School of Communications, Dublin City University
PS I Love You (2007)
Directed by Richard La Gravanese
Written by Richard La Gravenese (screenplay) and Steven Rogers (screenplay), Cecilia Ahern (novel).
Principal Cast: Hilary Swank, Gerard Butler, Lisa Kudrow, Harry Connick Jr., Gina Gershon, Kathy Bates.
Production Companies: Alcon Entertainment, Grosvenor Park Productions, Wendy Finerman Productions; distributed by Warner Bros.
How About You (2007)
Directed by Anthony Byrne.
Principal Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Brenda Fricker, Hayley Atwell, Imelda Staunton and Orla Brady.
Written by Jean Pasley (screenplay), Maeve Binchy (short story).
Producer: Noel Pearson (Ferndale Films)
2007 saw the emergence of the (quasi-) indigenous ‘chick-flick’ in Ireland, a genre whose literary equivalent, the ‘chick-lit’ novel, is a firmly established and hugely successful corner of the Irish publishing world. Stalwarts of the form such as Maeve Binchy, Deirdre Purcell, Cathy Kelly, Marian Keyes and Patricia Scanlan have long been penning stories about modern Irish women; from feisty brunettes constrained by rural tradition and authority to the urban-based escapades of the ‘singleton’ or ‘desperate housewife’. It is not surprising, therefore, that the two biggest ‘Irish chick-flicks’ of 2007 — How About You and PS I Love You — were both adaptations from ‘chick-lit’ novels by Irish writers.
It is important to point out from the outset that PS I Love You is a US production filmed by an American director (Richard La Gravanese, a highly successful Hollywood screen writer of romance — The Bridges of Madison County andThe Horse Whisperer, among others) and featuring an almost exclusively American cast. Its status as an ‘Irish film’ relates of course to the fact that the eponymous novel from which it was adapted was written by Celia Ahern, daughter of Ireland’s Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The film adaptation is, to a large extent, textbook chick-flick material, yet with some interesting variations. Its protagonist is the thoroughly modern yet reassuringly traditional all-American Holly (Hilary Swank), who finds herself unable to let go of her Irish husband Gerry (Gerard Butler) after his unexpected death. In death as in life, Gerry continues to act as Holly’s sage counsellor, anticipating her emotional needs before she herself is aware of them and ultimately leading her to a new love interest in Ireland, a man called Billy (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who, it transpires, was an old friend of Gerry’s.
Like the genre classic Bridget Jones Diary, PS I Love You espouses all the core values of post-feminism. Women are unfulfilled unless in a stable relationship with a man. Women have different emotional hardwiring than men — who don’t understand them — yet paradoxically they also need men to psychoanalyse them and keep them on track in life. Careers are quirky distractions which allow our protagonists to indulge their creative sides until Mr Right comes along. Narrative closure is generally achieved when it is decided which of two potential Mr Rights has won the heroine’s affections. And finally, consumerism is equated with liberation — a woman can’t have enough shoes and it is imperative that none of them are comfortable.
Exactly how these infantilised shoe-fetishists became icons of the new feminism is beyond the scope of this article but suffice to say that the ‘chick-flick’ has played an important role. Perhaps, in any case, PS I Love You is a more interesting film when viewed in terms of its construction of Irish-American identity. Diane Negra (2006) has argued that since 9/11, Irishness has become a highly desirable and idealised ethnicity in the United States by virtue of its unusual status as both Other and white, and therefore unthreatening. Certainly, the attraction of the novel PS I Love You to American filmmakers seems to be have been influenced by this current marketability of Irish ethnicity as hip and modern on the one hand and, on the other, as “a moral antidote to contemporary ills ranging from globalization to postmodern alienation, from crises over the meaning and practice of family values to environmental destruction” (Negra, 2006: 3).
Gerry’s Irishness fits perfectly with this sort of idealized ethnic identity, both proud of its traditions and yet unequivocally confident in its sense of belonging to the dominant culture. This is played out through Gerry and Holly’s stormy relationship (a nod to The Quiet Man’s Sean Thornton and Mary Kate Danaher; ‘harmless’ domestic violence and all), Gerry’s musical talent, the dark humour at his wake (which like Gerry’s favourite song Fairytale of New York, starts out seriously but turns into something more playful and ironic) and most of all in the characters’ ability to have fun in a way that is presumably being deliberately coded as real and earthy. Scenes of ‘realistic karaoke’ (à la Lost in Translation) and heaving bars full of sweaty people dancing construct Irishness as hip and self-aware, yet endearingly untainted by the falseness and vacuousness of postmodern American life.
