" `Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl'... organises, indeed
constitutes, the classical American cinema as a whole."
-Raymond Bellour (Bellour, 1974, 16)
"You don't want to be in love - you want to be in love in a movie."
-Becky, Sleepless in Seattle
"Reality and love are almost contradictory to me."
-Céline, Before Sunset
This essay is primarily concerned with the concept of the Hollywood romance happy ending. On a broader scale, it is also concerned with addressing the relationship of these endings to something which (I think it is fair to say) most believe Hollywood seldom attempts to do: depict romantic love `realistically'. Ask most if they consider, for example, Hollywood's current romantic comedies to be `realistic' representations of love and even those who enjoy the genre will be forced to answer - perhaps regretfully - in the negative. We all know that the typical `Dream Factory' image of love is, at least in this genre, idealistic wish-fulfilment. It is what has become popularly known as `movie love'.
What is it that makes the love in romantic comedies `movie love' and not `real love'? Essentially, all that separates the romantic comedy's depiction of romantic relationships from that of other genres is its guaranteed happy ending. As with the relationship between comedy and tragedy in general, the central plots of romantic melodrama and romantic comedy in fact often have very few dissimilarities other than tone (for example, the tropes of the undesirable existing / intended partner and the unfortunate miscommunication are absolute staples of both genres); their endings, however, remain polar opposites. I would argue that it is, in fact, only the happy ending (and the certainty one has, when watching the films, that it is coming) which has earned - or, at least, deserves to have earned - the romantic comedy its status as `unrealistic'. But what exactly is it that is `unrealistic' about it?
No one can deny that in the real world people do, every day, exactly what the characters in each and every romantic comedy do - that is: meet, court, and fall (however briefly or lastingly) in love. The problem arises when a film depicting this has to navigate the obvious requirement which all narrative art faces: it must choose a point at which to end. The decision traditionally inbuilt into the romantic comedy is to end at the moment of the central couple's union (or sometimes reunion), often with the obligatory embrace and kiss as the final moment of closure. Ending in this manner sends the audience out of the cinema with an image of unproblematic happiness that one assumes will (since we are shown nothing to disprove the theory) last forever. As Rick Altman says: marriage, or the promise of marriage (for which we may read any depiction of the united final couple) is, at least in the Hollywood musical (Altman's point of departure and a genre whose narratives share a great deal in common with those of...