Thoughts On: Bridget Jones’s Diary
A thirty-two year old single woman decides to turn over a new leaf.
A ridiculously good film, Bridget Jones’s Diary feels like it should be a guilty pleasure, but I can’t admit to feeling any shame in saying this is one of the best rom-coms ever made – one I’d watch any day. However, romantic comedies seem to be the easiest dismissed kind of film. This is a somewhat deserved attribution though. Romantic comedies, as Bridget Jones’s Diary proves, can be great movies deserving of a million re-watches. But, rom-coms can so easily be complete dog shit. This is a phenomena best explained by delving into the four most versatile genres; action, horror, romance and comedies. These four genres are the main foundations of story telling, the only classifications that are more broad than these would be drama, fiction and non-fiction. However, these are mere classifications. Fiction and non-fiction are very clearly not genres, and so I won’t delve deeper into them. But, it must be said: drama is certainly not a genre – not at all. Drama simply means conflict, and as any writer can tell you, all stories are made up of conflict. To define a group of stories by this fact is utterly redundant – giving little reason as to why drama is such a prevalent term. Its only saving grace is our association of seriousness, confines and realism to this concept of drama. This means that when we hear ‘drama’, we simply assume that there is a lack of action, romance, horror and comedy. Nonetheless, drama is a redundant term in my books. That aside, the four major pillars of story telling are action, horror, comedy and romance. This means that we’re all very well versed in each genre as we’ve been exposed to them so much. This exposure affects genres heavily. With the four major ones, this isn’t so serious as they are so ambiguous and open to variation; a horror merely needs to elicit something along the spectrum of fear and discomfort; comedy needs to be humorous to some degree; romances need to trigger our ingrained capacity for togetherness; action movies need to trigger emotions of self-sovereignty, of being able to protects oneself and handle situations. When we start combining genres these classifications become much more volatile. That is to say that the clear intention of genres is to describe the emotions a kind of story produces in an audience. When you start combining the emotions a story must conjure, you are evidently trying to get a greater, more complex, reaction. With this comes specificity and so greater stakes – all because an audience expects more. When you walk into a rom-com you then expect to both be swept off your feet and made to roll on the floor.
You can imagine the creation of the rom-com as something coming out of a marketer’s mouth – not really a storyteller’s. A storyteller would ‘sell’ his/her story to you by describing the depths of their efforts and intentions: ‘this is a story exploring the woes of love, the downfalls it brings, yet the highs it promises, and how love often leaves you the fool to be laughed at – sometimes laughed with’. Whilst this is a somewhat accurate description of a rom-com on a thematic level, this doesn’t sell the film as a genre, as something you can see replicated. But, it’s much easier to sell the rom-com genre as a marketer: ‘you will laugh with these characters and then you will fall in love with them’. And such seems to be the crux of why the rom-com is so popular and almost such a niche genre. There is a simplistic approach to this combining of two complex genres that defines the term ‘rom-com’. We do not think of the genre on a wide plane of emotions, nor do we think of it as a meaningful combination of storytelling techniques. The rom-com just seems to be the selling of two of the giddiest feelings we can hold, a promise that the film will make you feel love, but also make you laugh. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does begin to explain why the rom-com is considered such an iffy sub-genre. In short, it seems to want to sell a formula and so feels tantamount to a film written just because someone came up with a good title. And this rings true. Most rom-coms are money grabs; empty movies you see once that never stick with you. However, when a good rom-com comes along, it is an undeniable force. Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of these rare waves of sheer force. It packs such a punch because rom-coms should pack a punch – as said, they’re a combination of two powerful genres meant to elicit two of the most poignant emotions in an audience. When a film manages to do this well, when it doesn’t follow a weak formula, it makes utter sense that it be considered great. And this is exactly what I want to talk about in respect to Bridget Jones’s Diary: how to make a great rom-com.
I’ll make it simple and say it up front: to make a good rom-com, you just have to make a personal and intimate film. The comedy in romance–and this is the way it should be, comedy should come out of romance – not romance from comedy–the comedy in romance is derived from discomfort. This is exactly why cringe humour sprouts so effortlessly from the rom-com. When Bridget exclaims “No! No!” after hearing Darcy is engaged and moving to America, we are seeing a woman in a social situation we’d hate to be in. We’ve been warmed up to understand that Bridget wants Darcy in a romantic sense, but that there are boundaries in the way of this (Darcy’s business partner turned fiancée). We all want her to overcome this drama, this conflict, but know that she hasn’t the power stood before so many people at a party. Whilst we can root for Rocky to step up to Drago because there is that small chance that the underdog comes through the victor, Bridget’s conflict is so much more confined. She can’t explode and let fists fly as her conflict is social not physical; this is a romance, not an action film. In such, we sense the overwhelming pressure of this scene, of Bridget stood, unable to anything about her conflict, and can only writhe until the laughs release the pressure from our chests.
