Herewith, my penultimate entry in the Mad Love series on the supernatural romantic melodrama. From here, the next step is to start putting together a book proposal. First, though, in the course of this series I’ve written a genealogy of the supernatural romance on film and TV, and a consideration of the supernatural romance as a form of popular Surrealism. This leaves one last set of issues: the supernatural romance in terms of genre. In this entry, then, I will start by talking about the supernatural romance as romance fiction; in the final installment, I will examine them as melodramas.
For the most part, it seems to me, film scholars take romance narratives a bit for granted. They are omnipresent in Western media; most films, at least, have at least a romance subplot. The basic idea of the romance story doesn’t seem, on the face of it, to need much in the way of elaboration. Nonetheless, it’s worth thinking about them in the light of genre analysis to gain a more precise sense of where the supernatural romance fits into larger characteristics of or trends within romantic fiction.
The academic literature on romance fiction is thin, and most of that is focused on representation or debates around cultural status. Comparatively little discusses the conventions or aesthetics of the form in a scholarly light (if I were pursuing this further than I am, I’d start looking at how-to manuals). Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel is some help, in particular because in trying to counter the disreputability of romance fiction, she isolates a set of conventions that allows her to come up with a broad definition of the form that includes canonical literary works. At the most general level, she quotes Robert Ellrich, defining romance as “the story of individual human beings pursuing their precarious existence within the circumscription of social, moral, and various other this-worldly concerns”; but romance fiction, in the modern sense, she defines simply as any courtship narrative. Frequently, the more specifics she gets into, the less those rules apply to the supernatural romance. Comedy, for her, centers on courting males, where romance centers on heroines; yet if anything, most supernatural romances focus on male characters. Of course too, romance fiction might be set in an idealized world, but rarely does the supernatural intrude there. That said, many of her Eight Essentials of the quintessential romance narrative do apply. First, the romance story defines the terms of the social milieu that the lovers will need to resist for their love to be a reality. Then: The Meeting, quickly followed by The Barrier, ie., the introduction of those reasons, be they internal or external, why the couple cannot marry. In the next phase, The Attraction builds, culminating in The Declaration of Love. The “Point of Ritual Death” marks the moment when the union itself seems to be impossible, but it is followed by The Recognition, at which stage information is revealed that will enable a successful union; all that is left is The Betrothal itself. Though the Betrothal is frequently implied by the endings of supernatural romances- those that do end happily- the other stages tend to have some equivalent in the narratives I’m looking at. The crux of the question for the couples in these films is whether indeed there is a Recognition phase. Often here the supernatural aspects kick in, offering some possibility of union via the unearthly; in such cases, the union will not be an earthly coupling, but one in an alternate realm of some description, as in the case of the inexplicable communion of Peter and Mary in Peter Ibbetson. These unions can be both ephemeral and everlasting, then, somewhat complicating the terms of classical romance fiction (in which this is a structural opposition).
If the omnipresence of the romance (sub-)plot in classical narrative cinema has perhaps left scholars taking the mechanics of such plots for granted, at least in film studies the melodrama and “woman’s film” are granted enough respect that writing on them is no longer tied up with arguments for taking them seriously in the first place. If on that level film studies holds more promise for me than studies of romance fiction, the single text which has been most helpful as a starting point here is actually a dissertation by a student from my department which has since been published, Passionate Love and Popular Cinema: Romance and Film Genre by Erica Todd. Todd’s project is explicitly an attempt to redress the lack of attention paid to the specifics of romance films in generic terms, but is also helpful for its consideration of changes in romance films in relation to changing cultural norms around the idea of romance itself (drawing particularly on David Shumway’s Modern Intimacy, of which more later). Those historical shifts can be partly understood in light of a fundamental genre characteristic: love stories are relatively weak in semantic elements (they can take place in any setting, any period, with any character types, etc.), and much stronger in terms of syntactic elements (consider the familiar cliché description: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc.).
Drawing here from Shumway, Todd first distinguishes romantic drama from romantic comedy by distinguishing between the “passionate love” she argues is a property of the drama from the “companionate love” characterizing the latter. If companionate love is about finding a life-long partner, if it is about mutual respect, affection, and compatibility (think of the importance of play in the screwball comedy, the importance of dancing together in Astaire and Rogers) leading to wedding bells at the end of the film, then passionate love is marked not by a realistic assessment of partnership, and instead by urgency and forbidden passion. This is love that leads nowhere, that is an extraordinary but short-lived union that burns bright while it lasts but cannot end happily. For one reason or another, marriage tends not to exist as a feasible goal in these films, and the unhappy ending is thus critical to Todd’s definition of the romantic drama. That said, there remains even in these cases some invocation of fate and eternity- that the love at work here is eternal in some sense, that the couple might be together if not in this life then in the next. For Todd, this becomes more explicit in the supernatural variant, which she acknowledges in a look at The Time Traveler’s Wife in particular, in which the afterlife holds out the only hope of togetherness.
Todd writes that the romantic drama has been relatively stable over time due to the idealized passion it depicts, whereas the romantic comedy has been more flexible and adaptable to changing social norms. She finds change in the drama largely in the representation of gender and sexuality, but tends, reasonably enough, to stress continuity (in this sense Titanic is especially useful to her).
