I watched When Harry Met Sally for the first time just a few weeks ago, motivated mostly by the need to escape from the interminable misery of midterms season. It is, to put it plainly, excellent; screenwriter Nora Ephron’s unparalleled ear for dialogue and Rob Reiner’s dynamic direction come together to produce a film that is deserving of its status as a cinematic giant. When it comes to personal and professional achievements, When Harry Met Sally outpaces me by eleven years and one Academy Award nomination, placing it solidly beyond any need for my own endorsement. Still, this reality didn’t stop me from spending the next week acting as an unsolicited ambassador for the film. I talked about it incessantly with friends and classmates, and although I went into these conversations intending to laud the film’s technical accomplishments, I kept coming back to simpler expressions of personal glee. I was enchanted by the beauty of Ephron and Reiner’s world, a space bursting with color and music that framed every subtle exercise of artistic skill in a buoyant, joyful light. The writing is so tight and lyrical, I remember trying to explain to a friend; and then, almost in the same breath, “Meg Ryan is so pretty it almost hurts!”
Although rom-com’s general lack of social capital has primed many viewers to reject complicated critical readings of the genre, the technical features and stylistic conventions that pervade works like When Harry Met Sally make them fertile ground for interpretive work. Like most films, rom-coms are artificial artistic constructions grounded in particular worldviews. Unlike most films, however, rom-coms wear this artificiality on their sleeves, and the reliable visual consistency within the genre suggests shared priorities across a diverse slate of films. Rom-com worlds are traditionally appealing spaces rife with eye-catching elements and opportunities for visual pleasure. Bright colors (when technology allows), vivid textures, and a preference for visual symmetry are seamlessly coupled with non-diegetic elements like whimsical camera work and music to produce compositional coherence, which complements the formulaic nature of the basic rom-com plot. Similarly, the shameless celebration of aesthetic construction allows for an unrealistic but highly effective sense of harmony between the visual realities of the film and the emotional sensibilities at the heart of the narrative. As divergent but artistically consistent examples like 1993’s meteorological time-loop shenanigans in Groundhog Day and 2019’s experimentation with romantic satire in Isn’t It Romantic demonstrate, these conventions are at the center of what makes the sentimentality of rom-coms work. Just as protagonists like Groundhog Day’s Phil and Isn’t It Romantic’s Natalie hunger for the personal satisfaction of a happy ending, their environments emphasize the value of symmetry, elegance, and vibrancy as hallmarks of love. In films like Groundhog Day and Isn’t It Romantic, artists working within rom-com genre consciously construct a specific aesthetic of artificiality that prioritizes beauty and idealism over realism as a cinematic vehicle for romantic expression.
From a purely cinematographic standpoint, Isn’t It Romantic is the most compelling example of rom-com conventions in action. The film’s status as both a paradigmatic rom-com and a playful pastiche require traditional rom-com aesthetics to be not only present but exaggerated within the text. These aesthetics anchor much of the action in a deliberately extreme iteration of stereotypically rom-com settings and subplots, as the injured, unconscious protagonist Natalie is transported to a fantasy version of New York City to rediscover her romantic optimism. The conceit at the heart of Isn’t It Romantic makes an automatic association between the aesthetic and generic conventions of rom-com and a general sense of artificiality and unrealistic perfection, quite literally separating the rom-com space from the ‘real’ world. Once Natalie exits the hospital and steps into the rom-com space, the film becomes obsessed with reinforcing this distinction through non-diegetic cinematographic elements and diegetic narrative details (IIR 15:37-16:20). As this scene unfolds, the camera complements its heroine’s displacement by emphasizing elements of implausible beauty. Natalie’s first steps out of the hospital are accompanied by an ethereal score and a dramatic camera pan from above which draws the audience’s attention to her discordantly elegant costume. Generally, the camera also tends to use wide shots which allow for the audience to take note of Natalie’s position against background elements of symmetry and beauty like implausibly hot doctors and pastel cupcake trucks decked out with flowers (IIR 15:37-15:45; 15:50; 16:05). At every turn, the film encourages the audience to notice and enjoy these improbably lovely images in spite of Natalie’s skepticism, and Natalie’s emotional arc ultimately requires her to embrace this loveliness too.
