Romantic films have been popular since the medium’s inception. In fact, one of the earliest examples of film, Thomas Edison’s The May Irwin Kiss (1896), is completely centered around a romantic couple. The short film, which features a brief kiss between a man and a woman, was subject to criticism as many found it inappropriate. Despite this, it was one of Edison’s most popular films. Given that “love and intimate partnerships are one of the primary mechanisms of socialization,” relationships (in all their various forms) have become infused with many different cultural norms. In many ways, the idea of achieving mutual love and engagement in a relationship is synonymous with success.
Since film acts as a reflection of reality, it is only natural that cinematic exploits would focus on these concepts as primary themes. Where it becomes interesting, though, is when films begin to influence reality in the same way. The connection between film and romance forms a two-way street. Film has begun to have its own influence on society, providing a “cultural script governing romantic behavior.” Over time, as instances of love continue to be portrayed, audiences temper their expectations and opinions regarding romance based off of what they see in film. While some viewers recognize this, it is often an unconscious effect.
Since we are usually not aware of this larger function, this is not what is drawing us to watch romance in film. The appeal often comes from the way that romantic films tend to exaggerate their portrayals of hopeful/happy love stories. Most romantic stories in film tend to adhere to the same basic outline and cliches. Among these tropes is the big romantic gesture, the conflict resolution, and the “happily ever after” moment. These create an idealized, utopian concept of romance. Watching these stories “depicted…as a real possibility” offers a sense of hope.
There are a few elements that filmmakers can take advantage of to provide this hope, and to make their love stories feel believable. One of the most significant, in my eyes, is pacing. Before I discuss this in depth, I would like to mention that one of the beautiful things about both film and romance is that they are subjective. While film may be having an effect on the way romance is perceived, everyone has different experiences and therefore everyone has a unique perspective on what can separate a good love story from a great one. I’d like to offer my insights on how exactly I think pacing can elevate a romantic film.
Pacing can be difficult given that any particular film is going to be restricted by its run time, which is usually also balancing other characters and plotlines. Most films resort to the tropes I mentioned earlier to try and capture the major points of a relationship. This can feel rushed and inauthentic as a result.
Let us look at Trainwreck (dir. Judd Apatow, 2015) as an example. The film was lauded by many critics who recognized its sharp humor and charming characters. While enjoyable, the pacing of the story does not allow a convincing love story to be told. The two main characters, Amy and Aaron, share only four scenes together in the time between their introduction to each other and their decision to become intimate. Due to limited screen time, not every scene can be dedicated towards their relationship. My argument is not about the frequency of scenes, but rather how each scene is utilized to provide development. After spending a night together, Aaron spends the rest of the movie pursuing Amy as “the one.” The problem with this is that we are told this rather than shown it. Aaron’s friends tell him to give it everything he has if he “really wants this one.” Later Aaron tells Amy they should date when he claims, “I like you; you like me.” We are being told that feelings are developing between the two, but we do not get to see the relationship progress organically. Later in the film, Amy and Aaron suffer an extensive break-up, but it is quickly resolved with a grand gesture performed by Amy. The movie concludes with their “happily ever after.” While the story outline fits in with the idealized versions of romance that have become recognizable in film, the pacing does not make their resolution feel natural. Ultimately, the implications of the ending do not feel earned.
To juxtapose that example, When Harry Met Sally (dir. Rob Reiner, 1989) illustrates how effective pacing can be when conveying a believable love story. This film utilizes the passage of time as a storytelling device, portraying a relationship between two people over a twelve-year period. During this time frame, the titular characters of Harry and Sally cross paths on three distinct occasions before finally forming a friendship almost ten years after they meet. This friendship blossoms into a romance. Their love story, in contrast with others like it, feels more real because instead of focusing on their relationship, a majority of scenes are used to develop Harry and Sally as their own respective, individual characters. During the scenes they share together, the audience learns through their dialogue who each character is and why they are so compatible. At the climax of the film, Harry performs his own grand gesture by listing all the things he loves about Sally. This scene works for us as an audience because we believe him; throughout the film we watched him become familiar with each quality he lists. There is satisfaction at the end when it is revealed Harry wed Sally following the events of the film. This feels like a natural conclusion to their story.
We want to believe in the love stories that we see in film, even if we know they are not always paragons of realism. To me, it all comes down to timing, which is important in any romance, fictional or not.
Dowd, James J., and Nicole R. Pallotta. “The End of Romance: The Demystification of Love in the Postmodern Age.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 43, no. 4, 2000, pp. 549–580. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1389548. Accessed 13 Feb. 2021.