Thursday 28 May 2020


Directed, edited, written and narrated by Elizabeth Sankey, lead singer of indie pop duo Summer Camp, Romantic Comedy looks at the history, stylings and motifs of the film genre, and how it's able to have such an emotional connection with its audience.

Comprised of re-purposed and contextually relevant clips from countless rom-coms, if you've seen any other films from the increasingly prevalent essay film documentary sub-genre, most notably Charlie Shackleton's excellent Fairuza Balk narrated teen movie exploration, Beyond Clueless, or the shorter form Inside Cinema doc strand currently available in the BBC iPlayer, you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the structure of the film. Romantic Comedy is presented slightly differently via the personal journey Sankey sends us on through her narration, starting off in a typical teenage girls bedroom before showing us how focused this genre is on making sure its audience's end goal is marriage. Along with Sankey's narration, there's also a chorus of largely female voices (among them The End of the F**king World star, Jessica Barden) to provide insight into various points this film raises, such as why Bridget Jones is both the "HBC" (Head Bitch in Charge) and also a problematic purveyor of ridiculous and dangerous beauty standards, proclaiming herself overweight at a perfectly normal 9 stone.

When dissecting the history of the genre, we go back as far as the 1930s and the screwball comedy era when the starlets were able to be the ones in charge before their agency was stripped away by the predominantly male writers and studio execs, and their only happiness to be found in the arms of the tall, dark and handsome leading men. It digs into the lunacy of the genre's more outlandish meet cute set-ups, like Sandy Bullock's near psychopathic behaviour in the dubiously titled While You Were Sleeping, as she lies to a man in a coma's family and pretends to be his fiancee. Although the title and set-up could easily be affixed to a stalker horror film, her actions are presented as cute and kooky, as the rom-com genre's leading ladies so often are with the rise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The most egregious examples of the MPDG figure are called out, as well as the 'lens of indieness' used to excuse those films' behaviour, like 500 Days of Summer's objectification of Zooey Deschanel's title character, and the rather unnecessary addition in the film's title sequence of calling another woman "bitch".

Sankey's narration openly admits that despite her admiration for the genre, it's not one that is as easily accessible to anyone that is non-white or non-straight, and so defers to her contributors to share their experiences of watching these films whilst also not seeing any approximation of their own lives reflected back at them. It's possibly the genre's greatest flaw, and while this film does cover it to an extent, it's probably fair to say that a thorough dissection of this issue is perhaps not Sankey's aim, and would have derailed what is essentially a celebration of the genre. As well as exploring the impact these flaws have on its captive audience, Romantic Comedy is also just a great opportunity to relive some classic moments the genre has given us, like Cameron Diaz and friends breaking into a rendition of the comically graphic 'The Penis Song' in The Sweetest Thing. Seriously, I wouldn't necessarily recommend watching The Sweetest Thing and its frank sexuality isn't something typical of the genre, but if you need a taster before watching this film, that scene is on Youtube for your eyes and ears to enjoy.

The soundtrack, written by Sankey's husband and Summer Camp bandmate Jeremy Warmsley, serves to pick up those sweeping romantic moments, like the song Women in Love and its backdrop of passionate cinematic embraces. It's here that the films bear the closest of its resemblances to Beyond Clueless, the soundtrack of which was also provided by Summer Camp. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Beyond Clueless was one of my favourite films of the year it was released and the accompanying Summer Camp soundtrack is one I have listened to countless times, independent of the film; but despite the different targets and voices behind the films, Romantic Comedy doesn't hit quite as hard, if only by virtue of it being less unique an experience.

At a brisk 78 minutes, it still finds plenty of chances to bask in the reflective glow of the unattainable ideals the rom-com genre offers its audience. Montage heavy, moving from scene to scene, film to film at breakneck speed in order to illustrate the repeating motifs and archetypes at work across the genre; a rare exception to this is in the discussion of the rightly revered Nora Ephron and her script for When Harry Met Sally. As Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and genre queen Meg Ryan) exchange barbed relationship advice to each other on the steps of a New York brownstone, the scene is allowed to play out to its redemptive conclusion. When done right, it's hard not to be swept up in the power these films have.

Romantic Comedy does throw a net that (arguably) lands outside of the genre boundaries of the title, bringing in God's Own Country and Silver Linings Playbook to sit alongside Mystic Pizza and Sleepless and Seattle, but it's at its best when celebrating the purest examples of the genre. To borrow a couple of film titles, Romantic Comedy is a fun collection of some simply irresistible moments in cinema that might make you fall in love, actually, with the genre all over again. Definitely one to consider renting for your next sleepover.


Romantic Comedy is now available in the UK on Mubi.

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