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When Harry Met Sally

Why we still love the romantic comedy, a problematic genre

Elizabeth Sankey’s debut documentary Romantic Comedy goes deep on gender roles, diversity, and nostalgia in all your fave movies

The romantic comedy genre has provided a backdrop to endless childhood sleepovers, wrenching break-ups, and days spent hungover in bed. We devour the nostalgia and the comfort offered up to us on a neatly formulaic platter, but look too closely, and oppressive conventions quickly become apparent.

Elizabeth Sankey’s debut documentary film, Romantic Comedy, captures the complicated nature of our relationship to the genre, particularly as one that informs our understanding of what love should be like. Conservatism and misogyny lurk beneath the story, the male leads are aggressive and manipulative, the smattering of gay characters an amorphous blob of ‘sassy’. But it is undeniable that, for many of us, these films possess an unshakeable charm.

Over clips from classics such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and When Harry Met Sally, Sankey’s narration questions how romantic comedies came to be so lacking in diversity and reliant on gender roles, examining her own deep love of the genre in the process. The project is very clearly situated near its creator’s heart: Sankey enlists a number of her peers to contribute their analysis, a roster of contemporary critics and creatives including Simran Hans and Charlie Lyne. She sings the songs from the alt-pop score that punctuates the documentary together with her bandmate, and husband, Jeremy Warmsley, as Summer Camp.

Ahead of Romantic Comedy’s screening at the BFI, Sankey speaks to Dazed about her feelings on the burgeoning rom-com renaissance, and the personal and cinematic influences woven through her lovingly-crafted essay film.

You frequently touch on how these films have impacted your personal life. If you’re comfortable with saying, what was the most harmful message you took away and internalised from a romantic comedy?

Elizabeth Sankey: I definitely developed this attitude of, “I just need to be really easy going and really laid back.” I was ultimately living the ‘cool girl’ trope. You want to be the girl that they like: “Wow, she’s so great, she’s so cool, she’s so chilled out! She never gets angry.”

I remember particularly with one boyfriend trying to inhabit that and losing my mind because I was so angry. I was furious about things he’d done, but I didn’t have the confidence, emotional intelligence, or the language to say: “I really don’t think this is appropriate, I really don’t like how you’re behaving, and I’m not happy.” It took me a long, long time I think to let go of all that stuff, and to actually be myself with the person I was with.

It’s not just romantic comedies that perpetuate these ideas and stereotypes, it’s all of culture. I think that the problem with romantic comedies is that they are focused solely on personal human relationships and connections, especially in dealing with romantic situations. But I don’t feel like they’re necessarily harmful any more than any other culture is harmful.

How do you think your background as a musician has affected your approach to filmmaking?

Elizabeth Sankey: I don’t really think of myself as a musician because I don’t play any instruments other than the clarinet to Grade 3 level. I feel like I’ve always been more of a writer. That’s what I’ve always felt very comfortable and confident about, so writing lyrics (for the score) was great, obviously. But I don’t think it’s actually that closely linked, other than in terms of writing.

“I think that the problem with romantic comedies is that they are focused solely on personal human relationships and connections, especially in dealing with romantic situations. But I don’t feel like they’re necessarily harmful any more than any other culture is harmful” – Elizabeth Sankey

In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned Charlie Lyne as being one of Romantic Comedy’s main inspirations. What specifically draws you to his work?

Elizabeth Sankey: Charlie’s work is, I feel, very intelligent, and has this way of making high-brow topics really accessible; he looks at them in a way that’s very engaging. He has this knack for finding unusual stories, and finding ways to tell them.

I have to stop being nice about him in interviews though, because I’m best friends with his partner Eleanor McDowall, who’s also in my film, and it’s just becoming a running joke now.

Were there any other filmmakers that you feel have had an influence on your filmmaking?

Elizabeth Sankey: In terms of other filmmakers, I suppose I was thinking about romantic comedy filmmaking. Nora Ephron, I think, is the master of the genre. I think most people agree with that, but she’s not the only one that’s done brilliant work.

I suppose I wanted to recreate the feeling that those filmmakers evoked when they’re making their films, trying to make the documentary almost like a rom-com itself.

A lot of critics are talking about a kind of rom-com renaissance, especially in terms of what Netflix has been putting out over the past year. How do you feel about this ‘new wave’ of romantic comedy films?

Elizabeth Sankey: I am obviously a big fan of there being more romantic comedies, and for the genre to be taken more seriously, but I don’t like romantic comedies where they play with the formula. I think the structural formula of the romantic comedy works – it doesn’t need to be meta, it doesn't need to be self-referential.

If you’ve got characters going into these situations being like, ‘Oh, this is a bit like Notting Hill,’ it's like Schrödinger’s cat. You’re aware of your own behaviour and you’re not able to just give in to that experience.

What would you like to see more of in these films in the future?

Elizabeth Sankey: I’d rather see more queer stories, or people of colour in lead roles. That’s just something that I haven’t seen enough of, and I feel like romantic comedy needs fresh characters. It doesn’t need fresh, fun premises that involve being hit on the head in, like, a spinning class.

Why do you think progress has been so slow in terms of more diverse stories?

Elizabeth Sankey: I am very new to the film world, and I haven’t had any experience working with a studio. But people that I know, who have had experience in the industry, have said that it’s fear. It’s the fear of losing money on an investment.

I think studios are still operating on the pretense that it’s too scary to use characters or actors that we haven’t seen before in these roles. So they stick with what they know. But it's kind of simple: if you go and see a film that is showing you characters and worlds you haven’t seen before, it's really exciting. It’s really delicious.

Romantic Comedy screens at the BFI with a livescore from Summer Camp and a director Q+A on July 13