In troubled emotional times, I tend to retreat to the uncomplicated, the easy, the predictable. Last weekend, I watched a romantic comedy, but not the latest cookie-cutter Hollywood rom-com. This film was from France.
Rom-coms are one of the most predictable story-types in an art form that excels in predictability. Boy meets Girl. Boy likes Girl. Boy does something dramatically stupid and can’t hope to get Girl. Boy does something dramatically different and outside his comfort zone and gets Girl. Big Red Bow. The only real mystery about rom-coms these days is, will it work?
To be fair, when you’re constricted by the tropes of such an established sub-genre, it is really hard to make it work. The actors can be good but the writing can suck; the writing can be brilliant but the film is hopelessly miscast. Everything works except for the pacing, which drags on (or speeds through) crucial turning points in this oh-so-formulaic form.
But a rom-com from the Nation of Romance? I’ve screened French comedies in the past and found them to be either mindless slapstick or subtler works that are only “comedies” in the way that some of Shakespeare’s plays are “Comedies”: a few laughs, and not everyone is dead at the final curtain.
Thus, I set down to watch this movie (English title, “I Do”) with genuine interest. How would Paris, the City of Love, the City of Light, the land of the New Wave, work within the straitjacket of this genre?
Well, first off, they began with a distinctly European setup. Luis Costa is a 43-year old single man, a bachelor who has been coddled and babied through life by his widowed mother and his five sisters. He’s happy. The women of his family do his laundry, cook for him, and clothe him, leaving him free to stroll through life without a care. Until one night, at the family dinner, when the women all decide that it is time Luis grew up and got himself a wife.
This setup simply would not work in an American film. We wouldn’t believe that a successful man, a “nose” for a parfumier, would put up with such dependence and infantilization, just so he didn’t have to iron his own shirts. Nor would we go along with the idea of five women (the sisters), all successful and fulfilled in their own lives and careers, would do so much for their 43-year old brother who was so successful in every other area of his life. But in Europe, this is a common trope. Many men are coddled by their female relatives, and many men do continue to live with their parents sometimes well into their 40s.
And so, with this unusual setup, the film moves ahead. Luis is, understandably, not in favor of this radical change in his lifestyle. He sabotages his mother and sisters at every move, deftly countering their efforts. But it begins to wear on him. He must come up with a more permanent solution. And thus he hits upon his great idea, one that is sure to give him an excuse to stay a bachelor for the rest of his days, and win him the sympathy of his family in the bargain.
It’s not a very original gimmick, but it’s a good one. What sets this movie apart from other rom-coms, though, is how the ending plays out. As I watched, I noted four places where an American film would have likely ended, but this French film pushed onward, leaving these early, more facile endings alone, throwing in more complications, and eventually giving us an ending that is more human and more realistic (if that word can be applied to rom-coms).
In short, in this film, we not only get our Big Red Bow, but the characters also grow and change, become better people. In the end, Luis demands from his family exactly what they were trying to force upon him; but he demands it on his terms, not theirs.
I liked this movie a great deal, and will take a longer look at French comedies from now on.
“I Do” is available for streaming on Netflix.