Romantic comedies are a fantasy. But they’re a fantasy that has a bizarre role to play in shaping the personalities and ideas of the people who see them as young movie fans. That’s the starting point of Elizabeth Sankey’s documentary Romantic Comedy, which scrutinises the romcom from a perspective not of intellectual snark, but of genuine love and affection.
It’s effectively a tour through the shifting face of the romcom, from the fast-talking screwballs of the 1930s and 1940s through the troubling box office heyday of the late 20th century and the more revisionist takes on the genre arising today.
Sankey frames the story of the romcom as a personal one for her, opening with a description of how she imagined her wedding as something akin to the 2008 romcom Made of Honour. She then explains that the spell of the genre broke for her after her own wedding — the moment her life passed the supposed “happy ending” presented by these movies. What follows is an affectionate skewering of a genre that is too often portrayed as purely harmless escapism when really it has, as Sankey puts it “the power to influence us”.
The documentary is presented as a collage of clips, narrated by Sankey with voice-over contributions from an enjoyably diverse roster of critics and filmmakers. They prick at the heteronormative roster of white, middle-class characters in the romcom world, as well as the “psychopathic behaviour” of the “tenacious man” archetype. Notably, the film theorises that romcoms might be “more damaging” to men than they are to the women who are often conceived of as the primary audience.
Romantic Comedy is strongest when it focuses on the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in romcoms — gay men are stereotypes, gay women don’t exist — and points to the ways in which recent romantic movies, including Francis Lee’s exceptional God’s Own Country, are changing the perspective ever so slightly. Plenty of time is also spent on the quietly revisionist, self-referential intelligence of the 2012 indie Ruby Sparks, written by and starring Zoe Kazan.
There’s a sense of the meticulous research behind every frame of the movie, which reaches for deep cuts from the genre as well as spotlighting the archetypal milestone films. The overall message, cheeringly, is one of positivity as the film concludes that the romcom is being ushered swiftly into the present day in a whirlwind of diverse characters and more grounded, interesting stories.
Romantic Comedy is an intriguing and engrossing potted journey through the romcom. Wisely, though, Sankey eschews chronological genre love in the face of a more complex and nuanced visual essay that constructs a detailed argument about the ways in which, for good or for ill, the romcom affects the way we look at love. There’s more to all of this than just laughing at Bridget Jones’s pants.
Dir: Elizabeth Sankey
Scr: Elizabeth Sankey
Cast: Jessica Barden, Cameron Cook, Anne T. Donahue, Simran Hans, Brodie Lancaster, Charlie Lyne, Eleanor McDowall, Laura Snapes
Prd: Oskar Pimlott, Chiara Ventura, Jeremy Warmsley
Music: Jeremy Warmsley
Run time: 78 mins
Romantic Comedy is available for 30 days on MUBI from 7th May.