I describe film as a form of propaganda, I say that in the best way possible. Films bring communities together, form fandoms, they broaden our understanding of the world and ourselves. Pretty much everything we read or watch has an intention, even in the way something gets phrased. It’s just helpful to ask how a film uses love. Or even, how is love framed? How is it characterized? Would it have been characterized differently had the film been released even ten years prior? I’ve said this about horror in the past, but it’s also true of romance or any of the big genres. You can tell a lot about a culture by what films they release each year. The kinds of protagonists they focus on, what adversaries, and how that compares a few decades later.
“A Kiss is Just a Kiss.”
There are two ways to close read a film: you can isolate it, or you can research it. I often switch between these perspectives, depending on the film and makers. One film I highly recommend reading about is Casablanca (1942), which might be my favourite of the deeply political romance films. The film’s politics are quite obvious because they are targeting a very immediate issue. It’s considered a classic today, which is funny because no one took it seriously on set. The film’s most famous line, “Here’s looking at you kid”, was an improvised bit Humphrey Bogart just kept adding to scenes because it’s what he called Ingrid Bergman off camera. It was his way of sort of derailing the script and signaling that he was done with the shot. That said, the film was released in late 1942, which means that it deals with some huge historic events while those events are happening, making it a significant historical piece. On the surface, the film is a tragic love story, but deeper, it’s about America going to war. More specifically, it’s about Americans putting the needs of others, especially Europeans, above themselves. It’s why Bogart and Bergman’s characters don’t end up together, as both must sacrifice their personal happiness for the greater good. The film was an opportunity to mentally prepare Americans for joining the war, to fight against the film’s antagonist and be sympathetic to refugees, many of whom make up the cast.
I have already written a post about my favourite scene, the “Les Marseillaise” sequence, which is perhaps the most outright declaration of these politics. This, however, is just one reading of the film. Others might focus on the film’s use of mismatch language or it’s cult status. Each of these readings are valid, and still arrive with certain underlying politics from both the viewer and film. I am interested in the way love functions in the film, as this nostalgic dream that ultimately must be pushed aside for the greater love of a suffering world. It’s era specific, but not entirely, and ultimately a very smart form of propaganda.
Romance films can often be quite sexist, particularly older classics. I recently watched the cult classic, Streets of Fire (1984) which is a strange movie with an even stranger romance. As the hero is leaving to save the day, his love interest runs after him, trying to convince him that she should come and help. The hero then hits the woman, knocking her out, and leaves. These characters end up together shortly after, and the film praises this moment, as though it’s part of some forgotten section on the hero’s journey chart. It’s an insane moment, but it’s also part of a much older tradition in film, where the men know best, and women are too emotional to help and must be restrained somehow. Considering the romance genre is known for sexist and sometimes abusive and creepy tropes, which are played off as romantic, how do we negotiate this genre in a contemporary lens?
“I Love You, Most Ardently.”
– Pride and Prejudice
The most recent Pride and Prejudice (2005) does an excellent job of reworking what is often seen as a privileged story and architype. You’ll notice in earlier adaptations that the characters often speak and move without any hesitation or stumble. They are inhuman characters who glide about and sip tea, not exactly relatable. The newest adaptation, however, tries to dismantle the way we view the classic romance genre and its heroines. It highlights that these characters are not perfect, but neither is love or relationships. The problem with idealization is that it puts women (typically) in an impossible situation or state. If someone is as beautiful as the sun or some other celestial, they are inhuman and not allowed to have flaws. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice tries to show chaos in this order, as the male characters still idealize women, but the film makes fun of this, as do the women. A good example is the scene where Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley unexpectedly arrive at the Bennet household. Rather than just beginning the scene as they enter the room, the scene starts with the women lounging around and then realizing that the two are almost at the door. They begin rushing about the room, trying to tidy, and by the time the two men enter, they are the picture of decorum. The scene doesn’t technically exist in the novel, but the film finds these in-between moments to further the novel’s social commentary, one which is often lost in the fan obsessed Mr. Darcy phenomenon. The film operates through little details in the novel, just as it’s version of Elizabeth finds beauty in little details, like small witty comments.
Detail emphasis is just one way that modern romance films attempt to rebrand or manage the genre’s sexist traditions. It’s essentially returning to older tropes, models, and stories and finding something in the background. A new perspective on an old story. Anna Karenina (2012) takes a slightly different position, although it is also directed by Wright and stars Keira Knightley. It uses that ideal style or inhuman posture, which earlier classics turn to, but uses that to poke holes at the very concept of ideals. Plenty of people have already read the novel or seen a version of it, so this film acknowledges that by literally staging its events. The narrative takes place in an impossible reality, where there is just an excessive level of costume and dance, making every moment dramatic in a theatrical sense. The characters, especially Anna, get lost in this environment, which furthers and also complicates the narrative’s moral conflict.
