Within the vast sea of unwieldy films scrimmaging in its line-up, Locarno makes sure to throw in some feel-good movies every now and then. But after the end credits rolled, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Ruby Sparks did not feel good at all. To explain the subtle, yet long lasting stomach ache the film causes, one has to strip away layers of sugar coating from the hidden bitter pill the film made its viewers swallow.
*** contains spoilers ***
Boy meets girl.
Calvin (Paul Dano) is a loner; one night in his dreams, he meets Ruby (Zoe Kazan). When Calvin starts writing about her, Ruby magically comes to life. The concept of a wish fulfillment rom-com is not terribly original, though it's not without promise. More novel is the character of Calvin, who represents a male character deconstructing the usual self-assured, through and through masculine distillate of a heterosexual man one often encounters in romantic comedies. Calvin is no cut and dried, two dimensional decalcomania, he has flaws, fears, neuroses, yet at the same time he is also a gifted writer. His first novel was a bestseller; his second does not exist yet because he cannot deal with the pressure. But Calvin does more than defy the standard construction of the overly manly man: he is neither goofy Jerry Lewis (funny guy gets the girl) nor nerdy Michael Cera (nerdy guy gets the girl). He transcends the usual male gender constructs and settles for something new: a human being.
In opposition to this human character there is Ruby, his dreamed up dream girl.
Ruby is a female stock character, a well-known representation of the female in romantic comedies: the “manic pixie dream girl”. Her kind has been around since the 1930s screwball comedies and has recently encountered a renaissance. Ruby is different, eccentric, overly girlie. She wears brightly colored tights, her figure is petite – more girl than woman. Ruby is hazard-free. She is fun, her character is shallow enough to create romantic interest but not so complex as to invade Calvin’s inner space. She is a safe choice - after all, she merely represents his dreams and expectations of a “woman”.
Boy vs. Girl
Ruby soon outgrows the classic Pygmalion myth and slowly unfolds into a three-dimensional character, mood swings, erratic behavior and independent thoughts included. As she defies the flat blueprints of her origin and strives for humanity and autonomy, Calvin loses his independence and retreats to passivity, passive-aggressiveness and more stereotypical behavior. It is here that both characters approximate each other: both are half human, half constructed stereotype. Now the film enters the arena of the battle of the sexes, a battle that is mainly about power and autonomy but is fought along the lines of gender and heterosexual relationship concepts. Harmony ends, the bickering begins. Maybe Calvin's new life is more problematic than idyllic after all.
But alas, contradiction can be resolved by simply follow the genre rules: unruly women must be broken down until they submit to the pre-constructed gender roles. Career women leave their jobs for a marriage with children, sexually active women choose monogamy, independent thinkers stop thinking. In Ruby’s case, Calvin just edits his dream girl by trimming her budding autonomy and adding more happiness and more dependence to her side, so she stays with him while still being fun. However, each revision introduces new cascades of problems. The rules of the genre cannot contain the outbreak.
Film vs. Genre
Calvin and Ruby continue to fight. Where other films stop and save the wobbly construction by running the end credits, Calvin and Ruby keep going and start their process of complete deconstruction. A genre revolution could begin right here, right in the moment that Calvin decides to lift the curtain and show Ruby how the Wizard of Oz works his magic. He types on his typewriter: Ruby shall snap her fingers and so she does. He shows her the power of genre convictions which deny her autonomy and keep her in place. But they also keep the male character at bay,: the magic only works as long as he takes his role as the puppet-master, which is, after all, a full-time occupation, one that prevents him, too, from developing his independent spirit. Calvin, the male, becomes the ultimate supremacist, Ruby, the female, is the playing field for his narcissist desires. The scene goes on for a long time, during which he humiliates her, while losing all humanness himself. Together they expose usually implicit gender constructs with such intensity and precision that the film approaches a point of no return.
Re-constructing the Deconstruction
But then, just seconds before an implosion which would only leave the character’s empty shells behind for re-definition, the film not only stops its revolutionary path but runs back in panic to the worn-out origins of romantic comedy. It is here that the sugar coat stops overshadowing the bitterness of the pill. The deconstruction ends when Calvin, after having Ruby humuliated and broken down, finally breaks the magic spell. Ruby’s memories are deleted and she is punished for her insubordination by being removed from the diegesis, only to return as a tamed stereotype in the end. Calvin, on the other hand, has done what the genre rules demanded and is being rewarded with pity and more power. He capitalizes on the abuse by writing a book which corroborates his social status even more. In the end, he meets Ruby yet again to start afresh with her. The story repeats itself, the new relationship that is being hinted at also starts off with an imbalance of power: he knows her story, he invented her. The deconstruction has been reversed, all is back to the good old rom-com, showing everyone where their gendered place in life is.
More dispatches from the Critics Academy participants will be published on FilmLinc.com through the end of the Locarno Film Festival on August 11. Keep watching for their bylines in the coming days!