13 June 2012
I don’t like most romantic comedies. The fake meet-cute scenarios, the unbelievably great wardrobes/ apartments, improbable plot twists, grandiose romantic conclusions: all this bald-faced emotional manipulation leaves me feeling depressed.
So why does the Argentinian film Sidewalls (Medianeras) work for me? Because it flies so much in the face of the typical rom-com that I found it somehow real — and that’s how I found myself rooting for these two to fall in love.
Thus, I decided to create a handy enumerated list of the usual qualities of rom-coms, contrasted with why this film gets it right.
1. Rom-coms love to hype the glamour of a specific city. In a typical rom-com the characters spend all their time showing you how beautiful their city is. You know of what I speak: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, (500) Days of Summer, Midnight in Paris. Look, I love those cities too — but it doesn’t take a genius to see that those filmmakers are using our romantic feelings about urban life in places like NY/ Seattle/ LA/ Paris as a shortcut to make us fall in love with the characters.
In contrast, Sidewalls portrays another experience of city life: feeling oppressed by the city. As the film opens, we see shots of a gloomy, almost grey-scale Buenos Aires, with Martín’s (Javier Drolas’) voice reflecting sardonically on what he sees there:
Buenos Aires is growing uncontrollably and imperfectly. An overpopulated city in a deserted country. A city in which thousands of buildings rise into the sky.
Next to a tall one, a small one. Next to a rational one, an irrational one. Next to a French one, one with no style at all.
These irregularities probably reflect us perfectly. Aesthetic and ethical irregularities.
These buildings, which adhere to no logic, represent bad planning. Just like our lives: we have no idea how we want them to be.
Now that’s a way to endear me to a character: show me he’s got an unusual and interesting perspective, that he thinks against the grain. He concludes this voiceover with the gloomiest observation of all:
I’m convinced that separations, divorces, domestic violence, the excess of cable TV stations, the lack of communication, listlessness, apathy, depression, suicide, neuroses, panic attacks, obesity, tenseness, insecurity, hypochondria, stress and a sedentary lifestyle are attributable to architects and builders.
I suffer from all of these illnesses except suicide.
You see? This subverts the typical Glamorous City theme and makes Martín’s experience of urban life fresh and interesting. Of course, once we get a look at him the dye is cast: who wouldn’t find this face adorable?
2. To get you to like their characters, typical rom-coms spark your envy of their beauty, clothes, apartments, and exciting lives. Somehow, these films seem to think that if we aspire to be as cutie-pie as Meg Ryan, or own a wardrobe as charmingly retro as Zooey Deschanel’s, or have a job as desirable as Tom Hanks’ architect job in Sleepless, that’ll move us more than halfway toward loving these people.
Don’t get me wrong: Martín and Mariana (Pilar López de Ayala) are great to look at — but they wear ordinary-people, shlubby clothes. They don’t have distinctive haircuts that people will clip from magazines and take to their salons.
Most realistic of all: they live in tiny shoebox apartments on the same block in Buenos Aires, leading parallel lives. They cross one another’s paths regularly — but how will they learn that they’re perfect for one another? Even in such close proximity, the impersonal forces of urban life would seem to keep them ignorant of each other. Cities are brutal, relentless forces that often serve mainly to keep people apart — a fact ignored until Sidewalls pointed this out.
Mariana would like to be an architect, but partly due to an intense phobia of elevators, she works as a shop-window designer. As a result, she spend a lot of time with mannequins — those generic, immobile objects that seem to offer her more human contact than she gets in her real life, especially after that bad breakup. We see her lonely life in parallel to Martín’s, for as a web designer he spends most of his time working in his apartment, wearing his shlubby clothes, playing video games.
Which leads to my next point:
3. No rom-com (to my knowledge) has captured the reality of most single people’s lives, large portions of which are spent on the internet. And yes, I’m including the pathetic You’ve Got Mail. The reason why films have avoided young people’s plugged-in lives should be obvious: it’s depressing, and not cinematic in the least.
Sidewalls, however, doesn’t avoid the topic of sadness and loneliness via the internet. It embraces those themes and turns them into assets. Witnessing these characters’ sadness helps us bond to them.
Perhaps you’re probably thinking, I do not watch rom-coms to feel sad, or to watch hipsters chat online with each other! But remember some of the classics, like Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally, and you’ll remember that you identified with those characters because you witnessed their sadness. That’s what Sidewalls gets right: it captures the loneliness — and the screen’s sad glow — of modern urban lives.
Mariana and Martín have close encounters with potential lovers, but the emptiness of those encounters only results in more isolation. They’re both still reeling from their respective breakups. Mariana puts it nicely:
If my life were a game of life, I’d have to move back five spaces.
Their sadness, their alienation, all of this seems atypical for the rom-com genre, but it endears us to these characters all the more. In any other film, when Mariana confesses her lingering affection for Where’s Waldo? (Dónde está Wally?) this fact would appear quirky and fake — but here it seems most of all to show how alone she is.
Likewise, midway through the film Martín undertakes another voiceover about the large number of buildings that have plants or small trees growing out of them. But what we really see in this great series of images is someone who has far too much time to himself, far too much of an inner dialogue, and no one to share it with. Mariana and Martín observe the world around them with such verve and intellect that their lack of someone to share those observations with seems the more glaring problem — not the quirkiness of the characters who framed it.
4. Rom-coms are wedded to the meet-cute scenario to such a degree that we really ought to blame tooth decay on the excess of sugar dished out by Hollywood. In contrast, Sidewalls avoids the dentist by doing something I’ve never seen a rom-com do before: it pushes off the moment when Mariana and Martín finally meet — pushes it off longer than you think is possible for a film.
Who cares if they finally meet cute, because by this time you’re dying for them to meet; you’re so vicariously sad on their behalf, so melancholy upon acting as their only audience for their witty perceptions of the city, that you feel almost implicated in how delightful it must be to finally realize how much they have in common.
5. Rom-coms always have a gimmick. In When Harry Met Sally it was the truism that men and women couldn’t be friends. (500) Days of Summer started with the breakup. Sometimes they’re oriented around technology — as when Meg Ryan fell for Tom Hanks’ story on that call-in radio program in Sleepless in Seattle, or when she fell for his persona on an internet dating site in You’ve Got Mail.
I’m not going to tell you how Sidewalls reveals its organizing gimmick, but will only reveal that it’s neither cloying nor really all that important. I only want to conclude by advising that if you, too, have trouble with the genre of romantic comedies and desire a refreshing, non-sugary alternative — why, you need to see Gustavo Taretto’s quiet film which deconstructs a number of hoary clichés without forbidding us from enjoying the fact that eventually, these two lovely people might find each other.
And with that, Sidewalls breathes new life into the rom-com — at least for people like me, who otherwise find them a drag. Ahhh. It’s like finding a friend for the end of the world. And it’s streaming on Netflix — and is rentable on Amazon or iTunes — for your midweek pleasure.