French Kiss

(Lawrence Kasdan, USA, 1995)


There is a growing resistance these days to racial stereotypes in movies – especially in comedies, where they are legion. Yet the politically incorrect frisson that derives from such stereotypes surely relates to the widespread apprehension that they carry a grain of truth.

Romantic comedy, in particular, is a form that depends on stereotypes. The reason for this is simple. Romantic comedy is all about opposites: the clash of cool and excitable, straitlaced and free, rational and irrational.

In the great era of this genre, the 1930s and ’40s, the best actors were able to play both sides of these binary equations. Compare the roles that Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn played in Bringing Up Baby to those they incarnated in Holiday (both in the same year, 1938) – it is an almost exact switch.

This game of opposites may begin on a purely personal level, but it quickly takes on social and cultural dimensions. So the ill-matched lovers of romantic comedy are intricately differentiated on a whole host of battlefields: city vs. country, rich vs. poor, radical vs. conservative, teacher vs. student … And it is only to be expected when handy stereotypes of national character get dragged into this merry fray.

Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss does not shirk for a moment from the joys of comic stereotyping. In fact, it is hard to think of a film that has milked such sharp humour out of the collision of American and French manners since Roman Polanski’s underrated thriller Frantic (1988). Every cliché is enthusiastically embraced here. The French are snobbish, insular, hyper-intellectual, quick to mutter their contempt of “foreigners”; while Americans are hysterical, excessive, vulgar and hopelessly sentimental.

It all boils down to an unlikely love-match: Kate (Meg Ryan) raging around France with Luc (Kevin Kline). Of course, it is not mutual affection that first brings them together. Kate is on the trail of her unfaithful fiancé and Luc helps her out because he has secretly stashed some precious items in her luggage. Many plot complications ensue in rapid succession.

French Kiss, written by Adam Brooks, is an extremely clever and witty combination of standard romantic comedy elements. There is the travel or road movie element that has enlivened films from Capra‘s It Happened One Night (1934) to Only You (1994) and Before Sunrise (1995). There are the touches of intrigue and criminality that recall especially Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

And the filmmakers do not neglect to include that classic dilemma of authenticity – characters who have lied finally ‘fessing up their true feelings – which has governed romantic comedy from Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) to While You Were Sleeping (1995).

1995 was marked by a neo romantic comedy craze, and French Kiss is easily one of the best films of that wave. Kasdan – who at the beginning of his career wrote Continental Divide (1981), one of the most distinctive romances of its decade – has not made a movie as inventive or as breezy as this in a long time. Certain comic motifs, such as Kate’s fear of flying, are handled with particular deftness and hilarity.

Best of all, Ryan and Kline convey a sparkling, childlike rapport. It need hardly be said that all romantic comedies, whether naïve or sophisticated in intention, live or die on the chemistry established between the lead actors. Kasdan lets his stars walk the plank here – Ryan does clownish pratfalls and Kline exaggerates his Frenchness as if auditioning for an episode of Fawlty Towers. But they are always brought back into line for some telling moment of intimacy, whimsy or character growth.

French Kiss is a delightful and colourful comedy – and a rarity among current neo-romances that, for the most part, pay slavish, pale homage to the old classics of the genre.

MORE Kasdan: The Big Chill, I Love You to Death, Silverado

© Adrian Martin August 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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