Happy Endings and Films
Edited by Armelle Parey, Isabelle Roblin & Dominique Sipière
Paris : Michel Houdiard, 2010
Softback. 168 pp. ISBN 978-2-35692-034-8. 20€
Reviewed by André Kaenel
Université Nancy 2
The broad, ambitious title of this collection of essays written in English is something of a misnomer. Its actual focus is happy endings in mostly recent American comedies with a slant towards Jane Austen adaptations, as indicated by the book’s cover illustration. These editorial choices, if that is what they are, beg the question of the volume’s intended readership: students of English in the French University preparing for the concours? Film studies specialists? The “general reader”? The volume’s uncertain focus is matched by the unevenness of its contents, two problems which are not specific to this collection but which are compounded by the lack of clear—and firm—editorial control. Having said this, most readers interested in happy endings in English-language films are likely to find something to satisfy their curiosity in this grab bag of a book.
Its twelve essays are distributed in five sections: “Defining Happy Endings in Classical Films” (three framings of the Hollywood happy ending), “Cinéma d’auteur” (one essay on Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul and one on Woody Allen’s Match Point), “Heritage Films” (two essays on “Jane Austen films”), “Romantic Comedies” (three contributions discussing mainly American “romcoms” of the last twenty years), and “New Trends” (two pieces, one which covers territory already discussed in other sections—romantic comedies and Jane Austen adaptations—and another one on open-ended, multi-protagonist films whose touchstone is Babel). The volume’s aim is stated in the introduction as follows: “Countering the simplistic view that endings, especially upbeat ones, are the least interesting feature of a film, the following essays explore the convention of the ‘happy ending’ in relation to different periods, genres and types of plot” . James McDowell’s provocatively titled essay, “Does the Hollywood ‘Happy Ending’ Exist?”, which opens the collection, asks the right questions and carves out various critical paths for making sense of happy endings in Hollywood cinema which some of the other essays would have been well advised to follow, either to build on his proposals or to take issue with them and thus help inject a minimal theoretical coherence to the book. Instead, most contributors ignore McDowell’s theses, assuming that happy endings do exist, that they matter, and proceeding to illustrate their point with various examples and close readings. McDowell’s essay also includes a useful review of the critical literature on the subject, in both English and French.
McDowell begins by calling into question common assumptions within films studies about Hollywood’s happy endings: their simplicity and intelligibility (his target here is David Bordwell) and their inherent ideological conservatism, both of which often lead to dubious generalizations about the “worst tendencies of Hollywood cinema”. The other questionable way to deal with happy endings has been to reclaim them by ferreting out their “ironical” or “subversive” function (Bordwell again here, together with Comolli, Narboni, Zizek, Modleski and others). McDowell then takes issue with Christopher Orr’s claim that the ending of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (his case study) could be considered “happy” by offering an alternative account of the construction of the shots in the film’s final scene and by asking two central questions: for whom is the ending a happy one and how does the film position the audience to understand the absence of happy ending in Written on the Wind? This enables him to refute Orr’s (and other critics’) binary view according to which “an ending is either lazily and perniciously reaffirming or it is slyly undermining” .
On the whole, I found the essays in the first section of the volume (“Defining Happy Endings in Classical Films”) to be the most satisfactory. Dominique Sipière follows McDowell with an attempt at a typology of classical Hollywood happy endings (with examples drawn from Lang, Huston, Lubitsch and, of course, Hitchcock). Serge Chauvin discusses “Matrimony as a False Ending in (Post)-Classical Hollywood Fictions of Re/Marriage”, as the subtitle of his essay indicates, by relating happy endings to the romance genre and to the “normative assumptions of the Hays code” , an important contextualizing move too few of the other essays are willing to engage despite the introduction’s overly prudent claim that “[h]appy endings may bear the marks of their time, ideology and/or the idiosyncrasies of their directors” . This blind spot matches the volume’s preference for approaches derived from the familiar formalist, auteur-oriented hobby horses of French cinephilia. One exception, besides Serge Chauvin’s essay, is Ariane Hudelet’s text which she declares “will focus on the ambiguous relationship between reality and fiction in the contexts of the ‘Austen films’, be they adaptations of her novels, biopics, or films that choose to represent the reception of Austen today” . There is also a good essay by Celestino Deleyto, the author of a couple of books on romantic comedies, who discusses the articulation of space in a body of films but only addresses happy endings tangentially. The same is true of the closing essay by Maria del Mar Azcona, “Precarious Teleologies: New Endings for a New Genre”, whose focus is less on happy endings than on the relations between open and closed endings in “multi-protagonist”, symphonic films like Babel and Syriana that feature a multiplicity of characters, narratives and points of views and problematize “the genre’s sense of an ending” .
A mixed bag, then, which a stronger editorial hand might have improved by requiring rewrites here and there (especially in the case of one barely comprehensible, poorly sourced essay lacking an identifiable thesis), and by pruning the many needless typos and errors: note 2 of the introduction is missing, When Harry Met Sally is identified as When Harry Meets Sally in the table of contents; An Affair to Remember is from 1957, not 1955; Fat City from 1972, not "192" [sic]; Working Girl was directed by Mike (not Bill) Nichols; Bette Midler becomes Miller, Marc Forster Mark; Gwyneth Paltrow Gwynneth, Dragonwyck Dragonwick in the index, but the index is welcome.
Cercles © 2011