From France with Love: Gender and Identity in French Romantic Comedy, by Mary Harrod

Gemma Edney on the arguments for the academic study of a genre too often dismissed for being à l’Américaine

September 17, 2015
Review: From France with Love, by Mary Harrod

Engaging, accessible and insightful, this study manages the neat trick of not only considering an extensive corpus of films, but also offering an impressive amount of detailed analysis on a wide range of texts from within an academically under-represented genre. Throughout, Mary Harrod presents convincing arguments for the academic study of the rom-com, both globally and more specifically in France, where traditional snobbery over anything à l’Américaine has meant that commentators have been slow to acknowledge the French film industry’s emulation of Hollywood practices.

In exploring the notion of the French rom-com, a genre appropriated from outside national borders and then eventually re-exported, Harrod begins with the rather daunting prospect of surveying global scholarship on the genre as a whole. She navigates it with surprising ease, providing a brief but sufficient overview of the relevant literary, cultural and film criticism, French and Anglo-American alike. She rightly pays particular attention to the work of scholar Celestino Deleyto, whose 2009 book The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy defended the rom-com as worthy of academic study, and here provides a firm foundation for Harrod’s clear and well-evidenced arguments. Her research methodology – a survey of predominantly post-2000 French rom-coms, using textual, intertextual and contextual analysis and supported by a variety of reception data – is succinctly summarised and well explained.

We begin, perhaps inevitably, with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain in the original), whose domestic and global box-office and critical success inspired other French film-makers to make their own forays into comédie romantique. As Harrod traces the progression of the genre over the past 15 years, she considers the conventions that have developed within it. These centre on the themes of gendered identities, the family unit and heterosexual romance, which she contextualises within contemporary French society and the global film business. Her principal argument is that these trends, and the ways that they manifest themselves within French rom-com, mirror changing attitudes in French society, specifically with regard to gender roles and relationships. In some ways, she suggests, the rom-com can be seen as a manifestation of a delayed reaction to, or social backlash against, the liberal gains of the past 30 or so years.

If there is a criticism to be made, it is that despite its sharp observations and analysis, the book is somewhat apologetic in its feminism. That said, Harrod’s arguments for shifting attitudes towards gender roles and family identity in French society are astute, acknowledging the difference in both the periodisation, and speed of development, of feminism in France compared with the UK and the US. Despite the great importance of the work of French scholars such as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Simone de Beauvoir in Anglo-American studies of feminism, gender and culture, these fields are notable in France by their absence from academia (indeed, attempting to find a useful French translation of “gender studies” has long been a bugbear of mine). This strange state of affairs notwithstanding, From France with Love is a sharp, well-executed work that contributes more to the field of contemporary French film studies than its title would suggest. Let’s hope that other scholars will be as happy to acknowledge the importance of the humble rom-com.

Gemma Edney is a doctoral candidate in film studies, University of Exeter.

From France with Love: Gender and Identity in French Romantic Comedy
By Mary Harrod
I. B. Tauris, 304pp, £62.00
ISBN 9781784533588
Published 30 May 2015

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