Film Carew

9 May 2012 | 5:42 pm | Anthony Carew

Film Carew vs The Five-Year Engagement and Delicacy. "Love may be touted as the universal human experience (I’d personally go with ‘shitting’, but that’s another story)..."

Few genres —be they horror-movie or old-school hip-hop— are as stylistically straitjacketed as the romantic comedy. These tedious entertainments play as succession of perfunctory sequences strung together at stopwatched intervals; even moments of comic freestyle have the feeling of being accounted for, like in some meticulously-scheduled wedding itinerary, where the bridezilla sets aside five minutes for 'free conversation'. To evoke a wedding, as metaphor, is obviously no coincidence; by now I've seen roughly 1000x more ceremonies on screen than I ever have in real life. This suggests the obvious commercial appeal of screen romances, be they of the comic or tragic variety: they give viewers something lacking in their own life, in the lives of those around them, and in the world in general. Love may be touted as the universal human experience (I'd personally go with 'shitting', but that's another story), but in an era in which watching-internet-porn is probably just as universal, the production-line persistence of rom-coms fills an ever-yawning emotional/cultural void. History's greatest love stories are, of course, almost entirely all works of myth, fiction, or motion-picture. To evoke the immortal David Foster Wallace: the romance of your childhood was not true amour, it was theatre. Quite likely your parents fucking hated each other, but on screen, men declared their love in the grandest public way and women chased after trains to stop the One getting away from being the One that got away. And, in turn, you have romantic expectations that cannot be catered to by reality, yet can be endlessly facsimiled at the movies.

Thus, two notable romantic-comedies have just been turned out into the world —right in time for Mother's Day— and each hopes to provide a twist on painfully familiar form; each aware of the stereotypes and tropes of romcomia, and how they can poke at, play with, subvert, or cut against those. The fact that each —Nicholas Stoller's blessedly hyphenated The Five-Year Engagement and David and Stéphane Foenkinos' Delicacy— is hyper-aware of the film formula is no surprise, nor insider angle on genre, it's just the culmination of life-experience in a media-saturated time: all the great love-stories they've ever seen have been on screen, and they're hoping to enter those ranks.

The Five-Year Engagement reunites Stoller with long-time stand-in Jason Segel —who seems to be on the Vince Vaughn diet— for a straggling, bawdy-comic tale of a relationship going from thriving, to surviving, to sliding, to dying; all in the half decade between the proposal at the beginning and the marriage at the end. Going light on the grand romantic gestures and nixing the usual dramatic skeletons, this tale of a not-particularly-romantic courtship is supposedly a more 'real' look at relationships, with the spectre of Stoller's mentor, Judd Apatow, cast across those moments where the characters act like human-beings, the paramours call bullshit on regular rom-com procedures, and, of course, when the film unnecessarily dawdles out past two hours. Yet, any notes of subversion are effectively buried beneath the blaring tenor of constant zany comic bits and the hard attack of a heavy dramatic hand. The instances where the film nails it —like introducing a Caetano Veloso-inspired, wedding-performed take on Cucurrucucú Paloma as gag, only for the song's profound beauty to take hold— or comes close —like a scene where Emily Blunt and Trudy Campbell (um, Alison Brie) hash their familial angst out in impersonations of the Cookie Monster and Elmo; the broken-English and second/third-person manglings making the dialogue actually more profound than would usually be authored for moments of rom-com crisis— are supposed to be enough to charm audiences, with a parade of familiar TV-comedy faces (Brie, Chris Pratt, Mindy Kaling, Brian Posehn) an added distraction. Yet, by its end, the picture seems less like great, realist romance, more like yet another empty cinema product; the Apatovian drama now as clichéd as the Ephronian one; the absence of generally interesting text and the dramatic fait accompli of the narrative not just the trappings of the genre, but the undoing of the film.


Delicacy teases audiences —and storytelling modes— a shade more. Like The Five-Year Engagement, it drops immediately into the most romantic peaks; climax as overture, minor-key down notes soon to follow. Audrey Tatou and way-hot French beefcake Pio Marmaï meet-cute, fall in love, get hitched, holiday the world, and settle into a blissful happily-ever-after in the space of 15 minutes, only with some flamboyant camera gymnastics from the Foenkinoses (Foenkinii?) suggesting this perfect world's about to be turned upside-down. And, thus, Marmaï gets hit by a car (hey, it's in the trailer), and the narrative —which begins through his eyes— is handballed over to Tatou; who, to that point, has been utterly two-dimensional, as much romantic projection as actual person. Previously a willowy, ditzy, cutesy cut-out from rom-com stereotype, she becomes a borderline sullen prick; adopting an empty defensiveness as defence mechanism; she a wounded animal in an vintagey array of alt-baguette thrift-shop threads. Our sudden-heroine has some office job in a dusty, wooden, '70s-relic building, and maybe it has something to do with the law; but David Foenkinos, as writer, cares little about what it is, just that it's there, that it's something she can be consumed by; her own place to control in a chaotic, terrifying world. From there, Amélie rebuffs the advances of a creepy boss —the film's worst moments— then falls into an odd courtship with another co-worker; a balding, dentally-challenged, beige-clad Swede who is the sartorial opposite of Marmaï's five-o'clock-shadowed ghost. Once you strip away Tatou's mugging and the obligatory comic misunderstandings, Delicacy's text, deep down, suggests that glorious, giddy romance is the stuff of storybook and pipe-dream, and that those first-loves eternally lionised by the heartbroken are untenable, unsustainable, and unpalatable; a romantic/nostalgic poison that slowly toxifies lives. The script's most deft piece of penmanship suggests that it is society itself —more than the romantic individual— that places these high-standards upon second-time-around relationships; their cultural measuring-sticks for acceptable romances/mates tools of oppression that friends and family can wield like weapons. In the end —and by Delicacy's end— there's little that's really romantic about the blossoming relationship that has grown up from the rocky terrain of past hardships. When the narrative is again handballed to the workplace suitor (François Damiens), it makes this shift; now armed with the implicit understanding that surrendering one's own (masculine) ego is a true gesture of devotion to another; now knowing that trying to trump past, great romances —be they in memory or on-screen— is an arrogant conceit.

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