Indeed, the structure of this short scene seems intended to suggest that these moments of intense sensual appeal are impossible to synthesize rationally or realistically. The best example of this can be seen just before this sequence draws to a close when Natalie sees and hears a cyclist playing a pop song in front of her. Here, the diegetic status of the music is left perpetually unclear; it seems to cut in at the same level as the non-diegetic instrumental score, but it is given an onscreen source in the form of the cyclist’s radio (IIR 16:09). At the same time, the camera becomes even more dramatic in its movements. Across the five shots which make up this brief visual exchange, the camera changes its distance and angle on Natalie at random. It cuts from a close shot where Natalie is foregrounded and positioned in the right of the screen to a gentle pan of the cyclist, cuts back to slightly wider shot of Natalie where she is now centered in the frame, zooms in on the cyclist’s radio, and then makes a completely discontinuous cut to Natalie taken from a new angle wherein the background is completely different (IIR 16:09-16:18). In Natalie’s own words, technically and narratively speaking, “this is really weird” (IIR 16:19). The camera’s erratic movement and the discontinuity of the editing is unconventional, destabilizing the viewer’s sense of spatial consistency and drawing their attention to the external mediating presence of the camera itself. In this sense, Isn’t It Romantic establishes an image of the rom-com world which is fundamentally artificial and incompatible with rationality; the text asks us not to suspend our disbelief but to acknowledge and delight in our awareness of the impossibility of the visuals that we see. As both Natalie and the audience quickly notice, reality must be eschewed entirely to make space for every sort of lovely thing, from orderly streets and pastel signs to kindness, connection, and warmth.
Isn’t It Romantic takes this rejection of realism to an extreme in the name of self-parody, but its engagement with the genre’s general aesthetic tropes are sound; its cinematographic gestures are instantly recognizable as rom-com techniques, and its removal from the rationality of the real world is by no means atypical. More conventional rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally and Groundhog Day are characterized by a similar sense of artificiality, using the camera to draw attention to the text’s features as an artistic product. Although many of these films exhibit more restraint in their general visual presentations, they often embed their expressions of idealism and artificiality within more integral structural elements of the narrative that render the overall sense of unreality more thematically essential. This strategy is particularly noticeable in Groundhog Day, where the truly absurd narrative obstacles faced by much-maligned meteorologist Phil involve temporal and visual repetition in the form of a time-loop that can only be broken by Phil’s emotional growth and romantic success. Groundhog Day adopts a more grounded aesthetic with a muted color palette and less erratic cinematography relative to Isn’t It Romantic. However, it also indulges in a sense of resonance between Phil’s emotions and the natural world in a manner, which calls attention to the externally manmade nature of the film’s symbolic components.
At this level of symbolic construction, Phil’s chosen profession and the narrative utility of major weather events as sources of setbacks and conflict prime Groundhog Day to lean heavily into the poetic technique of pathetic fallacy wherein nature is artificially imbued with anthropomorphic emotional resonance. Through subtle technical gestures, the camera implies that Phil’s stagnancy, depression, and negativity are reflected and refracted by grey skies and snow storms, making it appear as if these elements were responding to his feelings with active intent (Poetry Foundation). As the term suggests, pathetic fallacy is a rational impossibility, which lends works that employ it an air of conscious artistic construction that undermines their approximations of realism. Although a film like Groundhog Day is not the most traditional expression of pathetic fallacy, the camera invests a significant amount of creative energy in establishing this relationship. For example, it is easy to see Phil’s own agitation and restlessness reflected in the motion of the blizzard during the team’s initial attempt to get out of town (GD 15:17 -16:36). As Phil begins to feel progressively more overwhelmed by his inability to leave Punxsutawney and steps outside into the storm, the snow itself continues to become more obtrusive, picking up in speed, sticking to his hair and clothes, and impairing his movements. Long, wide shots frame him on all sides with the frenetic motion of the snow, and they allow flakes of snow to disrupt Phil’s visual centrality by falling heavily in the space between Phil and the camera. When Phil’s mental state has reached a point which borders on hysteria, these elements render his assertion that “I make the weather!” particularly ironic; in spite of his claims of agency, he is dwarfed both by the literal storm unfolding around him and the internal emotional turmoil that the snow represents (GD 16:20).