The novel is somewhat sympathetic to Anna, but still treats her as a fallen woman. A fallen woman rarely survives her story, they often kill themselves at the end. Anna Karenina is not the only story where this happens, even modern novels and films will feel the need to punish certain types of women, like the fallen. It returns to that ‘happily ever after’ model, as the narrative will reward one type of person, while simultaneously showing what not to do in an extreme way. This becomes a sort of inevitable consequence in novels like Anna Karenina, and Wright’s film recognizes that. It still holds the novel’s moral lesson, but also tries to complicate Anna and argue that love is an otherworldly spectacle. Should you get caught in the scenery of it all, you can forget what is real. The characters might be surrounded by these massive stages, but their emotions are still personal. The staging is rather antagonistic in certain moments, which further lends sympathy to Anna. It maintains that Anna’s choices were her own but also a by-product of a broader social parasite.
“Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me…”
– The Shape of Water
Some place horror and romance on opposite ends of the spectrum. I firmly disagree with this. Both deal with extreme situations in extreme ways, they just have different outcomes, sometimes. There are romance films with bloody endings, and horror films which have sincere and forlorn characters. The overlap between these, or the romance horror film, is one of my all-time favourite genres. This is where the Gothic romance thrives, an extreme and dramatic genre filled with literal and symbolic beating hearts. There are alternatively horror films which people find romance in, like Guillermo del Toro’s description of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the scene where the Creature dances with Kay underwater. It wasn’t necessarily staged as a dance, as Kay is in danger, but it still comes together as this beautifully choregraphed piece of the Creature reaching but never holding Kay. Curious of who she is, and what humans are, but too afraid. This scene went on to directly influence del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which is a horror romance film. The Creature returns, in a new shape, as does Kay. There is even a rather bizarre and fantastic sequence where the film transitions to black and white and the two dance, as though they were in a Fred Astaire film. By placing figures with a horror background in this environment, Shape of Water implies that these themes, characters, and genres have always been transferable.
Because everyone experiences love differently, the films we get under that heading arrive with different forms and expectations. Hallmark romance, which I classify here as a type of film (a made for TV romance) rather than a company, are perhaps the most political. They arrive with a list of what can and cannot be depicted, things like divorce. There is a reason so many of these characters are widows and widowers, as it gains sympathy for the character while also making them unproblematic. They aren’t a selfish partner, their loved one just died. There is no immediate conflict or growth that needs to happen before they enter another relationship, other than grief. These films are also rather religious without being direct about it, just so they can market to a broad audience. It’s only recently that same sex relationships have even been acknowledged in the made for TV area.
The characters in these films are sort of like commedia dell’arte figures, but without the global respect. You will see the same character in different bodies across multiple films, all acting in a similar way, but with a vaguely different name and background. It’s almost like being a Disney Princess at one of the Disney parks, as you play a role which other actresses have played. These actresses have to memorize their Princess’ signature, so every signature looks the same, regardless of era, park, or actress. It’s one person playing a role with specific expectations and audience, and while they might do things a little different than past iterations, there are still rules.
It’s easy to chart the way prevalent ideologies shift through TV movies, as a film from the early 2000s will handle love differently than a modern one. Often this is by framing something sexist as a joke. For instance, the female lead might comment that she isn’t going to just give up her career or isn’t going to do something just because a guy tells her to. This becomes a whole banter, whereas it might have been taken at face value in an earlier film. The sexist event might still happen in the film, but they joke about it first to acknowledge that they know it’s not great. That or they will make one specific sexist male character for the female character to reject, that way there is less attention on the more subtle sexism in the film. I still find it really interesting to watch made for TV romance films, because they are changing slightly, especially in the last 5 years. They are ridiculous, but that is part of the point, and they are sort of an indicator of where our cultural median is.
“…It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.”
It’s easy to be cynical about romance films, I know there are a few cheesy rom coms that I can’t sit through. They’re often accused of going too far, of making an ideal relationship that just impossible in the real world. Some have accused certain films, rightfully, for portraying abusive behaviour as romantic. But that said, there is a reason we keep watching romance films. They serve a purpose, and it’s not just to remind audiences of certain politics or morals. It turns something personal that everyone experiences differently into a relatable story, and perhaps in doing so, help us to understand our own situations. I know people who use characters and films to help explain why they left a relationship, or why they decided to go out with someone. It’s easy to be cynical, dismissive, but it’s harder to recognize that these films can be helpful without being able to definitively measure it. Even if they serve zero practical function, they reassure people and, for close readers, inform us. A tragedy is only a tragedy if someone loses something precious, so even a dramatic romance film renders this undefinable thing. To depict love successfully means having a broad range of audiences agree and enjoy it’s portrayal. Love arrives in so many films, in diverse ways, and through an ever-evolving intention, but it’s arrival in the first place, a film’s ability to render what is often invisible, is monumental.