MUBI UK film review: Romantic Comedy
Josh Slater-Williams | On 08, May 2020
Elizabeth Sankey is an English multi-hyphenate whose work encompasses music, writing and acting. She’s likely best known as one half of the indie pop duo Summer Camp, who’ve released several albums to date, one of which was the soundtrack to Charlie Shackleton’s essay documentary on teen films, Beyond Clueless. In the realm of critical commentary, she has written for The Guardian, NME, Vice and other publications on all kinds of pop culture, with many of her pieces concerning deconstructions of media from her formative years.
Her feature debut as a director, Romantic Comedy, is a melting pot of all these creative interests: an essay film heavy on autobiographical relationships to the art and texts being discussed, for which Sankey, through Summer Camp, also provides songs – although Jeremy Warmsley also contributes a score.
In interviews from around the time of her film’s festival premiere, Sankey pointed to her involvement in Beyond Clueless as inspiring this project; to do something similar for the romantic comedy genre. Structurally, they are quite similar films, but the major difference is that while Beyond Clueless enlisted Fairuza Balk as narrator for Shackleton’s guiding theses, Romantic Comedy is a more collaborative effort, even if Sankey’s voice is ultimately the dominating force.
Against creative supercuts and visual juxtapositions, Sankey and the disembodied voices of additional contributors – ranging from actors, other filmmakers and writers from film and music criticism – comment on the characteristics, rules, and messages of romantic comedies both well-known and semi-obscure. The focus is largely on those of the last 30-ish years that were made by studios with an eye towards the mainstream. While affection for the genre is evident throughout, it’s not all loving analysis. A lot of ground is covered in under 80 minutes, and Sankey makes sure to dive into the more troubling elements of romantic comedies beyond just certain plots being troubling – on that note, While You Were Sleeping gets quite a kicking.
There’s interrogation of mainstream under-representation of romantic relationships beyond those concerning straight, white, largely affluent middle-class couples. Aim is taken at the insularity of perspectives when it comes to the people behind the camera and putting up the cash in a producer capacity. And where the documentary does explore the rom-com in the context of earlier eras of American and British studio filmmaking, there are compelling points about historical developments outside of the movie industry affecting that on-screen representation.
The film perhaps falters somewhat towards its conclusion in its discussion of how tropes of the rom-com have filtered their way into other genres. A case can certainly be made for buddy movies such as I Love You, Man and The Heat carrying the torch for the traditional rom-com’s plotting beats, but an attempt to fit Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country into the thesis ultimately seems misguided. Nonetheless, Sankey’s film is an exuberant watch.
Romantic Comedy is available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 7th June 2020.