Elizabeth Sankey’s Romantic Comedy, which recently premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), is a documentary analysing the pitfalls and charms of the genre of the romantic comedy. A delightful and engaging work, the film also happens to mark the coming together of the realms of the serious with what is widely regarded as the non-serious. On one side is the documentary with its allegiances to truth and reality and its power to effect social, political and cultural change. On the other is the romantic comedy, a genre which, because of its attention to love and human relationships and its association with female audiences – its members often dismissively referred to as “chick flicks” ­– has been consistently undervalued and deemed unworthy of serious critical engagement.

Genre films themselves have long struggled to be taken seriously. As theorists have pointed out, they have relied heavily on audience memory and expectation for their success while their value has been determined not by their singularity and difference from other films but rather by their sameness, by an ability to repeat what has come before and to conform to pre-existing systems and standards. And, among the sub-varieties of the lowly genre film, the romantic comedy has been summarily relegated to the bottom pile, faring far below, for instance, the glorified western, the latter’s connections with American myth and history, guns and men presumably responsible for its considerably higher standing in the genre hierarchy.

Romantic Comedy is the result of Sankey’s assembling of a visual and auditory collage. While visually, it scans through the history of the genre as scenes from films ranging from the screwball classics of the 1930s and 1940s to those from more subversive contemporary examples swiftly glide across the screen, we hear a varied group of people weigh in on the themes, tropes and characters, tease out nuances and align them with their own personal experiences. This last demonstrates, as much as the commentators themselves acknowledge, the romantic comedy’s unique association with personal narratives around courtship, romances and weddings.

The film’s central preoccupation, claiming the most time and space, is women and their changing status, concerns and roles in the genre through the years, a decision perhaps justified by the fact that the genre of the romantic comedy has historically addressed and still continues to cater primarily to a female viewership. Sankey’s film examines themes of power and agency accorded to women through the ages and compares the on- and off-screen dominance of “screwball queens” like Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn and the disparate but influential celluloid personalities of Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day to the relative powerlessness of women in more recent examples of the genre. From the presence of women who feel the need to be saved by men or transform themselves to appear more attractive in their eyes to the complete absence of those who confidently and actively pursue the demands of career and sex, recent romantic comedies appear to have done their female leads a solid disservice. On the other hand, the trope of the tenacious man who stalks, hounds and creeps his way into a woman’s heart is found to be not only pervasive but also dangerously normalised in these films.

Moreover, the film’s probing reveals the characters of most romantic comedies to be resoundingly white and heteronormative and their worldviews resultantly unvarying and limited. In the few instances where gay or non-white characters occur, their narratives are discovered to be unsurprisingly one-dimensional, marginal and more often than not steeped in tragedy.

But is spite of all the de-romanticising that the romantic comedy undergoes in the film, Sankey manages to address some of the reasons behind its enduring popularity, critical disdain notwithstanding. It is through its grand and inevitable declarations of love and its repeated reassurances of hope, comfort, triumph and humanity that the genre ensures its continuing presence in cinema and in the hearts of its audience.

Sankey’s film applies the conventions of the investigative documentary to the romantic comedy, relentlessly examining and dissecting its modes and exposing its drawbacks and omissions. By submitting the romantic comedy to a treatment it has seldom undergone before, and through the channel of a format traditionally linked to weighty and far-reaching subjects often capable of instigating change, Sankey confers a degree of respectability and value on it. Criticism of the genre, by contrast, elevates it, showing that it can be subjected to productive analysis and in the process bestowing upon it a critical worth it has largely been denied. Romantic Comedy found place in IFFR’s Rotterdämmerung programme alongside such genre hybrids as Emma Tammi’s horror-western The Wind and Rob Grant’s dark comedy-cum-‘meta’ survival story Harpoon. The film’s very positioning at its first outing then speaks volumes about its boundary-pushing potential.

I interviewed Elizabeth Sankey after a screening of her film at IFFR. The discussion touched upon a number of ideas, focusing especially on the romantic comedy’s commercial popularity and critical worth, its female audiences and male reviewers, and on the theme of toxic masculinity, present as much in our culture as in our movies.

This is clearly a personal film in some ways. You talk about being in love with these films from a very early age and then starting to notice their problems after you got married. Tell me a little about your decision to make a critical film on the genre.

