Anthony Minghella Lives
Truly, Madly, Deeply always felt like a romantic comedy to me. I didn't realize, I suppose, the degree of pain that was also present in the film -- until we started screening it. And then I'd look around me and all these people were overwhelmed, and reduced emotionally by it in a way that I'd never been when we were making it...
Minghella goes on (in the special feature interview on Truly's DVD that will be required viewing for anyone who loves the late writer-director's work) to talk about the room-splitter nature of this film, which some years ago evidently made the top three of a British survey list of people's favorite films -- and the top three Least Favorite, simultaneously.
The three-minute sequence that he cites as perhaps responsible for this split, as well as being his favorite in the movie, is heroine Juliet Stevenson's breakdown in her psychiatrist's office. Her performance ("skinless," Minghella calls it) has the kind of harrowing, searing intensity one doesn't tend to associate with romantic comedy, as weeping uncontrollably, she rages at her dead lover: "I'm so angry with him! I can't forgive him for not being here!"
It's a scene made all the more poignant in re-viewing now that Minghella himself is gone. Selfishly, as is our wont, we're pissed off at Minghella for dying young, because we're deprived of seeing all the movies he might've made. Fortunately we do have the exquisite Truly, Madly, Deeply, a blackly comedic exploration of death, grieving, and moving on. It's one of my favorite romantic comedies for precisely how unlike (and yet quintessentially like) a romantic comedy it is.
Truly had the curious misfortune to be released in the same year as Ghost, the inferior, horribly mawkish blockbuster that superficially explored the same story concept that Truly mines so movingly: the return of a loved one from the dead. The two make an interesting comparison in terms of their point: while Ghost wholly romanticizes its dead Mr. Right (played by beefy Patrick Swayze) and wallows in the pathos of his being here-again-yet-not, Truly raises the uncomfortable, entirely realistic question, "If your dead lover came back to live with you, would that necessarily be such a lovely thing?"
And its leading man, played by Alan Rickman in perhaps one of his last leading performances as a good guy (as opposed to his last decade's epitomizing of effete evil), has come back not to save his girlfriend from murderous crooks, but to save her from herself. Therein lies the thematic intrigue of the movie, which -- not to go all SPOILER on the thing, for the sake of those who've yet to see it -- gives Truly the depth and heft that I've come to treasure in a raise-the-bar rom-com.
From a romantic comedy screenwriter's POV, Minghella's writing/directing debut has a number of notable moments. It contains two superlative cute meets: one that is anything but cute (the hold-your-breath moving scene of Rickman's first reappearance) and a later, unexpected one that is literally magical. It manages to present us with two absolutely credible leads who we can believe belonged together -- and yet we can totally understand their coming apart.
The chemistry that's so often feigned or faked in a run-of-the-mill rom-com is palpable here -- not just from the performances, but from the writing. We see it via the couple's affectionate competition in a favorite word game, which yields the film's title ("I love you truly, madly, deeply," says he, "I love you truly, madly, deeply, passionately," says she, and on they go, trying to top each other until he nearly wins the game with "juicily" but ultimately loses it by forgetting to recite "deeply"). And the film contains that old routine, the pop song performed karaoke-style (here it's the Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"), but with the kind of crazed, giggly conviction that for once feels entirely sincere, perhaps because it's more well-motivated dramatically than most.
I've often noted that some of the most successful romantic comedies are those that wed their romantic plot to a high concept, and Truly eminently proves the rule. The ghost motif gets a workout that's so satisfying (again, I don't want to give away the best stuff, since one of the points of this post is: if you've never seen it, go watch this, will you?) -- it's a gag that keeps on giving, grounded in a conceit that has a wonderfully wry subtext (video fanaticism, the movie suggests, really is for dead people). The ghost story at the film's core is what gives it a genre-transcendent universality you don't often find on rom-com turf.
Meanwhile, it was in watching Truly for the third time that I finally comprehended a central theme in Minghella's work: he makes films about community. As demonstrated in English Patient, Cold Mountain and Breaking and Entering -- his last, flawed but admirable film which recalls Truly in its milieu and concerns -- Minghella loves to study how disparate people form unlikely alliances and groups, whether in the African desert or a renovated London flat. Despite its economy-sized production, Truly presents a small world teeming with outspoken individuals. Among its many pleasures are the deftly-etched humans (both living and dead) who fall in love, fight, and even give birth in the corners of its canvas.
Ironically, it wasn't until this viewing that I realized how much Truly had affected me as a writer, for I saw it was evidently an indirect, unconscious influence on my forthcoming novel, Imagine Me and You (an excerpt of which will be published in this week's issue of the L.A. Weekly, available around town and on-line Thursday March 27th).
You can find a more thorough elegy for Minghella here, and a reprint of the apropos Neruda poem recited in Truly, here. The man will be missed, but the beauty part, of course, is that he'll always be with us. His movie is also about that -- what survives, what endures, what each of us can give to each other in leaving, as a true act of love. So thank you, Anthony, for Truly, Madly, Deeply.