As a longtime lover of movies, I’m fascinated by the weight and discussion afforded certain genres and directors – what speaks to us culturally and personally. I was with a group of my friends at dinner a couple weeks ago. They are a group of cinephiles, and their tastes are by no means limited. But when I brought up my love of romantic movies, the looks I got at this table surprised me. These are people that will probably pay to see the upcoming Last Witch Hunter, and discuss it with the same care and consideration that they would a new Christopher Nolan joint, but the idea of talking about a chick flick was just too much. Even the other ladies at the table seemed taken aback by my passion for romance and romantic comedies. But why?

I’ve continued my anecdotal research, and the results have all been the same. Folks recoil when you ask them their opinions on The Holiday or The Notebook.  Even people who enjoy movies whose target audience is women are really reluctant to admit it. It’s not unlike when a protagonist in a haunted house horror movie asks too many questions: people go white, and even those with answers are super careful. So there can only be one conclusion: chick flicks are terrifying. They possess a violent, visceral, fantastic power over the general audience, unmatched by even the scariest horror.

So I’ll be delving into my favorite chick flicks – some comedies, some drama, some in between – and trying to figure out what about them makes people squirm. I hope that by getting into the apparently perverse mechanics of these movies, I can encourage a few more of you to test your mettle and give them a watch. Terrifying as they may be, lady movies are seriously cool, and they deserve the same respect and appreciation as any other film genre. To start, we’re going in deep, bringing out the big guns with the monstrous romance of Shakespeare in Love.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
Director:
John Madden
Writers: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard
Key Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Dame Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck

In Short:
William Shakespeare, broke and uninspired, gets commissioned to write a play for the Rose theater. He promises a comedy. Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, loves the theater – particularly the work of Shakespeare. However, women aren’t allowed to perform on stage. She disguises herself as a man named Thomas Kent and auditions for Shakespeare. Will is taken with his performance, and follows Thomas Kent home, delivering a note to the man via Viola’s nurse. While there, he meets Viola out of costume and falls for her. She is similarly smitten, both with the man and his work. He visits her at her window later that night. Once he discovers her identity, Will and Viola use the play as a means for their tryst. She is, however, engaged to be married to the Earl of Wessex, who intends to sail for the Americas with her. With Will and Viola’s romance doomed from the start, the comedy play evolves into Romeo and Juliet. Eventually, they are found out, and Viola marries Wessex. However, on her wedding day, she sees a flier for Will’s play and makes her way to the theater. The man playing Juliet loses his high voice, and Viola must step up. Unbeknownst to anyone, Queen Elizabeth is in the audience. She pardons Viola and the players at the theater for allowing a woman on stage and commends Shakespeare for capturing the nature of love in a play. Viola must leave still, but she bids Will farewell. He promises to immortalize her in his next work – Twelfth Night.

 

As Cinema
Shakespeare in Love does a great job paralleling the works of Shakespeare. The Bard had a penchant for anachronism and inventing his own versions of countries like Italy and Denmark. So, too, does John Madden’s little romance – far from period accurate, this movie devotes its all to the story and the romance. It gives the movie an overall sense of levity that makes it more populist than prestige.

Speaking of prestige, one of the most difficult things about Shakespeare in Love is that it’s rarely judged on its own merits. Because it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999 over Saving Private Ryan, people write it off as a sort of pretender to the throne. But regardless of the awards and its deservedness, judged on its own, outside of the Oscar shenanigans, this is a unique, wonderful little flick. It is infectiously optimistic and romantic despite the tragic ending. And once again, divorced from the context of what she’s become, Gwyneth Paltrow is absolutely wonderful. While he is not a great actor, Joseph Fiennes is so great at playing hopelessly in love. In another actor’s hands, Shakespeare would have come across as tremendously arrogant and insufferable, but Fiennes gives him a sort of dorky humanity, really selling us on the writerly aspects of the character.

The Horror:
The scariest thing about Shakespeare in Love is the way it upends the Muse stereotype. Even though Viola admires and inspires Will, she does so by having thoughts of her own – something truly terrifying, particularly in a period piece. She defies almost every man she encounters, and she’s better at being a dude than any of the players – even Ben Affleck. She’s the Freddy Krueger in this nightmare scenario, slashing away at delicate male egos in the name of all that is awful and amorous.

Will lays bare the fragility of the creative mind – although Viola initially considers him something of a hero and champion for love, it is she that saves him in the end, urging him to write their story. He’s the final girl, tasked with spreading the legend so that others might live. He’s brought to the brink of madness by love and sincerity, and it changes him irrevocably. Brought along for this ride, it’s no wonder than most audiences are uncomfortable. Change is difficult, and changing from cynical to sincere is the scariest of all.

The softly lit sex scenes based more around conversation than titillation are also super freaky, and by no means for the faint of heart. No one will fault you for watching them through your fingers because they are, indeed, a special kind of torture for those not romantically inclined.

If you feel up to it, if you think you have the fortitude, then I urge you to give Shakespeare in Love another watch. Although it’s a pretty deep dive into chick flickery, after my own rewatch, I can say with certainty that it’s definitely worth your time.

 

 

 

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  1. […] for missing last week, but life got busy. Anyway, good news: Fear the Chick Flick has become a regular column at Film Takeout! It’ll be running on Thursdays, and I’m super excited to get to continue the […]