Yes, when I got married I went and re-watched these films. I wasn’t expecting to find anything problematic in them but did and that opened my eyes to the fact that there were so many issues with them. It’s a genre that is so purely about human connection and relationships as opposed to others genres that are more dramatic or ones where there is some other element alongside the human relationship that I just realised how powerful they are and that when there are problematic things about them they are more affecting. Everybody wants to experience love but maybe not everybody wants to do a heist movie or be an action hero. It made me realise that there were things in them that I wanted to assess a bit more deeply and that put me on to the path of thinking that I am a white, straight woman and I can see that there are issues with this. What’s it like for those who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, who aren’t women to be watching these? How does it make them feel? So that then became something I wanted to explore with other people from different backgrounds to mine.

Why a documentary film? In Romantic Comedy, you mention Ruby Sparks, which unpacks many of the inherent problems in the genre. Why not make a fiction film like it?

I had worked on Beyond Clueless, a film by a very brilliant filmmaker called Charlie Lyne, and that does a very similar thing to what I did with romantic comedies but with teen films. My husband [Jeremy Warmsley] and I are in a band [Summer Camp] together and we had done the soundtrack to that. So, I had seen it done before. For me that was a very eye-opening way of how you could explore things. I have no background in film. I had never directed anything and I didn’t have any money. Also, I think it’s so much more powerful when you are watching something that you have a personal connection to. Yes, there are brilliant romantic comedies which would assess the same factors but they maybe wouldn’t be mainstream whereas I liked that you could take these very mainstream, huge studio success films that everybody loves and has a relationship to and say, “hang on, isn’t this odd or what are we going to think about that now?” It’s just this way of getting something really accessible but then discussing it on a more intellectual level.

There are other contributors (Jessica Barden, Cameron Cook, Anne T. Donahue, Simran Hans, Brodie Lancaster, Charlie Lyne, Eleanor McDowall and Laura Snapes) involved. Tell me about how the team got together on the project.

I looked for people who I knew could talk articulately about romantic comedies and who had a relationship to them that was similar to mine, but who also had a different point of view to mine. So, there were people from different backgrounds, race, gender, sexuality, and then, one white, straight man. Because these films are not aimed at white, straight men, it’s actually quite an interesting thing to have a man tell you. A lot of straight men I have encountered have said that they don’t care about romantic comedies, which makes sense because they are not really for straight men. So, I contacted them, did interviews that were quite personal about their relationship to romantic comedies and then transcribed that and built the film essay out of that.

The “cool girl” trope that you talk about in the film – a muse-like figure who is just there to help the man reach his potential but doesn’t have much of an inner life of her own ­– made me think of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope which is quite similar. This term was originally coined to criticise these unrealistic female characters created by male writers but later gathered criticism for unfairly reducing women to some improbable character traits. I was wondering why the term does not come up in the film. Did you deliberately want to refrain from it or did it just turn out that way?

Yes, I know that the journalist who coined that term now regrets using it because it became a way of dismissing female characters. It became a way of saying that we don’t need to listen to a woman because she fits into a narrow mould like being quirky, etc. But in reality, a lot of women are quirky but that doesn’t mean they don’t have agency or that they are not intelligent.

It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. It’s just that nobody in the interviews referenced that. Every single woman I interviewed talked about the “cool girl” and they cited the “cool girl” trope from Gone Girl, the Gillian Flynn novel. And there was a point when I was going to put Gone Girl in there but then I realised that would be stretching it a little bit. But then, and you might agree with me on this, I don’t feel like I have ever aspired to be a “manic pixie dream girl” but I have definitely aspired to be what would be termed a “cool girl” where I have sublimated myself in order to make myself more attractive to men and be easy-going. That was something that was common to every single woman I interviewed. It just seemed that the more insidious of those two tropes was the “cool girl”. The “manic pixie dream girl” is a term that is used to diminish the female characters whereas the “cool girl” is an aspirational idea, and that’s why it’s so tricky and awful.

Tell me a little about your music and the songs you chose for this film.

