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Dating the Enemy

(Megan Simpson Huberman, Australia, 1996)


 


It is a strange thing: in my experience, every second filmmaker and screenwriter in Australia loves the old Hollywood romantic and screwball comedies, and they all want to make an old-fashioned, good-hearted romantic comedy, some with a modern 1990s relationship twist. But, although it may not be fair to say, romantic comedy is a genre of which Australian movies often fall foul. So, I admit, I was a bit trepedatious approaching Dating the Enemy. Another contemporary example of this mode of Australian film is Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996), but I cannot say anything more about that one, particularly as I am in it (playing what Margaret Pomeranz kindly described as a “film studies hero”). What I can say is that romantic comedy – particularly in that sunny, grand old, Hollywood tradition – is, these days, incredibly hard to do well.

 

Dating the Enemy sits astride two traditions of popular cinema. It has one foot in the old romantic comedy tradition, and the other in a more recent stream of fluffy, supernatural comedies. A mid-1980s craze, supernatural comedies are about time-travel, identity swapping, or characters suddenly growing older or younger. It produced films including Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986), Vice Versa (Brian Gilbert, 1984) and Big (Penny Marshall, 1988). One of the last films in that fashionable cycle – a film from which Dating the Enemy, it seems to me, borrows heavily – is Blake Edwards’ Switch (1991). That is about Steve (Perry King), a guy gleefully murdered by a cabal of lovers to whom he was unfaithful. At the point of death, this macho womaniser is instantly reincarnated in the female form of Ellen Barkin; he becomes a misogynist male “trapped in the body of a blonde”, as the French release title for the film described his situation.

 

Unlike Switch, Dating the Enemy doubles the identity swap premise. The story follows a troubled young couple, Tash (Claudia Karvan) and Brett (Guy Pearce) who, as the script keeps emphatically telling the viewer, have absolutely nothing in common. She is a smart newspaper journalist, an uptight careerist; he is a budding TV personality, superficial and narcissistic. She wants commitment, he doesn’t; like the hero of Switch, Brett is a bit of a cad or sleazeball, and he has very little understanding of a woman’s needs. “If only you could see yourself through my eyes!”, cries Tash as they’re breaking up, and that is the mystical cue for a typical supernatural movie switch.

 

One night, under a full moon, while they are both asleep in their separate apartments, their bodies go all wavery and heavenly, and hey preso, they swap bodies. Let’s be clear about this premise: Tash and Brett still have their own minds, their own personalities, but are suddenly inside their partner’s body. In practical film terms, this means, for instance, that when Claudia Karvan is in the shot with her mouth shut, Guy Pearce’s voice is thinking away furiously in her head. Got that?

 

The comparison between this film and Switch can be detected in an unkind reference to Edwards in the Dating the Enemy press kit. Director Megan Simpson Huberman comments on her approach to her story: “It’s not a film full of jokes about men not being able to walk in women’s high heels”. While there were, indeed, a few too many burlesque high heel jokes in Switch, it had also had real substance – an intriguing mix of possibilities raised, explored and sometimes evaded. I have explored these aspects of Switch in my 1993 book Phantasms, and in expanded form here.

 

The possibilities I am alluding to are in line with Brett’s observation in Dating the Enemy when he says that, to inhabit the body of the opposite sex, to experience life that way for a day – to feel and know that difference – is, in a sense, the ultimate fantasy. More specifically, Brett is talking about finding out what sex is like from inside the body of the opposite gender; he calls that the “ultimate hidden secret”!

 

Yet, with Dating the Enemy, as with Switch, we hit a major problem at the starting gate of this admirable fantasy scenario – a truly philosophical problem. There has yet to be the ultimate movie – mainstream or otherwise – about gender swapping/switching. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get very far when one begins with the idea of a male personality inside a female body, and vice versa; philosophically speaking, it is a mind/body split. And a crippling split for a film trying to make a wild comedy about sex, gender and relationships.

