Me Myself I
Karmel’s lively Me Myself I was
promoted on its release as “a romantic comedy about oneself” – a strange,
intriguing and thoroughly modern concept. Aren’t romantic comedies meant to be
about magnificent couples, like in the great screwball classics of yesteryear? It Happened One Night (1934), The Awful Truth (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), Teacher’s Pet (1958): these movies from Hollywood’s golden era are
about witty, feisty relationships built on an ideal of equality between the
sexes – at least, as conventionally gendered.
up sex and work, thought and feeling, elevated dreams and everyday tensions,
these classic films have come to stand as one of the supreme embodiments of the
notion of love – what it is and how it goes – in 20th century popular culture.
Yes, the plots are unreal and fanciful, the stars (Cary Grant, Katharine
Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne) glamorous, the sentiments proudly
optimistic. But none of that alters how deeply, how sweetly these films can
move, inspire and instruct us.
Me Myself I is not
about two people destined to meet each other on the job, or in the street, or
over a cup of coffee. As the title indicates, it is firmly centred on an
individual, Pamela (Rachel Griffiths), and the life choices with which she is
faced. These choices present themselves to Pamela’s consciousness in an
unusual, supernatural way: a nasty bump one day sends her off to a parallel
as well as the defiantly single, sometimes melancholic working girl she is in
her normal life, Pamela is also the woman she once dreamed of being: a wife and
mother, married to her teenage sweetheart, Robert (David Roberts). In fact, Me Myself I is at heart a trading-places
story: while unmarried Pamela visits the daggy world of domesticity, married
Pamela disappears into the foreign land of serious work, casual dating and time
writer-director Karmel (whose IMDb listing has no further directorial credits
after 1999, and only one writing credit on the TV series Olivia Newton-John in 2018 – an all too typical trajectory for
women in the mainstream industry) does not attempt to frenetically intercut
both of these life paths, à la the
Gwyneth Paltrow hit Sliding Doors (1998) or, in art cinema mode, Krzysztof
Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991). The plot sticks with Pamela 1, as she starts her new life with nothing
to do but lie about and bonk her eternal beloved. But soon she finds herself
stumbling through a minefield of unexpected truths, trials and intrigues
lurking beneath the facade of suburban life.
does Me Myself I have to do with the
great tradition of romantic comedy? Certainly this much: women in such plots
have often been faced with the conflicting lifestyle options represented by two
starkly differentiated men. For Pamela, this amounts to the equivocation
between not-what-he-was-once-cracked-up-to-be David and
sensitive-but-apparently-already-attached New Age guy, Ben (Sandy Winton). It
was a similar dilemma for Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, poised between staid, folksy Ralph Bellamy and
fast-talking city-slicker Cary Grant; and the trend continues through to such
Sandra Bullock vehicles as While You Were Sleeping (1995).
choice for the 20th century woman of romantic comedy often boils down to this:
security on the one hand, adventure on the other. This was always Katharine
Hepburn’s problem, in classics such as Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). And no matter what preparations were in train for the old-style heroine
– the marriage ceremony about to begin, the house already bought, the friends
assembled at a party – it was always possible to throw it all away and take a
chance on love with the wild guy in the wings.
days, however, the men who represent those twin options of security and
adventure both tend to come with considerable baggage attached. In contemporary
American comedies about love and relationships, such as One Fine Day (1996) and the dismal The Story of Us (1999), kids are
ever present – whether it is a question of a marriage in crisis or single
parents dragging themselves, after a long break back, into the dating game.
Modern romance, in these films, is instantly a question of family, its demands
and responsibilities (and sometimes its delights, although Me Myself I has a tough time imagining anything splendid about
raising children in suburbia).
the classic romantic comedies, there were almost never any kids around to get
in the way of love’s dream. Today’s niche marketeers might well conclude that
it was a genre about single people and for single people. But this would be to
miss precisely what constitutes the fond fantasy of these movies: their
wishful, utopian aspect. British critic Andrew Britton argued in the 1980s that
the best romantic comedies of the past were an intuitively radical bunch of
films, anticipating the agenda of post 1960s sex-and-gender politics. They were
radical precisely because their whimsical plots and characters “dissociate marriage
from reproduction, or the prospect of it”.
put, these heroes and heroines don’t need kids because they are still kids
themselves – in a sophisticated, polymorphously perverse kind of way. For
Britton, these characters happily fuse qualities of child and adult normally
kept separate in our world: “The partners engage in rough-house and in epigram
and repartee; the anarchic consorts with the urbane; the infantile drives which
precede maturity and civilisation are suddenly definitive of them.”
