Has Hugh Grant ruined romance by distorting expectations of love? Melissa Kent investigates the "Notting Hill effect".
Love, to quote Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, is like oxygen. Love is a many splendoured thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!
Or so the movies have always told us. After all, love is the central tenet of a thousand romantic comedies, the very core of Hugh Grant's career, the raison d'etre of Meg Ryan.
Love makes us sit down with our beloved on Valentine's Day and pop You've Got Mail into the DVD player.
Well, before you hit the play button next Saturday, there is something you should know: romantic comedies and the Hollywood love machine could be ruining your love life.
Yes, you could be suffering from the "Notting Hill effect", as it has been dubbed by the British press - a condition far worse than Grant's penchant for illicit pit-stops on Sunset Boulevard.
According to a team of social psychologists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, romantic comedies give us unrealistic expectations about our own relationships, filling our heads with silly notions of soulmates, predestined love, great sex and Richard Curtis happy-ever-after endings.
Who knew a night in with Meg could be so bad for you?
To test the premise, 100 students were shown the John Cusack romcom Serendipity while another 100 watched a David Lynch flick.
In a questionnaire afterwards, the Serendipity viewers were much more likely to say they believed in fate and predestined love than the others.
"That really creates high expectations for some people," research leader Dr Bjarne Holmes explains.
"There's a lot of research out there that shows that if you hold this idea that there is such a thing as predestined love ... then you actually have a tendency to be less happy in your own relationships.
"Marriage counsellors often see couples who believe that sex should always be perfect, and that if someone is meant to be with you then they will know what you want without you needing to communicate it."
In other words, you Hugh and Meg fans are a bit deluded. The romcom, you see, achieves relationship nirvana in a neat 90-minute package and apparently we subconsciously expect this too.
In a study of 40 top-grossing romantic comedies, the group found several common themes: big-screen couples immediately have trust and attachment bonds that take us mere humans years to develop; they quickly gloss over transgressions such as lying and cheating; they are deeply, quickly enthralled with each other, while married couples in the same films are usually portrayed as bickering and loveless.
"That's a very interesting contrast to reality," Holmes says.
"My argument would be that it is these couples that have been together 20, 30, 40 years and that are also still happy - those are the couples that we probably need to be emulating in popular culture."
Not surprisingly, the study has been lapped up by the British press.
"Have Hollywood's romantic comedies stolen our hearts?" pondered the Daily Telegraph.
"Slushy movies bad for lovers," screamed the Daily Record, and the Irish Independent went all Richard Curtis: "Love, actually, is a very serious business."
Tabloid sensation aside, is this out-and-out war on romcoms warranted? Should we return The Wedding Planner to the video store quick-smart? Or are the good people of Heriot-Watt University severely underestimating the intelligence of romcom fans?
According to Anne Hollonds, a counsellor at Relationships Australia, the Notting Hill effect is actually very real. But she believes it's due not so much to sugary J.Lo vehicles as an increasing emphasis on having the perfect relationship.
"I would say no one is unaffected by the very strong discourse about what good relationships ought to be like now," Dr Hollonds says.
"At one level, we understand that no relationship is perfect. We've got a generation now who are the offspring of the most divorced generation we've ever seen. But at the same time, we have moved into a society that is very individualistic, that says you don't have to have a partner and it's OK to be on your own. So then when we see Jennifer Aniston find her true love, we expect to find ours too.
"It's almost like a new kind of idealism. We don't have to put up with a bad marriage, we can stay single, date and we can afford to wait for our soulmate. And that includes this notion that there is a person with whom it will be easy and seamless. Then when it becomes hard work and involves compromise, many of us are deciding, 'Ah, he mustn't be our soulmate after all'. And we are ditching perfectly good relationships."
Some say it is an ingrained response, something we learn in childhood through a diet of sappy Disney films and fairytales.
Melbourne romance author Melanie La'Brooy, a happily married mother of one, admits to a long-harboured secret romcom fantasy.
"As a child, I loved Anne of Green Gables and so I wanted to find a man who would pull my pigtails and call me 'carrots' when we first met, and then we would fall irretrievably in love," she confesses.
"I think we secretly all want that. People want to believe in fate and destiny. It's a very natural human response and it's bound up in the idea of The One. Of course, if you are going to point fingers at anyone, you need to go back to Plato in The Symposium. He put forth the idea that everyone has been cut in two and we're all wandering the earth looking for our other half. He had a bit more to do with it than Helen Fielding or Hugh Grant."
It's all a bit depressing, this notion that secretly we want our love lives to emulate the plot of Four Weddings and a Funeral. So it's reassuring to know that some couples actually do survive the Notting Hill effect and get the happy-ever-after ending.
The tale of Ringwood East couple Kris Gough and Walter Albert is an "opposites attract" scenario that would make Richard Curtis proud.
Imagine, if you will, Meg Ryan as Kris - a serious, left-wing journalist commissioned to investigate the world of speed-dating.
Walter could be played by Tom Hanks, a Liberal-voting hunting enthusiast with a dubious haircut. Walter/Tom decides to try out speed-dating; he meets Kris/Meg; sparks fly despite their very obvious differences.
"I thought he was really cute and genuine underneath the bad haircut, the bad clothes and the fact he was a member of the Liberal Party," Kris laughs.
"We both ticked each other and he called the very next day, which was a bit surprising."
But back to the story. Kris/Meg is undercover and feels guilty because she cannot tell him her true identity. Walter/Tom finds out and feels a bit hurt, but gets over it pretty quickly because by this time he really fancies Kris/Meg.
In true romcom fashion, 18 months later they elope and, yes, they're still together. Kris and Walter have now been married for seven years and have two boys, Henry, 4, and Isaac, 2.
So what does this tell us? If you ask chick-lit author and columnist Maggie Alderson, it says nothing more than that the Notting Hill effect is a load of bollocks, as Bridget Jones might say.
Of course, romcoms are fantasies, she argues - that's their point. A sugary indulgence that give us a glimmer of perfection in our very imperfect lives.
"Yes, romcoms are rubbish, but they're great rubbish," she says. "It's like a Violet Crumble - sometimes you don't need an exquisite chocolate made be a French chef. Sometimes you need a Violet Crumble and sometimes you need a really crappy Hugh Grant film.
"One of the happiest moments of my life was the first time I watched Bridget Jones's Diary, when the doors of the lift open and there's Hugh Grant. Just as they needed Gone With the Wind during the Depression, right now I want Hugh Grant to get back in the studio and make me a film as quickly as possible about how to fall in love wearing second-hand clothes and eating leftovers. I want credit crunch romcom as quickly as possible."
So go ahead, switch on the DVD player. You have been warned!
Classic romcom plots
Opposites attract: Man meets woman. They can't stand each other. During the course of hating each other they wind up falling in love.
Examples: When Harry Met Sally, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Pride and Prejudice.
Pick me: Old sweethearts split, find new paramours, are thrown back into each other's arms and must choose between the two.
Examples: Philadelphia Story, Sweet Home Alabama, His Girl Friday.
Class warfare: Man and woman are divided by their unequal social footing due to differences in class and/or wealth and/or fame. Love overcomes all and each is humbled/improved by their love of the other.
Examples: Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, Maid in Manhattan.
Secret identities: Man and woman fall for each other but their love is complicated by one or both parties harbouring secret identities.
Examples: You've Got Mail, Cyrano de Bergerac, Shakespeare in Love.
* What's your favourite soppy movie? Post your comments below.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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