This paradigm of romantic comedy isn’t just true of the cringey moments, but can be seen in almost every single funny scene. Bridget is given romantic stakes that act like a pump pushing air into a sealed container. The more romantic stakes are built up, the more desperate Bridget becomes, the closer she gets to finding a match and keeping him, the closer the lid on our proverbial sealed container becomes. The comedy comes when Bridget fails, when the lid pops of, our laughter metaphorically surging forthwith.
The question then raised in respect to this paradigm is, how do you set it up? The answer lies in intimacy and character. To start building romantic pressure to be burst with a bubble of laughter, you have to get us close to the vessel of exchanging conflicts; Bridget, our main character. We only need to look to the opening scene to see a master class in this set-up. We start with a start; a new year, a new diary. This is such an important aspect of films with great characters. The plot has to be intrinsically linked to them and it is one they must walk us through. For Bridget to present herself to us with a fresh page and a fresh year, we’re immediately put on her side – we know we’re going to walk the narrative together. All we then need to know about Bridget’s narrative before it starts is given to us in her first diary entry about her mother’s annual turkey-curry buffet. Here all the main characters and their traits are established – aunts, uncles, parents and of course… Mark Darcy. In seeing his Christmas jumper and then Bridget’s ‘carpet’, the goal end of the film becomes clear – these two must fall in love. And make no mistake, great character films that don’t have a focus on plot are supposed to be predictable. In being predictable conflict can oscillate – as we’ll see throughout the film. In other words, because we’re told (not so much on the sly) in the opening 2 minutes that Bridget and Darcy will be together by the end, the screenwriters have a game to play over the next 100 minutes. The game is to bring us towards and away from that climax, to bring us close to complete success, then right near devastating tragedy – only to bring us back up again. We only withstand this, under the guise of romance and comedy, because we know there’s an end in sight. After all, lighter films aren’t ones we’re going to give ourselves to as willingly as we would a Bergman or Kubrick picture. These directors produce films requiring a great amount of patience and attention from their audience as to fully work – and they’re justified in requiring this because the artistic pay-off is so great; because the films have such powerful undertones and nuance to be found. However, lighter films are never really as profound as the likes of 2001 or Cries & Whispers. This means that if the film wants to play a game by teasing us with peaking and valleying conflict, we better have some security in knowing the end. In such, we see the pivotal nature of the opening; you must subtextually sell the ending of the film to draw us closer to character.
There is still a more important lesson taught by the opening of Bridget Jones and it comes with her overhearing Mark describe her as ‘some verbally incontinent spinster who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish and dresses like her mother’. This, of course, cues this…
Ignoring the all important narration above this scene for a moment, what lies at the heart of Bridget Jones is the incite we’re given into her character. Almost immediately, we see her at one of her worst moments and so are put at an undeniably intimate proximity to her. It’s the heavy verisimilitude of Bridget’s drunken croaning of ‘All by myself!’ that a great truth resonates through from the screen, one that has us believe that she is a real person with genuine emotions. The crux of this projection is in how un-pretty this scene is. It’s not the beautiful blonde crumpling naked in the shower, sobbing silently in slow motion as a piano is pricked and strings whine. This is an unashamed shit-storm of isolated emotion; Bridget letting everything out like no one is watching – something we believe despite knowing that she’s merely an actress pretending in a room full of cameras and crew. This is the crucial intimacy needed in a rom-com, the cringe-worthy truth all exposed by romantic notions. In such, we see that rom-coms need an aspect of truth in them. Characters must behave in a raw and believable way for them to truly resonate with us. It’s this truth expressed by Bridget drinking away her sorrows that doubles as the comedy in the scene. We build to this with her narration. It’s hearing Bridget’s inner thoughts that we’re again, put at an intimate proximity to her. With her opening narration, just as with the visuals, we’re given exposition. It’s the V.O that in fact sets up all romantic tension as we hear about Bridget wanting to find the right guy. This builds as we meet Darcy and explodes with his harsh words resulting in the comedic explosion that is the credit sequence.
So, without seeing past the opening of Bridget Jones, you can get an incredibly strong sense of exactly why this is such a good film. It understands how to bring you close to Bridget as a character as well as expose truth through conflict in a comedic manner. As said, this is a paradigm we see played through time and time again throughout the film as the screenwriters take us on an emotional roller coaster. We see variation in this paradigm, but the essence of it is the exposure of personal moments for Bridget. Whilst there is this variation, the film remains steady throughout as it refuses to over step marks. For example, the cringe humour never becomes gross-out humour…
Whilst Bridesmaids is a great film and similar to Bridget Jones in some respects, it’s definitely more a comedy than a romance. This is why the gross-out humour is so hilarious in this film; it suits the tone. However, it wouldn’t suite the tone of Bridget Jones, which is why a lack of vulgarity is key to our empathising with Bridet. Whilst we’re constantly seeing Bridget’s ass and terrible underwear, these are visuals linked with sympathy and understanding. For example, when Bridget forgets her skirt, we laugh, but also feel sorry for her. The same can be said as she slides down the fireman’s pole, turns up to the party dressed up as a bunny and runs after Darcy in the end. When the group in Bridesmaids shit themselves and puke everywhere, we laugh, but without the same levels of empathy for characters. This is what distinguishes Bridget Jones as a romantic comedy: boundaries that fit the tone, that facilitate empathy.