other words, the great romantic comedies delivered a fantasy image of the
couple as whole and complete unto itself, unburdened by the larger, social
obligation to procreate and all the values it drags in tow. These films needed
to create a weightlessness, a lightness around their lovers because they dared
to imagine some other, more passionate, more inspired way of living and
behaving, of organising relationships.
romantic comedies, by contrast, often feel compelled to grapple with a certain
dose of realistic content – which almost instantly takes away the giddy edge
and the utopian possibilities.
presence of kitchen disasters, incommunicative children and a hideous circle of
friends in Me Myself I is
symptomatic. They indicate that, by the time the conventions of classic
romantic comedy have breached the shores of contemporary Australia, so much
seems to have changed; the balance of
elements is out of whack. There’s romance and there’s comedy, sure, in
Australian films of the past decade including Strange Fits of Passion (1999), Dating the Enemy (1996), All Men Are Liars (1995) and Strictly
Ballroom (1992). But the esteemed, magic formula of romantic comedy is much
more than the sum of these two discrete parts.
least, in the era of queer cinema, there is a new avenue of escape: defiled and
downtrodden youngsters can finally realise their love for each other, and give
up on the opposite sex altogether. Both Me
Myself I and Strange Fits of Passion arrive at a somewhat gentler but no less level-headed conclusion: that a woman’s
relation to her own development and self-esteem matters more than desperate
dependence on some dream-man to make her a whole person.
are many kinds of neo romantic comedy
– a form which usually refers, in a lightly mocking, tenaciously affectionate,
bitter-sweet way to the imaginary, magical world created within the classic
romantic comedies. In fact, the inaugural image of this trend was probably Gena
Rowlands and her older, best female friend in John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) – watching Casablanca at a revival house, then
going home to get drunk and have a good laugh or cry about the distance between
movie mythdom and their daily, unglamorous reality.
filmmakers have often made films about this distance between ideal screen
dreams and sad, struggling real life. Brian McKenzie’s Stan and George's New Life (1992), John Ruane’s Dead Letter Office (1998), Paul Cox’s Lonely Hearts (1982), even Strictly Ballroom in its quiter, melancholic
interludes: these movies recall the sensibility of the contemporary Finnish
master Aki Kaurismaki, whose plaintive films (such as Drifting Clouds, 1996) set
inarticulate, wistful couples against the slow corrosions of quotidian, social
life, at home as in the workplace.
more assertively joyous type of neo romantic comedy is the kind – spearheaded
by films including Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Go Fish (1994) – which celebrates new
lifestyle options and arrangements. In this bag we find the Australian movies
in which love, sex and relationships are inflected by something novel – whether
the comminglings of friends in a share-house (Fresh Air, 1999), the non-stop
recording of a video camera (Video Fool For Love, 1996), or the dizzying confusions and possibilities of university
student life (Love and Other Catastrophes,
1996). Gay and lesbian romances are spotlighted in many shorts, such as Kelli
Simpson’s Two Girls and a Baby (1998). In fact, many viewers will rightly conclude that same-sex love seems
generally a much sunnier and lighter topic, much more adaptable to the romantic
screen formulae of yesteryear, than heterosexuality with its apparently
ceaseless rifts, guilts and torments.
question remains as to why so few Australian romantic comedies seem to really
deliver the goods. Yes, the world and its once (supposedly) innocent traditions
of popular cinema have changed. But does that mean that our film-makers can
entirely excuse themselves as mere victims of this history? That their only
recourse is to dive for the pale sub-species of the genre, all those bleak or
ironic or facile forms offered by modern romantic comedy in its retro, anti and
one level at least, our national cinema must stand condemned. Whereas, in the
great era of romantic comedy, men and women on screen enjoyed a parity, a true
give-and-take reciprocity of wills and wits, these days Australian filmmakers
are often too content to reiterate modish truisms about the abyss between the
sexes. The spark between lovers never quite happens in Thank God He Met Lizzie (1998), Me
Myself I or Strange Fits of Passion.
In Strange Planet (1999), everyone
comes on like a solipsistic, two-dimensional poseur. All Men are Liars and Bob Ellis’ The Nostradmus Kid (1993) are
lazily, mindlessly misogynistic in their male-centred trajectories – no wonder
so many films by and about women are plumbing for solitude as the best solution
to the sex war.
in the realm of sombre drama, in the gruesome social-issue tragedy The
Boys (1998), there is not even the
faintest echo of love or laughter left between men and women. But why must we
all be so deterministic and fatalist – especially where love, and the screen
dreams devoted to love, are concerned?
© Adrian Martin March 2000