From a purely aesthetic perspective, the perpetual presence of snow in Groundhog Day also provides the most consistent decorative element in the film, adding a dimension of impractical beauty to an otherwise drab set. This snow remains blisteringly white and picturesque to an improbable extent, abandoning any sincere pretense of realism as flakes appear eternally fluffy even along busy, smog-infested streets. This subtle but pervasive rejection of a more realistic aesthetic in favor of idealized beauty is reminiscent of the more dramatic visual choices made in Isn’t It Romantic, and its thematic connection to Phil’s emotional journey serves as a reminder of the contrived quest for personal growth at the heart of the narrative. An excellent embodiment of these subtle connections to Phil’s romantic journey can be seen towards the end of the film when Phil sculpts Rita’s face in a snowbank, using improbably refined technical skill to transform this natural element into both a literal artwork and a reflection of his love for Rita (GD 1:32:38-1:33:39). As the scene is shot, the audience is given the opportunity to admire this image for several seconds before we see Rita and Phil’s faces. The sculpture is first shown through a close shot where it is allowed to dominate the entire frame with little negative space as an angelic musical score plays, and Rita remarks that the piece is “amazing” (GD 1:33:22-1:33:28). In this moment, the camera dwells on an expression of snow at the height of its beauty, symbolic potency, and artificiality, encouraging the audience to accept this image in spite of its practical implausibility.
Although this rejection of realism in favor of cultivated artificiality is easy to spot, it is not immediately apparent why these features have become so ubiquitous within the rom-com genre. Isn’t It Romantic certainly elicits a particular sort of meta-textual pleasure among audiences specifically because it deploys these tropes for the purposes of parody and self-referential intertextuality; its intentional references to genre staples like Pretty Woman and When Harry Met Sally announce this as a consistent goal of the film. However, films like Groundhog Day and its many predecessors utilize the same techniques without conceptual justification. Phil’s melodramatic time spent reliving the same day repeatedly is ridiculous, but the film is neither parodic nor explicitly fantastical in tone. Similarly, When Harry Met Sally presents characters, settings, and scenes too flawless to be mistaken for nonfiction without stepping beyond the bounds of a familiar, contemporary representation of New York City. In the absence of any guise of science fiction or fantasy, these unbelievable genre tropes can only serve to strain a logically-minded viewer’s suspension of disbelief. So, why do rom-coms choose to look and sound this way, especially after decades of ridicule from filmmakers and fans who favor a more realistic aesthetic? If these films seek to document the common human experience of falling in love, why do they refuse to look the part?
An incomplete answer to these questions might be to plainly state that rom-coms are simply trying to provide audiences with appealing fluff that is generally entertaining and nice to look at. Although this account sounds reductive, it is also true, at least superficially. As my own experiences with When Harry Met Sally demonstrate, there is something pleasurable about the experience of watching a rom-com that exists independently from its specific plot or characters. At a certain point, my ability to engage with the narrative itself fell away, and I was left with my emotional responses to the general loveliness of the images and actors onscreen. Given the sheer prevalence of hyper-stylized visual and aural elements in the genre as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that this effect is intentional and curated by the creative team’s collective efforts. Between the elaborate costumes, snappy dialogue, dramatic musical elements, and attractive people that often populate the rom-com world, rom-com often presents itself as a celebration of the power of uncomplicated moments of beauty that can be appreciated on their own terms.
