An Orgy Won’t Keep You Warm At Night

At 1h 20min, Lone Scherfig’s One Day (2011) presents what ought to, by Hollywood movie standards, constitute climax and resolution: the big kiss. It’s the kind of scene that would, were this a 1990s movie and the character of Dexter played by Hugh Grant, entail a gentle pull back, unobtrusively allowing Paris to swell around the at-last-united lovers while they savoured that swooning embrace. The sun would blaze, or the rain would pour, or the leaves would fall in swirls of amber and gold. The image would linger. The premise upon which the genre is built — that love is a happy inevitability — would stand firm.

But Scherfig directed her adaptation of David Nichols’s bestselling novel during this millennium, and the Danish director has never been known to toe the line of convention. Jim Sturgess plays Dexter. Unlike Grant — who only attempted the “bad guy” persona in Bridget Jones’s Diary after safely securing his Loveable Brit reputation in a slew of rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill — Sturgess has no aversion to playing a leading man who, for at least three-fifths of the movie, is most accurately described as obnoxious. He performs opposite Anne Hathaway, who brings her usual witty warmth to the part of Emma.

Anyway: the scene. Following this kiss, we find ourselves, not fading away to a credits sequence cheerfully soundtracked by Elvis Costello (as might be expected), but suctioned back to London. Time has moved forward a year. Dexter and Emma are elated. This is life post-Happily Ever After; and, as they snuggle in the harbour of Dexter’s fledgling business, finally cohesive after nearly two decades of will-they-won’t-they torment, “After” looks as blissful as you’d hope for.

Then time moves forward a little bit more. They are struggling slightly: fertility problems. Emma is in a bad mood; Dexter makes an effort to quell it. Hope prevails anyway, because these two, we know, are meant to be together; and now they finally know it too, nothing can compromise their destiny as soulmates.

Then Emma dies.

When I first watched One Day, I was sixteen. I hated it intensely. It cheated me. The ending felt unfair, like a punch in the gut after an arduous, heart-wrenching, ultimately dissatisfying uphill journey (and Rotten Tomatoes confirms I wasn’t alone in this verdict). Dexter was an idiot. Emma deserved better. Dexter should have realised on graduation night, or at least soon after they had left university, that he and Emma were a “perfect union of opposites”, just like the slightly tacky tattoo stamped next to his ankle. Why did Emma waste her time on him, when she so clearly had at least double his IQ? Meanwhile, Dexter — supposedly the leading man — spent a considerable portion of the narrative off his face on cocaine. Sorry, but could you imagine Hugh Grant or Colin Firth doing the same?

To top it all off, Emma’s death totally unhinged the symbiosis that I, having grown up on a diet of Richard Curtis movies, felt was necessary to give a ‘romcom’ or ‘chick flick’ (terms I am reluctant to assign movies, but mildly indicative nonetheless) satisfying completion. What was the point of making a film about romance, only to shatter the fantasy with a brutally unforgiving ending, soaked in unassailable grief?

As time has moved along in my own life, however, my feelings toward the movie have changed dramatically. It is now, by far, my favourite in its genre. The difficulty of the film is, despite much critical resistance, actually its greatest coup: it presents a desirable and undesirable form of love in one package. Desirable because their love endures time. Undesirable for the same reason. That, of course, is the power of its structure, which is both Scherfig’s achievement and Nichols’s. When other movies have taken up with similar themes — “philandering guy’s best female friend is perfect for him; it takes him a while (and, usually, the threat of losing her to somebody else) to see the situation clearly”— the temporal design in those movies has often been significantly less harrowing.

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Take, for instance, Made of Honor (2008). Here, Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan play the fated pals in that familiar When Harry Met Sally (1989) style. This movie is, in many ways, a tribute to that one, and to the indefatigable backdrop of New York City; where, for every yellow cab caught in traffic, there is apparently an epic romance waiting to be served up in schmaltz and polystyrene coffee cups, with just a hint of Sinatra on the side. As in One Day, Made of Honor builds its story on the supposedly universal truth that Harry delivers to Sally: “men and women can’t ever just be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” In that earlier movie, over one hour of our time / several years of theirs passes, and sex does indeed get in the way. Sally hates Harry, which of course means she loves him, and Harry’s life confirms his own truth. Reconciliation ensues.

