Realizing the Problem(s)
Several months ago, I was watching Edge Of Seventeen (2016); a critically-acclaimed film that, prior to viewing, I was very excited for. As I was sitting through my first (and only) session with this movie, I was incredibly disappointed. This experience is something that, historically, I haven’t been used to with romance movies. Then, as I reflected upon this, I realized it wasn’t because the acting was poor; in fact, some of the performances were pretty impressive; but because a large portion of the events that occurred in the second half of the film were easy to predict. And this went double for the romantic subplots. So, rather than being either pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised with how everything developed, I guessed it probably at least 15-20 minutes ahead of time; ruining my overall enjoyment of it.
This got me thinking: when was the last time I thoroughly enjoyed a new romance film, or the romantic subplots within a film of another genre? I found myself desperate to find an answer. But instead, only god-awful examples continued to pop into my head. Some of these include; Rose and Finn, honestly any sort of romantic hints or tensions in Marvel films, movies based on John Green books (at least Paper Towns (2015)), and many others. Now, eventually I came to my senses, and realizes a few movies like the Shape of Water (2017) existed, but the point stuck; the large majority of romances represented in film are no longer enjoyable to me.
But why? Why is it so hard for me; someone who self-identifies as more-or-less, a hopeless romantic (which is a whole other ordeal); to find enjoyment, or even just surprise, within a genre that is so widely used? Some of the films I’m referencing are of a very high quality. Everyone I know hated Rose as a character, but the Last Jedi (despite what the general fan-base would like to say) is a very good movie, in and of itself. They just couldn’t figure that subplot out. Same things could be said about Marvel movies. Any interaction Black Widow has with Bruce, or any other love-interest, makes me want to fall asleep; but they’re still good movies.
Like many things in film, romance in the 21st century has become a sea of tropes. This is the unfortunate reality of an aging industry. The same stories have constantly been told, told again, and then eventually told again. But while this is very true, and it makes it harder to make things fresh, I don’t think that’s an excuse for going by the book over and over again.
First, it is very possible to take a unique approach to a romantic relationship. The three best examples of this, that I can think of, are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Her (2013), and The Shape of Water (2017). Granted, these three films are not JUST romance films, but that’s what helps them provide new and interesting spins. The addition of the science fiction, slight-dystopian themes puts less of the focus on just the individuals, and more of the focus on the big picture; whether that’s a metaphor about society, or whatever else they throw in there. This is, I think, the easiest way to make a quality, and intriguing romance story; surround it in a shell of something else. Now, that something else should probably be pretty good: putting trash around a romance won’t solve the problem. But if you can successfully mold the two, it’ll come out as much better.
The second way to avoid tropes and create something unique, is to tell a story that has never (or has rarely) been told. This covers a majority of the other good romance films that have come out recently. Juno (2007) took a good look at the issues involved with teenage pregnancy; Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018) both deal with the issues often faced by same-sex couples. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is a young, foolish, and childhood romance at a camp; a cute little tale. I want to draw attention to that fact that these aren’t only good because they focus on different stories than the norm. It’s not like they’re abusing a gimmick by doing this. These are all example of new tales told well, with good direction, story-telling, acting, and more.
I would say a very large majority of the 21st century romance films I identified as good fall into one of these two categories, but there are a couple of others that don’t. These two are The Spectacular Now (2013), and Adventureland (2010). But this anomaly is due; in my opinion; to fantastic storytelling, and individual character development; rather than the romance, and how itself was framed. In fact, The Spectacular Now was frustratingly mediocre to me, for the majority of the time I watched it. I later began to appreciate it, because the main character, Sutter, goes through a lot of development, and his story was very touching at the end. Adventureland is similar. I don’t get too invested in the relationship between the main male and female character, but their separate stories are good, and make the film without the romantic aspect.
Oh Boy, the Subplots
Now that we’ve explored many ways to potentially make good romance films, I think it’s important to talk about how to make not-horrible romantic relationships and stories; as they’re more numerous than pure romance films.
To start, I think much of the reason for bad subplots is the reason they’re put there in the first place; to sell tickets. It’s not secret that filmmakers often force romance into otherwise-unromantic films, to help garner a larger female audience. Putting one or two dramatic or sensual sequences in a movie trailer is one of the easiest way to soften up women to go with their boyfriends, friends, husbands, wives, etc. Or at the very least, that’s how the market sees it. So most of these materialize simply as a moneymaking tool, and not a storytelling one.
Because we’re not going to magically combat capitalism and its effect on Hollywood, we can’t necessarily solve this, but we can do our best to minimize this. And the best way (as obvious as it seems) is to make it directly or indirectly effect either the direction of the story, or the development of the characters. One of the main reasons I, and I believe many others, hated the Rose and Finn storyline, is because it was entirely useless. Take away the entire sequence of them and the casino, and nothing changes about the film. (spoilers) Arguably, Finn would die at the end, because Rose doesn’t have the drive to save him; but that decision-making process was mainly based upon her sister dying, so it probably would’ve ended that way void of their developing relationship. So rather than make the scenes and sequences seem significant, they did nothing but pigeon-hole characters into being one entity, and easily-forgotten.
A good example of a small, romantic or relationship-focused subplot, that effects the story is easily found in The Social Network (2010). While it takes up a very small portion of the focus of the movie; Mark’s broken relationship towards the beginning drives the entire movie; directly causing several events to happen. That’s a very minimal, yet incredibly important piece of the puzzle, based around a romantic relationship.
Dying? Dead? Alive? Or Revived?
In the end, I don’t think romance in film is a dead genre. It has recently become a stale one, but Hollywood has been called out for that all over the board; with nothing but reboots, remakes, and superhero films. The increasing acceptance of formerly-non-traditional relationship habits are one of many reasons to be hopeful for future romance films. As mentioned earlier; same-sex relationships are beginning to become more and more explored in cinema, and I think there is a lot more ground to cover. There’s also infinite ways to create movies based around romances, but surrounded by other stories. And the biggest hope I have for the genre moving forward, is the rising popularity of indie-films. They are often more likely to have unique perspectives and tell unique stories; putting a more fresh spin on this increasingly-boring realm of movies. So despite my cynicism, and negativity towards almost any new romance film, I’m going to stay open to them. I may not enjoy a large majority, but I’ve been surprised in the past, and hope to be in the future.