The flaw with this account of the purpose of rom-com aesthetics is that it assumes that the primary appeal of rom-com is almost entirely frivolous; each element may be enjoyable or pleasant to consume, but there is no larger cultural or narrative significance to the work as a whole. One possible strategy for resolving this unduly negative criticism is to reintroduce actual readings of plot and structure back into our understanding of the potency of the genre. Generally speaking, unrealistic contrivances are also present in many rom-com plots; audiences are traditionally presented with appealingly simple, predictable storylines wherein reliable formulas ensure that the ‘right’ people end up together and the various elements of the plot fall neatly into place. This narrative reality is ultimately true of both Isn’t It Romantic and Groundhog Day despite the fact that both films make an explicit attempt to manipulate traditional rom-com formulas through their respective gimmicks. Even as each film offers points of exaggeration or fantasy which critique the ubiquity of unrealistic plot elements, they employ their own iterations of meet cutes, makeovers, and happy endings without shame. Although this reliance on tropes is less blatantly artificial than an empathetic snowstorm or a questionably diegetic pop song, there is a transparent, self-conscious artistry to these types of narrative construction which embrace contrivance and narrative neatness. The drama, coincidence, and guaranteed resolution of a rom-com storyline is fundamentally discordant with most viewers’ lived experiences, and these points of obvious fictionality may be uniquely difficult for skeptics to digest. The unrealistic perfection and artificiality of rom-com’s aesthetics might be read as an attempt to prime audiences for a necessary rejection of realism or suspension of disbelief at the level of character interaction and plot. By encouraging the audience to notice and take pleasure in moments of beautifully impossible spectacle, these technical components foster a mindset wherein audiences are more likely to find satisfaction in plot elements and endings that are lovely but inherently contrived.
In their own ways, both Groundhog Day and Isn’t It Romantic synthesize visual and narrative idealism and provide their audiences with continued escalations of aesthetic stylization as they wrap up their respective coupling plots. In Groundhog Day, the visual language redoubles its efforts to link Phil’s emotional state with the subtle environmental shifts that the new day brings; his refreshed outlook on life is accompanied by brighter natural lighting, lending the snow a magical glow that emphasizes its appealing, decorative qualities. The film closes on a wide shot of the perfectly symmetrical, snow-laden landscape that places the newly formed couple’s bodies at the center of the frame, dwarfed by their beautified natural surroundings (GD 1:38:15). This emotionally resonant natural aesthetic then persists as the credits play over an illustrated backdrop of blue skies and puffy, idyllic white clouds, reminding the audience of the carefully-crafted visual language while the crafters themselves are listed onscreen. Similarly, Isn’t It Romantic ends on a gratuitously elaborate musical number which revels in its own diegetic questionability and colorful spectacle and also doubles as the film’s main credits (IIR 1:20:12-1:24:00). This final sequence is particularly significant because it represents an example of the rom-com aesthetic spilling into Natalie’s ‘real’ lived experience; although she has returned from the fantasy rom-com world at this point in the narrative, she carries its tropes and trappings with her. As Natalie and her ordinary coworkers spontaneously break into song, the implausibility of their campy choreography and uncomplicated delight reinforce the value of these signifiers of rom-com at its silliest and purest. In a very complete way, the film chooses to abandon any pretense of realism as these layers of impractical artistry are boldly put on display.
In both films, the harmony between form and content helps to ensure that the audience leaves feeling satisfied because of this seamless artificiality rather than in spite of it. Phil and Natalie both leave reality behind in their pursuit of love, and the structural features of rom-com tell us that this irrationality is not only acceptable but indeed desirable. After all, rom-coms are not truly trying to replicate the lived human experience of falling in love; they consciously exist as fictions, grounded in centuries of semantics surrounding how we tell love stories and generally disinterested in mimetic replication of actual people or environments. Whether its aim is to pull us in with catchy music, pristine snowy landscapes, or Meg Ryan’s beautiful face, rom-com ultimately thrives in these moments where our only recourse is to abandon rationality and engage with the text emotionally. It strives, at every possible level, to be so pretty that it almost hurts.