Just what is it about French romantic comedies…

May 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

That makes them so much better than American ones?

La Délicatesse (dir. David and Stéphane Foenkinos, 2011)

I found myself thinking about this when I watched La Délicatesse a few weeks ago. You see, American rom coms and I do not get along. This goes back to my college days, when I had roommates who inflicted their enthusiasm for them on me, which led to my developing a severe, life-threatening allergy to Meg Ryan. As bad as the late 90s/early 2000s variety of American rom com was, I find the current breed even harder to swallow. The last American romantic comedy I genuinely enjoyed was Next Stop Wonderland… which came out in 1998. You do the math.

And yet give me a French rom com and I’ll happily watch it, and most of the time I’ll be glad I did. Okay, none I’ve ever seen could be considered a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but in general they are fine examples of genre filmmaking. So why are they so much better? The short answer, I guess, would be superior writing and acting, but that would make a very short post. Beyond these two obvious qualities, here’s a non-exhaustive rundown of possible reasons.

 

1. They’re made by adults, about adults, for adults.

A friend of mine who saw La Délicatesse before I did said she hated it because she felt it was the French answer to a Judd Apatow film – a beautiful, intelligent, ambitious woman getting stuck with a pathetic, immature schlub of a guy. Now, this is probably my single biggest pet peeve about current American romantic comedies, but I must respectfully disagree with my friend. Yes, Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) certainly fulfils the first description. But Markus (François Damiens), the colleague she reluctantly becomes involved with, despite being, well, rather lacking in the looks department and awkward on top of it, is also kind, gentle, mature and surprisingly funny. In other words, patently not the dim slacker with the incurable Peter Pan complex who would be played by Seth Rogen in the American version.

La Délicatesse: Audrey Tautou and François Damiens

Another favourite of mine, Venus Beauty Institute, centres on a bitter, lonely middle-aged beautician (Nathalie Baye) who (again reluctantly) falls for a much younger man. If this were an American film, she would have been the subject of endless crude and tiresome jokes about cradle-robbing, aging ungracefully, etc. Instead the writer, director and actors just acknowledge that love sometimes comes in unexpected forms and get on with telling the story.

 

2. They’re self-aware.

Heartbreaker (L'Arnacoeur) (dir. Pascal Chaumeil, 2010)

French rom coms sometimes come with premises that are every bit as ridiculous as their American counterparts. Take Heartbreaker, for starters: the main character, Alex (Romain Duris), is a professional break-up artist. He hires himself (and his partners in crime, his sister and brother-in-law) out to worried parents/siblings/friends who don’t approve of their daughter/sister/best mate’s boyfriend/fiancé/husband, seduces the woman (without sleeping with her – he has principles, you see), makes her realise how much better off she is without the bum, and then gracefully extracts himself from the situation with a sob story. Ridiculous, right? Well, in an American film (and I have a horrible sinking feeling that Heartbreaker is going to get an American remake in the not-too-distant future) you would be asked to swallow this hook, line and sinker. As it is, Duris plays the part with a knowing wink: he’s fully aware that what he’s doing is absurd but he’s going to throw himself into it (you wouldn’t really expect any less of an actor who delivers dramatic performances of bone-shattering intensity – watch The Beat That My Heart Skipped if you need any convincing) and all he asks is that we play along. He’s not the only one: in one of the film’s best scenes, he re-enacts that scene from Dirty Dancing with Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), the woman whose impending marriage he’s been hired to break up (and who ultimately ends up breaking his heart), having been told she has a soft spot for that film. And it’s clear that they’re both aware of the absurdity of it all… yet they still both find themselves falling for it, and each other. And that self-awareness, far from being unbearably arch, actually makes the whole thing a lot more affecting.

 

3. They treat women with respect.

This is something of a corollary of #1. But quite apart from not operating under the assumption that the modern woman’s lot in life is to pick up the messes of the man-child, French rom coms also don’t seem to hinge on the idea that a single woman is necessarily miserable (La Délicatesse’s Nathalie clearly leads a rich and fulfilling life after being widowed and before meeting Markus, despite her lingering grief) or that it’s funny to humiliate women. Revolutionary, n’est-ce pas? Heartbreaker, for example, has Alex attempting to put Juliette in all manner of dangerous and/or embarrassing situations so he can ‘rescue’ her and persuade her that he’s Prince Charming. In an American film this would be, at the very least, extremely uncomfortable to watch. However, Juliette is smart, tough, and so manifestly able to take care of herself that Alex’s increasingly desperate efforts just end up making him look silly… not least because she’s rolling her eyes the whole time.

 

4. They don’t shy away from sadness.

La Délicatesse, in fact, depends upon it – Nathalie would never have ended up with Markus if she hadn’t lost her (handsome, charming, gregarious) husband in a car crash. Her loss is treated respectfully but with a light touch and without sentimentality – something which is true of any number of French romantic comedies (too many to list here). I suppose if I were to generalise, then American rom coms tend toward the saccharine, French ones toward the bittersweet. I don’t know about you, but I know which flavour I prefer.

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§ 2 Responses to Just what is it about French romantic comedies…

  • I so agree with this list! L’arnacoeur is one of my favorites of recent years.

    I think it’s interesting as well that every French film I’ve watched in the past few years seems to start off with that quick voice over background of the characters ex. “Moi, je suis Justine….je suis actrice..etc.”

  • Hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right! I guess it’s film’s answer to breaking the fourth wall?

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