To enter into someone else's life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.

--Harold Pinter

It's a funny phrase, 'feel-good film', isn't it? It's a massive genre. They must make up a large proportion of the yearly Hollywood output. I don't have the figures, but show me a major movie that ends on a downer and I'll show you a flop. And yet, after watching, say, Ten things I hate about you as a teen about to go through the rituals that make up the film I was filled with a profound sadness. Not just because I'm a grumpy arsehole, but also because the deeply aspirational content of the these films pimps dissatisfaction and satisfaction in equal measure - every symmetry inevitably shows you your own asymmetries. Their successes illuminate your failures. And so on. I find feel-good films so enormously depressing that I stick to parables of loss and loathing and feel inversely cheered at the end of each one.

So it came as little surprise to me that though I loved Pretty Woman, it amused and irritated me in unequal measure. Made in 1990, at least two years before the Eighties were over, Pretty Woman must be one of the most successful feel-good films ever made. On a $14m budget it grossed $178.4m, if that helps any. It made Julia Roberts; I think Richard Gere was already made. A friend described it to me as "the closest man has come to bottling happiness".

Sketchy synopsis
The strapline is "She walked off the street, into his life and stole his heart." In synopsis, prostitute meets prince, is pampered, falls in obsession, they argue, they elope and (we can only assume) marry. Along the way the lovers go to a polo match, the opera, go horseriding, have sex on a grand piano (which produces a genuinely eerie Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack), spend a self-congratulatory "obscene" sum of money, play chess and generally intermingle their banal psychodrama with the fat and arrogance of the end of the Eighties.

I find all this pretty sinister
The film constitutes a masculine bourgeois fantasy whereby each woman's true self when uncovered is one that wholly endorses the values of the moneyed and self-made Professional. Gere creates Roberts in his own image, and she loves it. This innate cultural complicity could not, of course, appear in a film today - even a film as mainstream as Pretty Woman. How could Pretty Woman be remade? For all the gross distortions of femininity that the film perpetrates, it's actually Richard Gere who'd have to be rewritten in a remake - but this might be because Roberts is an empty cipher for Gere to culturally encode. The most sinister part for me was when Roberts first goes to Gere's penthouse. Which viewer would not think that instead of Gere (looking alarmingly like John Kerry) looking at the prostitute in front of him with a chillingly patrician eye we could have Christian Bale, about to rend Roberts limb from limb with an axe?

On the other hand
The film does acknowledge some of these difficulties. Any Prince/Pauper fairytale in which the pauper says to the prince "I want the fairytale", as Roberts says to Gere, can't be wholly lacking in self-awareness. Roberts is a safety-conscious sex-professional who tries to look after herself. And the film does implicitly ask itself some tough questions underneath the celebration of the eighties that makes up most of the film. When his attorney Philip Stuckey notes 'serious changes' in Gere, what is the limit of the prostitute's influence? The domestic - his tie has changed. And when Gere elects not to strip the assets of the failing company, it's for 'personal' empathy not the exchange of economic paradigms. And Roberts is right - will Gere endlessly re-assert his hegemony over her by assaulting every man who assaults her? When will she have the agency to assault the men herself? So it's not wholly unaware.

But I still don't really like the sexual politics one bit
Roberts is, presumably, meant to be so attractive in the film because she is at once a whore and a Goddess. It's that she fulfils both male fantasy roles whilst in Gere's pocket that is the ultimate disempowerment for her. Roberts spends the film literally belonging to Gere: she is his "employee", and who can pretend that she would not be also his wife. The film's desperately workmanlike supersession of contractual paradigms for gesturally non-contractual - don't even mention the fucking bonds of love - rings so hollow that it reverberates through every other fatuous pretence in the movie. There's no redemption here - nothing actually changes; Gere and Roberts just flee themselves together.

But as a rom-com, perhaps it does have merits
For all this, there are many upsides, and many great things in the film. It presents a nicely structured narrative - it's a tight little five-finger exercise. As Gere finds love with Roberts, he finds out how to love in his business and peace with his memory of his recently deceased father. Watching her grow in self-esteem and him grow in self-awareness is genuinely a pleasure. The film makes a few waspish points about 'society' among the more workaday observations. The clothes are nice, and the dialogue is well written. There are in fact a few actual laughs. They drive off into the sunset together in a convertible. And the eighties hairstyles are worth the viewing time alone. The two heroes leave for a new life together, having learnt about themselves from each other. These are things that make Pretty Woman a great assay of the feel-good genre.

But of course, that very dexterity brings me right back down to earth. Because, as we all know, people don't change. Relationships are for self-affirmation alone. And most importantly, there is never any meaningful escape from the nothingness within ourselves, as any viewer rising from a feel-good film like Pretty Woman will attest.

Richard Gere - Edward Lewis
Julia Roberts - Vivian Ward
Ralph Bellamy - James Morse
Jason Alexander - Philip Stuckey

The famous title track is crooned by Roy Orbison.


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