In 1995, I walked from my place on SE 12th St in Portland to the Bagdad Theater — one of the best things in the city: a microbrewery that showed cheap movies. It was during my days of 16 mm filmmaking and I went to see films just to see how it was all done. On display that night was French Kiss. I knew nothing of the film. I think I was expecting something like Kiss of the Spider Woman. It wasn’t just because they both had “kiss” in the title. I associate “kiss” with film noir. The point is, I was expecting something with a little grit, not a Meg Ryan romantic comedy.
There is something very special when you see a film cold and it works for you. I loved the film. It starred Kevin Kline with his bad French accent and it took place in France and it had a lot of French music. What’s not to like?! It’s also quite interesting in that the first, second, and third acts all have distinct looks to them. That really does help. It is also a perfect Hollywood script. Adam Brooks nails his act transitions with Meg Ryan dumped on the phone as she sits on the kitchen floor setting up the second act, and then the reveal of the necklace that slams the plot into the third act. I don’t think there was a more perfectly structured script in the 1990s except for maybe Tony Gilroy’s Dolores Claiborne.
From the first time I saw it, I thought that French Kiss was pretty much a modernized version of one of my all time favorite films, It Happened One Night. I mentioned this to Andrea and she scoffed at the thought. “It’s just that they are both about two people who are forced to travel together for the length of the film,” she said. So I let it drop. But last night, I watched the film again and I think I was right.
Certainly it is true that the main thing is that they are road movies. But what’s critical is that they don’t like each other but are secretly attracted. Throughout the first two acts, we’ve gotten the impression that Meg Ryan was trying to get rid of Kevin Kline. But that isn’t the case. She knows what he’s after from the cab ride from the airport onward. She knows that he will be back, so they are bound together from their first meeting — even though they aren’t always together, just as is the case in It Happened One Night. And Kline — just as Clark Gable before him — starts by seeing her only as the repository of his second chance at life, only to slowly come to see her as a critical element in that life.
There are other aspects that link the film. But I think the biggest is that the hero and heroine are equals but not in the usual ways: they represent different classes. Ryan is the model of bourgeois values, and Kline represents the fallen decadent rich. And because it is a Hollywood movie, they fall in love and learn good bourgeois values. The twist is that they may end up in his country doing what he wants to do, but they are living in her world. In that way, it is much easier to see them living happily ever after than I ever could Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night.
Regardless, it doesn’t really matter. I fully admit that French Kiss is not a great film like It Happened One Night. For one thing, its firm stance in favor of bourgeois values was hardly needed in 1995, whereas it was in 1934. But even after 20 years, French Kiss still works. It is still as delightful as when I first saw it. Contrast that with Green Card. Twenty years is a long time for a romantic comedy to survive. In another 20 years, I may have to rethink its non-great status.