My husband is also a film composer and did the original score for the film. We do nostalgic indie-pop and have released three albums and the soundtrack to Beyond Clueless. In general, our songs tend to focus on relationships so this was a really fun project to do. I would watch a lot of romantic comedies and then write lyrics to the songs about the things I had seen. We picked four songs for the film but there is a whole album inspired by romantic comedies that we are going to be releasing later this year. There is a song in the film about the male characters, some of who are very aggressive in romantic comedies, and I remember we were writing the lyrics for that when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. I remember being very angry while compiling all of these clips of men. There’s attempted rape in quite a few romantic comedies and then so many of the films are produced by Miramax. There are obviously a lot of brilliant people involved in making these films who are not Harvey Weinstein but it brought home to me how dominant a lot of that toxic masculinity can be in these films that are aimed at women. I was thinking of all of that when we were writing that song.

It’s a trope so prevalent in movies across cultures…

But it’s not just films. This is a massive part of the narrative of romance in our culture. That’s why I am always keen to say that I don’t think that someone like Zach Braff wrote Garden State with the intention of having a woman who is there just to entertain him. I think he just fell into the traps of the tropes that already exist. I’m sure the two men who wrote 500 Days of Summer [Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber] are very nice guys who didn’t intend to make women behave a certain way but were acting on what they had already seen because it is a trope that is in general considered romantic. Look at the Twilight films for instance. There are these bizarre romantic conceits that we have grown up with.

Moving on to the question of genre, I want to talk about something you address towards the end of your film. You mention “secret rom-coms” and cite films like La La Land and Silver Linings Playbook as examples of romantic comedies that are packaged differently in order to be taken seriously. I want to know your thoughts on this trend. Is it something that is taking the genre in a positive direction by removing some of its stale, worn out tropes and adding a freshness and flexibility to it? Or, on the contrary, by denying the presence of the romantic comedy’s basic conventions, is it doing nothing at all to change the way the genre is viewed in critical circles?

That’s exactly the conclusion I came to as well and I’m glad to hear you say this. “Romantic comedy” is a dirty term and you are definitely not going to win an Oscar for using it. I would have been surprised if La La Land was nominated if it had the two characters end up together. Silver Linings Playbook is a brilliant film but it is also very white and does not push any boundaries. It’s darker than the average rom-com but it has a narrow viewpoint and the man in it is also very toxic. So yes, these are great films but I keep wondering, why doesn’t someone make a romantic comedy that is funny and light but has really great representation and would hopefully be critically acclaimed because it is a great film. But the problem there is that so many of the people who are reviewing the films are men. So, if the films are not aimed at them, they will probably not give them great reviews. Everyone loves When Harry Met Sally and it gets great reviews, but in my opinion, it’s because you see both sides. You see the male as well as the female perspective. And I think that’s something that’s going to be very difficult for romantic comedies in the future because if a film isn’t aimed at a male reviewer, I don’t know that he’s necessarily going to see the value in it.

Continuing that thought, I was wondering how you saw your film’s selection and positioning within the context of IFFR. The reason I ask this is because film festivals by nature have this tag of “seriousness” attached to them, but then the choice of a film about a genre generally relegated in critical circles to the “non-serious” category – is that a step forward?

I was very surprised to get in. I did not think that this is the kind of film that they would consider. I’m insanely flattered. They have been so nice and the audiences have been wonderful. I think there are a lot of people who come to these screenings who aren’t necessarily industry [representatives]. People have been so engaged in the Q&As that I have done. Everyone has an opinion because it is a genre that they know and have a feeling about. And it is wonderful how so many women have been coming, staying and asking me questions. I think I really made this film for women.

But yes, I went to the filmmakers’ dinner two nights ago and I definitely was aware that when I said what my film was about I felt a bit embarrassed! There were people discussing these huge issues and shining a spotlight on important stories that needed to be told and I was like “Yeah, mine’s got Hugh Grant in it!” [laughs]. Yes, but I tried to not make it a pure celebration of the genre. We’re going to other festivals so it will be interesting to see what that’ll be like compared to IFFR.

Finally, I have to ask – do you have a favourite romantic comedy or is there one which you view as the least problematic?

It’s such a boring answer but it’s When Harry Met Sally. Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner had a lot to do with the male perspective in it. It’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t have any bizarre premise. It really is just about two people growing up, and as they grow up, growing closer. And I love that when they first meet, they both know exactly who they are which is so relatable. But then as they grow older they become more humbled by their experiences and are able to fall in love with each other. But they both always complete themselves as well. Sally is never trying to be cool. She’s got her own things that she hangs on to and those make her who she is. She doesn’t sublimate herself in any way. It’s an example of two very strong characters finding their way to each other. There are also The Big Sick, Something New, Saving Face, Imagine Me & You.