Another thing that makes this film so personal has to be the fact that it was a book. Whilst I’ve never read the book, through the narration and expressive, yet subdued, reactionary shots of Bridget, you can see the tonal touch of a book in this film. Novels are of course much less objective and observer-like than films. You are put into a characters head – something films have trouble in projecting. However, this is handled perfectly with Bridget Jones. Whilst narration is an obvious example of how we’re brought into Bridget’s head, a really important technique in projecting her inner emotions is the sound track. From the opening to the end, you feel that the songs selling this movie are playing in Bridget’s head, are driving her as a character. What’s so expressive about this is the fact that these are songs that Bridget must like, but that I wouldn’t really have any interest in listening to. Nonetheless, these songs are really poignant and impactful put alongside this narrative. This speaks to a wider thematic structure of films. Whilst I am a guy, whilst I’ve never got drunk and cry-sang depressing songs, I completely understand Bridget and empathise with her on a personal level. There is then a symbiotic vicarious understanding and experiencing occurring when I, when we all, watch films. Whether it’s through events we’ve never experienced ourselves, or songs we don’t ever listen to, movies have a way of having us understand characters who are sometimes the polar opposite of ourselves. This can occur because we’re made to understand a character, because we’re put into their head, made to think and feel as they do. This is what books can do seemingly effortlessly when we read the thoughts of a main character. This is also what Bridget Jones’s Diary does with theme, music and great character work.
Whilst there are formal, structural and technical aspects of Bridget Jones’s Diary that we can all learn from, I think the most important part of this film is its narrative arc. Bridget Jones has to be one of the best rom-coms ever made because its narrative truly understands this idea of making the film personal and bringing us as close to a character as possible. This is evident in the title alone, Bridget Jones’s Diary. This is a film all about the hidden aspects of people we’re rarely, maybe never, allowed to see. Moreover, this is a film about the truth that lies in those hidden aspects. And it’s this truth that ultimately allows us to find happiness in life.
In short, Bridget finds love, falls for Darcy through a series of events in which the two are made transparent to one another. Whether it’s terrible Christmas outfits, awful parents, stupid relationship choices or a generally haphazard approach to life, Bridget and Darcy are made to see all that’s wrong in each other as what binds them, what makes them compatible. It’s exactly this that has Darcy able to read Bridget’s Diary in the end and still accept her as a growing, changing, genuine person. This subtext to the narrative isn’t just romantically aphoristic, but commentary on the rom-com itself and all we’ve talked about so far. To understand this, you merely need to look to the characters you don’t like in this film…
Most notably, it’s Cleaver that is vapid and veiled in lies. This the main reason why we don’t like him; he has no proverbial diary to be read. Having no diary, no genuine side to be exposed makes him our antagonist, our bad guy. Exposing the truth in Darcy on the other hand is what turns him to the knight in dull woollen armour. In such, all narrative movement in the film is towards personal exposure, is towards a secured sense of intimacy where we can empathise for characters without thinking they may betray us. I think this is what truly reinforces the romantic aspects of this movie and goes to show that comedy serves romance in a rom-com. Romances, like action films, are all about security, about carving out a personal and safe hole we own in this world. In being factory farming hunter-gathers, it’s inevitable that there develops a gender rift in the distribution of action and romance films despite the two being so similar. Women evolutionary mean to secure house, home and family – a tight inner circle. Men on the other hand must secure the wider circle that protects the inner. This is why men stereotypically like action films about saving a building full of people or country through war whereas women like stories of connecting with the person next door or a few cubicles over – it’s all about the perimeter of our circles. However, the fact that there is such a strong connection between films such as Die Hard and Bridget Jones’s Diary in this sense makes it clear why many men and women enjoy the best films of either genre. As people driven by common urges of security, homes, families and such, these films, when good, can strike chords deep within us.
What this says about rom-coms, about our sometimes universal draw to them, is that they’re about a greater human truth in us all – a truth embodied by Bridget Jones’s Diary. Just as Bridget’s goal is of finding the truth in people, in sharing intimate moments, so is ours. We go to this film to connect with a character and experience romantic, yet comedic, moments of intimacy. In such, we see the exposure of a wider truth in all of ourselves as movie-goers and people. Many of our experiences are in search this rom-com-esque feeling of security and completeness; a search best braved with the capacity to laugh at yourself and be laughed at.
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