This seems true in large part, but it also seems to me that, Titanic notwithstanding, the romantic drama has veered much more toward a goal of passionate love that is also companionate love, and that the contemporary romantic drama is often more invested in uniting the couple at the end than its classical equivalent. Certainly, this seems true of the supernatural romance.
Consider Peter Ibbetson, in which a doomed union is only ameliorated by the couple’s togetherness in an explicitly supernatural realm; Death Takes a Holiday, in which the heroine must accompany Death into such a realm in order to be with him. Consider One Way Passage, a Tay Garnett film in which convicted murderer William Powell and fatally-diseased Kay Francis fall in love on an ocean voyage back to the States, where Powell will be executed and Francis has little time left to live. This is a classic romantic drama along the lines of Todd’s definition; the only supernatural component is precisely the suggestion of a union in the afterlife in the final shot of the film (in which two glasses smash on their own in a bar, this being a motif in Powell and Francis’ earlier interactions).
Consider too Berkeley Square (Frank Lloyd, 1933). In it, Peter Standish (Leslie Howard) travels back in time and takes the place of one of his ancestors who at that moment in the past is arriving in London to marry one of a pair of sisters (he is descended from the fruit of their union); only, he falls in love with the wrong sister. Finally, he must return to the present. That he and his love can only be together in “the next life” is proposed by her, and confirmed by his rejection of his present-day fiancée. For them, there shall be no love on Earth, only in some promised afterlife.
Doomed love guides Portrait of Jennie and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman as well. But the narrative crux of A Matter of Life and Death, and most particularly the contemporary supernatural romance, from Somewhere in Time and Made in Heaven through to The Lake House and The Adjustment Bureau, is finding a way for the couple to overcome ontological barriers, rather than succumb to them and be united in an alternate realm. Indeed, if I were to make an argument about the trajectory of the romantic drama based on that of the supernatural romance, I’d be inclined not just to look at changing gender norms (increasing agency for heroines, etc), but also at an ever-growing emphasis on companionate union as the culmination of passionate love, here enabled by the paranormal. I haven’t studied this across the romance genre with anything like the thoroughness of Todd, but if nothing else, shifts in the supernatural romance on this score complicate this differentiation between forms of romance in comedy vs. drama.
Modern Love is an important enough source for Todd that it seemed worth a closer look. Shumway’s project here is to map the history of romance and intimacy as cultural discourses, focusing particularly on their modern intertwining, and manifest in cinematic and literary fictions. This is a study of the rise of “passionate love” and its centrality to notions of romance in relation to marriage. Initially, passionate love is seen to be mainly adulterous in character, opposed to the kind of love that marriage is meant to be based on; by the 19th century, in social life, marriage is seen as the culmination of romance, but older notions of the obstacles to love (eg., its illicitness) persist in fiction.
Like Regis, Shumway proceeds from a brief consideration of classical literary definitions, here drawing on Northrop Frye on the plot of comedy centering on a man pursuing a woman and encountering opposition until some plot twist enables their union. These obstacles are typically presented by other characters, either the father of the bride or another suitor. By the 19th century, then, the structure of character relationships is a triad: for the suitor to win his love, another character must be excluded. Even as spousal choice had come to be seen as the chief engine of marriage in the social world, romance stories “continue to pit the desire of the amorous couple against the opposition of some authority who represents the demands of family or state over those of the individual. In this sense, then, there is a split between a contemporary notion of individualism (in the couple’s choices), and a notion of narrative obstacles in place, in some form, since antiquity. Todd is in part following his lead in arguing for an almost atavistic tendency in the romantic drama in the forms adherence to the necessity of certain kinds of social opposition to love, the “most romantic” love stories being also the least happy. For Shumway, that darker side of romance repressed in the fairy-tale (or comic) love story is expressed in the romantic drama. In that sense, the romantic drama still speaks to the lived experience of romance.
The triad structure Shumway proposes, like so much commentary on romance plots generally by all these scholars, doesn’t particularly fit the supernatural romance. There’s the Duke who stands between the lovers in Peter Ibbetson, and there’s the elder sister who is at least a theoretical obstacle for Peter in Berkeley Square, but there are few if any other romantic rivals in these films. Moreover, apart from the paterfamilias in Death Takes a Holiday (and Meet Joe Black), there are few if any earthly authority figures in play here. Rather, the obstacles are metaphysical in nature.
But here is what is most suggestive about this narrative economy in terms of my project: “Rather than seeing these novels as responding to actual social restrictions on love matches, they should be understood as rendering society’s very existence as an imposition on love.” Love is therefore seen in terms of freedom and self-realization, pitted against social structures, and strictures, in general. In older tales, more tragic versions of the love story, the external forces the couple struggles against have an impact on the waxing and waning of their desire. In more contemporary versions, those forces are constant and serve principally to heighten desire (in comic versions, this reliably leads to a “bliss of genitality” as the endpoint of desire); this is key to the sheer deliriousness of these films. In that the supernatural enablers of, and most pertinently here barriers to love in these films are systemic, then perhaps the supernatural romance is a slightly more direct, if still figurative, reflection of the opposition of society and love. If so, then theories of the melodrama are of crucial importance to understanding how these films work and what they mean.