(Companionship x Forever) + Sex = Happy Ending.

Of course, Harry’s “truth” is a wholly reductive one: real life amply demonstrates how men and women can sustain platonic relationships. But for the purposes of the friendships which are sculpted into sellable movies, there is always a latent erotic impulse churning away under the leads’ interactions. Made of Honor establishes the foundations for Tom and Hannah’s friendship in a perfunctory teaser scene at the beginning, before glibly skipping over time: everything that happens onscreen from hereon in occurs ten years ahead, with the movie’s director mercifully sparing us an excruciating, decade-spanning trajectory of missed opportunities. It’s enough to anchor Tom and Hannah to the past without dwelling on it; unlike One Day, the texture of this movie — light, slick, capery — would not have borne that well. In Made of Honor, it is sufficient simply to know that best friends are always meant for one another because films like When Harry Met Sally have already told us so.

For me, this blurs the dichotomy between blessing and curse. Made of Honor is easy, palatable, enjoyable viewing, because the weight of time doesn’t press as suffocatingly on us as it does in One Day. One Day is many things to me, but I would never describe it as “easy”. On the other hand, Made of Honor‘s structure carves a hollowness into the alchemy between Tom and Hannah, which for Dexter and Emma is impossible: their blossoming is too often on the cusp, and the relatively short time they spend aware of their status as soulmates, compared to the time we spend knowing it while watching them suffer through subpar romantic entanglements, is what makes the abrupt termination of that relationship so absolutely traumatic. True, When Harry Met Sally also forces us to suffer the bittersweetly compelling motions of time; but the tour through the years pays off when we see them riding off into the metaphorical sunset together. One Day gives us that sweet relief only to snatch it away again.

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What, exactly, is so appealing about such narratives? It seems absurdly narrow-sighted to assume they merely satiate a masochistic impulse in audience members who identify with Emma. Not everyone who enjoys these films harbours a suppressed desire to build their life with a member of the opposite sex whom they happen to be close friends with (though I’m aware plenty do). Yet moviemakers, and the novelists or storytellers they collaborate with, return to this bare thread of love and explore it repeatedly. Why?

One supposes that movie producers seek such stories out because they confirm a reassuring vision of love: one where chemistry is a social thing before it is a physical one. Sexual tension in these movies is paramount, but sex itself is subordinate to the primary USP of the focal relationship: the emotional bond between the characters. The reactive senses of humour, the mutually-serviceable altruism, and above all, the proven ability to go through the worst of times and come out at the end with an undiminished need to share space in each other’s lives — such is the stuff of most fantasies, and also, incidentally, the ingredients required to brew a fairly sparkling screenplay. The dialogue between friends, you might notice in most films, is usually far bouncier than the dialogue between straight-up lovers. It’s odd, but possibly a little telling about the human condition, that cinema wants to assure us so badly that it really isn’t always about what’s hot. In these limited, crystallised cinematic versions of heterosexual romance, the secondariness of sex itself is oddly vital.

As for One Day, it ascends beyond those it shares characteristics with precisely because it refuses to dance to the piper. I interviewed Scherfig once and asked her why her movies tend towards nonconventional denouements. Her reply? “It’s the choice between the Hollywood ending… or something more complex”. Not every director sets out a vision of their work which accurately corresponds with what we see onscreen, but I feel for Scherfig, who has always avoided the occasionally stifling cogs and wheels of L.A., this is a true representation of a consistent commitment found across her curriculum vitae. One Day is a template solution to the oft-cited problem of the “death of the rom-com”: a film which dares to present true romance as something we really can miss out on. Dexter’s story — for, in the end, One Day is one man’s bildungsroman — is the tale, not of how we fall in love, but of how we live in love, even when we’re blind to it.

Don’t wait forever, the film gently urges. Because, ultimately, your fairytale is your own responsibility. Or, as Dexter and Emma remark: an orgy won’t keep you warm at night, and an orgy won’t look after you when you’re old. A friend, on the other hand…