When Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
Does love at first sight exist? How do you balance commitment and loyalty with the pull of true love? What are the most appealing visual locations in London? Those questions have anchored hundreds of romantic comedies over the years, but they’re trotted out in a slightly new fashion in 2005’s Imagine Me & You, a gentle British rom-com about a bride who briefly locks eyes with a stranger while walking down the aisle and suddenly finds herself questioning whether she chose the right partner. For fans of the rom-com genre, most things about Imagine Me & You will feel pleasantly familiar, from the quirky kid sister to the archetypal best friends. The difference is that in this version of the story, the person who makes bride Rachel (Piper Perabo) question her bond with her new husband isn’t another man; it’s a woman.
Specifically, it’s Lena Headey’s quirky florist Luce. She and Rachel properly meet-cute over a punch bowl mishap at the wedding reception, where sparks immediately fly. As Rachel initially explains it to her new husband Hector, a.k.a. Heck (Matthew Goode), “You know when you’ve just met someone, but straight away you feel as if they’re going to be your friend? Who knows why—past life, physiognomy. But for some reason, you just kind of click.” Rachel sets about befriending Luce, ostensibly under the auspices of setting her up with Heck’s playboy friend Coop (Darren Boyd). Once she learns Luce is gay, however, the dynamics of their budding friendship become even more complicated—and even more romantically charged.
Conventionality is both the best and worst thing about Imagine Me & You. On the one hand, you’ve seen much of its world-building and storytelling beats done before. The film’s various subplots and supporting characters all feel knocked off from better rom-coms. On the other hand, it’s kind of wonderful to see a lesbian love story get the same cheesy romantic treatment so many straight love stories have gotten over the years. That Imagine Me & You is a romance where no one dies and the central couple actually ends up together would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that those things are relatively rare in onscreen lesbian love stories—particularly in 2005. (Perabo herself had already starred in a tragic lesbian love story, the 2001 teen drama Lost And Delirious.)
As recently as last year, Love, Simon was breaking barriers as the first major studio romantic comedy to center on a gay love story. Those looking for lesbian rom-coms have long had to turn to the indie world to find them. Along with cult classics like But I’m A Cheerleader and Kissing Jessica Stein, Imagine Me & You is a favorite in that canon. The Girl Ship TV YouTube series Drunk Lesbians Watch has a delightful (and spoiler-filled) episode on the joys of Imagine Me & You. As host Amanda Holland quips after a scene in which Luce shows off her encyclopedic knowledge of flowers, “Most lesbians know a lot about flowers now because of this movie.”
Though it centers on Luce and Rachel’s romance, Imagine Me & You isn’t particularly framed as a coming-out story. Luce defines herself as gay, but Rachel never puts a label on her sexuality. Her story mostly plays as a bisexual awakening, though there are also enough details to support a reading of the film as the story of a lesbian realizing she’d settled into a heteronormative path that was never actually the right fit for her. Regardless, the central conflict of Imagine Me & You is similar to the central conflict in Sleepless In Seattle: a sudden, unexpected spark with a stranger makes a woman realize that her comfortable relationship might be too comfortable. Only the stakes in Imagine Me & You are even higher because Rachel isn’t just engaged to the wrong person; she’s married to him.
Imagine Me & You takes that dilemma seriously and has enormous empathy for everyone involved in its complicated love triangle, especially Heck. He fits into the long rom-com tradition of—as Michael Showalter dubbed it—“the Baxter,” the nice but not-quite-right guy the heroine dumps on her way to finding true love. Heck is a wonderfully three-dimensional take on the archetype, and some of the film’s most relatable moments come from his quiet struggle to figure out why he and Rachel aren’t connecting the way they once did. As he notes in a moment of heartbreaking honesty, “I can’t ask Rachel if there’s anything wrong. I mean, that’s way too scary. [Because] what if there is?”
Like Ginnifer Goodwin, Matthew Goode saw his career take off at the wrong time to fully capitalize on his phenomenal rom-com charms, even as he did his best in films like Chasing Liberty and Leap Year. Goode has since found his niche in British period pieces, but you do have to wonder what his career might have looked like if he’d come of age a decade earlier, when the rom-com genre was flourishing. He’s a consistent delight in Imagine Me & You, putting his own spin on the charmingly sheepish archetype Hugh Grant pioneered.
In fact, one of the problems with Imagine Me & You is that Heck is almost more interesting than the movie’s more thinly drawn female leads. Rachel, in particular, suffers from a lack of specificity. There’s nuance to be mined from her central identity crisis, but Imagine Me & You keeps things relatively surface level. The film too often defaults to rote rom-com beats, like scenes in which Rachel chats with her workplace besties about love at first sight or a sitcom-esque sequence in which she attempts to rent lesbian porn from the local DVD shop, only for her mom (Celia Imrie) to wander into the store at that exact moment.
Thankfully, Perabo and Headey are likable and charismatic enough to elevate the material. The two had previously worked together on the 2005 horror film The Cave, where, according to Headey, an unglamorous shooting experience had forged a real-life friendship. And that translates into wonderful onscreen chemistry. The two characters share a romantic spark but also an easy camaraderie that calls to mind When Harry Met Sally. From football matches to elaborately choreographed Dance Dance Revolution routines to flower shop makeout sessions, Perabo and Headey bring heart, humanity, and vulnerability to Rachel and Luce’s complicated courtship. If you only know Headey from her work as Cersei Lannister on Game Of Thrones, it’ll be a revelation to see her play such a warm, caring presence, especially as she befriends Rachel’s little sister “H” (Boo Jackson).
If Imagine Me & You never quite hits the highs of the very best romantic comedies, it avoids the lows of the worst ones. Writer-director Ol Parker (who would later go on to write and direct Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) spruces up some of his expositional scenes with creative settings—there’s a really fun sequence in which Heck and Rachel keep running into Luce and her friend in various aisles of a grocery store. And for all the structural limitations of his screenplay, Parker offers plenty of sharp, memorable lines. Asked to describe how she’s feeling about an upcoming first date, Luce’s mom replies, “Well, you know when you’re holding a hot cup of coffee and you realize you’re going to sneeze?”
Imagine Me & You isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the be-all and end-all of lesbian rom-com representation—not least of all because its leads reflect a very narrow slice of the diversity of queer women. Yet it undoubtedly makes a charming addition to the still relatively small pool of lighthearted, feel-good lesbian love stories. Although the film earned an R rating in the U.S. for profanity, it otherwise plays like a PG-13 rom-com that might connect even better with younger audiences less familiar with the genre’s tropes. It would also make a great double feature with Netflix’s Alex Strangelove, a teen coming-out rom-com that finds similar empathy for all three points of its central love triangle.
Part of the appeal of the romantic comedy genre is that it brushes up against the emotional complexities of real life without fully diving into them. Rom-coms take place in “our world but better,” which is exactly the sphere in which Imagine Me & You exists. There’s a welcome ease with which Rachel’s family and friends immediately accept her love for Luce, even as it blows up her life with Heck. Rachel’s dad (Anthony Head) tells her, “Whatever you choose to do from here we’ll support you, we always will. But please, my darling, follow your heart.” Rom-coms may not be realistic, but they’re part of how we culturally process the idea of love. It’s only appropriate that we use their conventions—even the overly familiar ones—to celebrate all types of romance.
Next time: Our Pride Month celebration continues with Jeffrey, a rom-com that examines love in the time of the AIDS crisis.