Most importantly, the link to Ireland allows for a nostalgic closure in the form of a return to the pre-modern and to the maternal, a trope which pervades Irish films from The Quiet Man to Into the West. By travelling to rural Ireland at the film’s end, Holly re-establishes links with family and tradition and re-bonds with her own mother. The quirky plot device of having the heroine open ten letters, each of which brings her to new levels of coping and self-discovery, is more than just a narrative strategy: it is also a ten-step psychological guide to dealing with loss. Gerry and Holly may not be traditional Irish Catholics but their story is a spiritual one. It is shot through not only with the sense of moral centeredness offered by Irish ethnicity but also with the logic of self-help therapy. This is clearly a winning combination at a time when, according to New York Times journalist Thomas L. Friedman, “People all over the United States are looking to Ireland for its reservoir of spirituality, hoping to siphon off what they can to feed their souls, which have become hungry for something other than consumerism and computers” (Friedman, 2001, cited in Negra, 2006: 9).
Irish director Anthony Byrne’s second feature film How about You (after the quirky Short Order, 2005) is not a conventional ‘chick-flick’ in contemporary manifestations of the genre in that it does not revolve around the romantic escapades of ditzy singletons or bereaved or otherwise desperate (house)wives. Based on a Maeve Binchy short story, it owes more to the ‘first-wave’ of Irish ‘chick-lit’, which tended to focus on stories of personal self development not always achieved through romantic love. Indeed, why the film should be considered ‘chick lit’ at all raises an important question about the gendering of films which feature female protagonists or deal with women’s concerns as ‘female-interest’, while those which feature male protagonists or deal with men’s concerns are labelled ‘general-interest’. In a media culture which is becoming increasingly gender-segregated, and set against the wider backdrop of ‘Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus’ discourses, it is harder and harder to make this very obvious lack of equivalence visible.
How about You tells the story of Ellie (Hayley Atwell), another hot-headed heroine, when she is left to run the residential home normally managed by her sister over the Christmas holidays. Unable to cope with the residents’ impossible demands, Ellie becomes involved in a succession of intergenerational conflicts, which are the source of the film’s comedy. Representations of older people are rare in mainstream cinema and this is therefore an interesting theme in a culture obsessed with youth and staying young. The film is notable too for the quality of performers cast in these roles — Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Brenda Fricker and Imelda Staunton. Needless to say, the film evades any reference to the realities of the recent Leas Cross scandal, nor does it enter the complex moral terrain of being unable to care for elderly parents, so deftly handled by The Savages (2008). However, it is an engaging film in its confrontation of prejudices associated with ageing, although it does not completely avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping, however benevolent this may be.
Ultimately however, How about You is yet another manual on emotional intelligence. Indeed, beneath the apparent superficiality of many mainstream films marketed at female audiences lie potentially complex meditations — however constrained these may be by conservative ideological forces — on life, death and relationships and their psychological impact and significance. Herein lies the problem that has dogged most women’s genres, from the melodrama to soap opera. While critics have tended to regard them as debased cultural forms which espouse bourgeois, heteronormative and gender-stereotypical worldviews, male audiences would appear to dismiss them for another reason: because they are perceived as being ‘for women’.
That universal topics such as romantic love, grieving and relationships are regarded as the sole domain of women is perhaps one of the central tragedies of contemporary gender relations. Of course this is a highly lucrative ‘tragedy’, for as long as men and women believe they cannot communicate without expert advice, the self-help industry is in big business. Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark) and Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven) have demonstrated that women-centred musicals and melodramas can be complex, ideologically elastic and appeal to both male and female audiences. However, the ‘chick-flick’ as we know it shows few signs of fostering such self-referentiality or complexity because ultimately, it is a sub-genre based first and foremost on marketing and demographic profiling rather than on a coherent set of internal codes or conventions. As long as ‘chick flicks’ perpetuate myths about women being better carers and communicators as well as obsessive consumers and domestic control freaks, they continue to reinforce men and women’s alienation from one another, both as film characters and as film viewers.
Negra, Diane (2006) The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Duke University Press.