The Perfect Rom-Com

The Perfect Rom-Com
On Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's 'I Know Where I'm Going' (1945)

In the midst of five of their great masterpieces, The Archers (directing team Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) were held up on the production of A Matter of Life and Death (1946) by a colour film shortage, and so decided to make a smaller, more straight forward genre film, quite unlike the war dramas that started their collaboration, ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ (1945) is a romantic comedy, and the first film to be shown in The Film Foundation’s free screening room. Not that it’s a film without scale by any means, it ends with a big action climax in a whirlpool, echoing a legend, but it’s a legend local to the fictional island of Kiloran and the communities surrounding it. Unlike in A Canterbury Tale (1944) where The Archers try to turn the provincial epic, they turn the lightly exotic locations into something more comfortable and quintessentially British, even down to the weather humour: a hard cut from a character noting what a sublime day it is to dark clouds storming over cued by a loud clap of thunder.

A familiar form and a comfortable tone doesn’t suggest an absence of things to say, quite the opposite, Joan—the woman who knows where she is going—is so driven to success that she decides to marry a rich old industrialist, or, as we see in one of cinema's very best dream sequences, through the shimmering plastic of a dress cover, marry his company itself, Consolidated Chemical Industries; the factory exhaling steam to say “I do”. Perhaps a response to the American romantic comedies of the time that were not just uncritical of capitalism, but obsessed with, at best, the signifiers of wealth. Without the political backing a message of ‘slowing down’ could seem quite trite, often reactions against this kind of drive and initiative, especially in women, can be quite conservative, like how the sickness the nuns feel from the high Indian climate in Black Narcissus (1947) speaks less to the evils of imperialism than to the idea that people have a natural place that they belong and perhaps they should stay there. It’s so important then that we see Joan knew where she was going from early childhood, it’s not so much a bad impulse as an impulse co-opted by a bad force, the repetition of the titular song over the ending isn’t an ironic contradiction, but a new harmony.

If The Archers’ attitude to Joan is still a little paternalistic—one scene where she puffs out her chest and projects her voice to a young girl, as if that’s who she’s trying to convince, a proxy for her younger self, leans a touch patronising—it’s interesting to compare the character who seems most to be their surrogate, most aligned with the films light and ironic tone, Torquil, the love interest and Laird of Kiloran, to a similar character in Black Narcissus, Mr Dean. He’s an aloof presence, and a constant voice of warning to the Nun’s about the futility of living amongst the natives, despite doing so himself, filled with a kind of nihilistic arrogance. Whereas Torquil plays into the traditions of Kiloran, when Joan asks if he’s curious about going into the castle that’s said to curse the Laird, he replies “no, it’s always been that way”. Not that he’s exactly pious, he’s happy to add a humorously bleak ending to his telling of a myth to poke fun at Joan’s idealism, his relationship to tradition is, much like the film’s, more complex, to accept in himself that he wants to be with Joan—as she too must do after desperately trying to get to her wedding on Kiloran, blocked off by the storm, going becoming a form of running—he must break it, he must enter the caste. It’s not that the film wants to totally subvert it, nor that Torquil stops believing, in fact the curse does come true, it just so happens to be a good curse: he will “die in chains” the inscription reads, “chained to a woman”, the woman he loves.

This not-quite-foreign culture is given much weight, the film slows right down to spend time watching traditional dances and narratively superfluous characters, but it’s not like the similar scenes in John Ford’s films which are fully convinced by, and wrapped up in, their spiritual truth; to The Archers it’s about the beauty of practice as practice, not as a symbol for something greater. In this way the film is more similar to Black Narcissus, with its, at best, ambivalent relationship to religion. Every night Joan prays for the storm to go away, and each time God is represented differently, on one night by a silly face carved into a wooden beam, and on another, quite movingly I think, by the shape of light formed above a lampshade. But Joan’s character arc is resolved when she decides not to pray, maybe even the more pious feeling A Canterbury Tale is more about the beauty of architecture than of God.

More than anything else though, ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ is the platonic ideal of the rom-com, it does exactly what they should: expanding the emotional lives of women to a large scale and taking them seriously. Expressed in a rather dated way, a falconer warmly states that taming a woman “cannot be done”, which is not true of rom-coms great on as many counts as Holiday (1938), Katherine Hepburn does break away from her shallow, controlling and wealthy family, but to go on the trip around the world Cary Grant has always dreamed of. Here, it’s the man that’s “chained” to the woman, and even that is expressed with the mixture of reverence and irony that so defines the film; seriousness does not mean heaviness and never has a film about waiting felt so light and briskly paced.

What is a better expression of those big emotions, of falling in love, than going together into a whirlpool, as Joan eventually admits “I’d rather swim in the sea than a swimming pool”, giving herself over not to God or traditional, but to the whims of the world and to love. Here, the film swerves from convention, from genre, by having the confession come not in the midst of these great waves and emotions, but once everything has calmed down, after even the curse has come true in that gently subversive way. Though they had to go to such lengths to accept these feelings, their flaws drove them together and gave us our genre thrills, the humanism underneath is deeper and richer, there is so much room for those flaws because, as one character so simply and so beautifully puts it: “I don’t think anyone’s awful”. The film’s homeliness doesn’t speak to some conservatism because the film isn’t about capitalism or tradition or God, it’s a rom-con to the core; it’s about love, and love isn’t about the shouting, but the quiet pleasures of one another’s presence. Letting those feelings comfortably sit without the pressure to do anything or go anywhere.