 

How can you have a male mind, a male personality, that stays pre-formed, intact, when it is suddenly experiencing a radically new set of physical sensations, trace memory, and so on? This is very opposite of what theorists call the lived embodiment of gender! Early on, Dating with the Enemy is a little disappointing, even distressing in this regard. Like Steve in Switch, Brett starts off feeling his own new female breasts and admiring his own, new female ass. Meanwhile, Tash starts squealing in embarrassment and disgust when she experiences her first male erection in front of some glossy piece of art-world erotica.

 

While Tash complains about “men’s hormones”, it seems that hormones have been displaced in the split between mind and body: her mind, obviously, is not affected by his hormones; while Brett’s mind still seems to be carrying his hormones around. A really good, smart comedy would have tried to logically think and work through some of these mind-boggling (not to mention body-boggling) concepts.

 

To be fair, neither Dating the Enemy nor Switch stay with these initial divisions between male/female and mind/body. Both films try to move toward some other space – usually, some rapprochement or mutual understanding between the previously divided sexes. When I see a film about gender swapping, I mentally make an advance list of topics that I want to see included: Will the man in a woman’s body menstruate? Will masturbation figure as an event of self-discovery? Will there be some gay or bisexual complication, with a woman in a man’s body suddenly finding herself attracted to another woman, for instance (and likewise for the male switch)? Will there be certain social experiences of gender raised – like the sexual harassment of women on the streets or in the workplace; or the homo-social rituals of male bonding through sport, drinking and whatnot? Will there be much made of the different social manners of men and women, the different ways they talk, inhabit space, and have access (or not) to certain privileges and powers? And, the most fundamental question of all: will the man in a woman’s body, and the woman in a man’s body, have sex together – and if so, what will it be like for them?

 

To its great credit, Dating the Enemy has a stab at just about everything on that list. The guy experiences menstruation; the woman experiences shaving (although I have never bought the popular equation that somehow presents these acts as equivalent gender experiences!). There are some cute moments about the difference between wallets and purses, and other comedy-of-manners stuff, though this is a pretty slim element. There are plenty of body gags in the film – about how men and women move differently, for instance – although the spectacle of Pearce’s girly mincing tires next to Karvan’s more convincing macho swagger. And there is some rousing material about the different workspace politics as they are encountered by men and by women. But what of the sexual matters?

 

There is no masturbation. The gay and bisexual possibilities are politely, but firmly, skipped right over. And there is a section where both our main characters, off on separate, casual adventures, get drunk enough to find out a few things about what sex is like in their partner’s body. Without disclosing anything central, and even though the film is forever a bit coy, I will say that I was pleasantly surprised at where the plot dares to go from there. And that is the thrill and the fun of Dating the Enemy, which, overthrowing my trepidation, turned out to be more genuinely entertaining than I expected.

 

In the end, Dating the Enemy does not become a raunchy sex-and-gender comedy film. Rather, what it wants to be is a sweet, slightly old-fashioned, affirmative tale about love and romance. Like Love and Other Catastrophes, Only You (Norman Jewison, 1994) and When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989), Dating the Enemy passes through the veils, complications and confusions of modern life to arrive at some dream that people who are destined to be together forever will indeed find each other, that love at first sight is real, and that opposites attract.

 

In romantic comedies, this dream is usually manifested or materialised in the last, breathless moments of the story, dissolved just before the dream has to be tested against time, appetite or the hard work of intimacy. The little trick of this genre – and it happens all the way from Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpieces of the 1930s right up to the latest nostalgia efforts – sees the fated lovers come together in the final shot, often somewhere ordinary out on the street and, as the camera cranes and the music soars, they exchange some words that they have spoken to each other once before, usually at the very start of their relationship.

 

They might be quite banal words, but now the lovers speak them knowingly, ironically. In speaking like this, in quotation marks, they mark the distance they have traveled in order to re-find one another. But they also inscribe a charmed, magic circle around each other and their story of love – while their words, looping back, seem to have the effect of obliterating the march of time. At the movies, this is a dream that appears hard to beat.   

© Adrian Martin September 1996


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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