Romcoms outside Hollywood

I don’t watch Hollywood films that often, but sometimes I do get to see a romantic comedy. I do find, however, that many of them are just not attractive in terms of theme or they have stars I would usually want to avoid. It’s in this context that I watched two ‘alternatives’ – a French/UK co-production and a genuine American independent.

I’ve already posted on Pot Luck and I did get to see the sequel Les poupées russes (Russian Dolls) (France/UK 2005). I thought the original film was interesting as well as enjoyable in the way that it exploited the phenomenon of the Erasmus scheme that brings together young graduates from across Europe in Barcelona. Unfortunately, I don’t think that there was enough in the possible narrative extensions of the first story to warrant a second. That isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty here to entertain audiences.

Although the sequel was made only three years later, the characters have aged five years or more and the central character, Xavier, is now coming up to 30. He is still struggling to become a writer and is not in a long-term relationship (but still close friends with Martine, the Audrey Tautou character from the first film). The main thrust of the narrative is to propel Xavier through a series of sexual encounters, including one with Wendy, the Englishwoman from the Barcelona flat. There is a wedding (one of the staple features of the romcom), but it involves Wendy’s brother and a Russian ballerina.

The film is well made and I particularly enjoyed the St. Petersburg sequences, which seemed less touristy than those in London (but that’s probably because I know London well, but haven’t been to St. Petersburg). Ironically, the film seemed to be like a Eurostar ad with Xavier shuttling between Paris and London. Eurostar have actually put money into the new Shane Meadows film, marking the move to St Pancras as the London terminal – but Xavier alights at the temporary terminus built at Waterloo.

Xavier's fantasy image . . .

Xavier's fantasy image . . .

In the modern style, this romcom is upfront about the sexual encounters of its late twenty-somethings and overall is less coy and childish than Hollywood. I thought that the playing was generally good and Kelly Reilly turned the rather gauche character from Barcelona into a sexy woman – she was well dressed by the costume department and wore the clothes with real panache. This was emphasised by a scene in which Xavier obsesses about a model whose ‘autobiography’ he has to ghost-write. The model is objectified by a tracking camera shot which focuses on her legs as she walks in front. Kelly Reilly wears a similar dress much more successfully.

. . . when he should be thinking about Wendy

. . . when he should be thinking about Wendy

I’m not sure what I made of Romain Duris as Xavier. Since he is so good in everything else I’ve seen him in, I have to conclude that he is brilliant at playing a character who is really rather silly (perhaps this is how French audiences see Hugh Grant type characters in British films?) Xavier is never convincing as a writer and although he is still potentially a good-looking man, here he often grins like a demented hamster.

I’m not the target audience for this film and it may well be that twenty-somethings today will respond to the film and identify with the characters. It’s worth noting that romcoms now seem to assume a younger audience (whereas the classic Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s were for a general audience). For me, Xavier’s behaviour would be understandable for someone in their early twenties, but not approaching thirty. But I know I am out-of-date, so, a change in society generally is followed by filmmakers keeping up with trends. A posting on IMDB asks if this film is similar to some of the Antoine Doinel films made by François Truffaut. This is an interesting observation and I can see that it is similar to Love on the Run (France 1979). As a young man, I enjoyed the the first three Antoine Doinel films, but not the late 1970s one, by which time I thought Truffaut had lost it. (See the post on Anne and Muriel for more on Truffaut.)

Director Cédric Klapisch continues the use of split screens and tricksy editing from Pot Luck – possibly increasing the overall effect. I’m not sure it works, but again I think it probably serves to alienate older audiences in an attempt to be fresh and young? I think, however, that I preferred the approach of a recent American independent, In Search of a Midnight Kiss (US 2007).

Vivian and Wilson and the LA skyline

Vivian and Wilson and the LA skyline

Written and directed by Alex Holdridge, In Search of a Midnight Kiss feels like a genuine low budget independent. The pitch is very simple, Wilson (Scoot McNairy) is virtually broke and due to be alone on New Year’s Eve. His housemates in LA (a couple) persuade him to post on Craig’s List as a ‘misanthrope’ in search of a midnight kiss. He does and meets Vivian (Sara Simmonds). Will they hit it off and stay together through the New Year celebrations?

As the image shows, Holdridge chose to shoot on High Def video and print it as black & white on 35 mm film. I thought the film looked terrific and I really enjoyed the scenic tour of downtown LA and the city that we don’t usually see (including a peek inside an ornate theatre). I was particularly interested in the sequences on the LA rapid transit system. It doesn’t usually feature in Hollywood films, but it gives a completely different feel to the city – making it more like New York and European cities. Overall, I thought the film prompted memories of a host of Hollywood films from the 1950s, partly because of the black & white images and partly because of the way in which the city was presented.

As in Russian Dolls, the film utilises the conventions of modern Hollywood romcoms (and television) in its depiction of sexual embarrassment and potential ‘gross-out’ moments. The difference is that because there are no stars, I did warm to the central characters as real people. I cared about them and by the end of the film I could even forgive the lead character his haircut. I’d recommend this film to anyone jaded by mainstream Hollywood.

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