Some people fall in love at first sight. For others, it might take a few months. In one of my all-time favourite films, it was love at twelve years.
On my eleventh birthday, my mum showed me the film she’d adored almost all her life. Up until then, I perceived most romantic comedies as being regretfully predictable in structure; two characters would meet, instantly find each other dislikeable before eventually falling for each other.
When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner’s 1989 classic, could have followed this formula blindly, but chose instead to deliberately subvert it. Nora Ephron’s playful screenplay gave its two main characters a singular issue to overcome – themselves. For Sally, this is her neurotic idealism and obsession with perfection; Harry, on the other hand, harbours an intense amount of morbid cynicism (“I think about death every day” he tells Sally as they drive from Chicago to New York. “You don’t. You’re too busy being happy.”).
It’s these clashes which drive a wedge between the pair on their first meeting. Sally resolutely refuses Harry’s initial proposition for them to spend the night together – he’s dating her best friend, for one thing. For another – well, he’s just a bit dislikeable. They share little in common and butt heads in almost every conversation. What the audience sees that both Harry and Sally miss, however, is the electric magnetism which fizzes between them. They are so baffled at how objectionable they find each other that they can barely look away.
Years down the line, they stumble upon each other again. This time, it’s in an airport, where Sally is being dropped off by her boyfriend. Harry reveals that he’s engaged, a surprising character development for a guy who didn’t seem all too keen on the concept of monogamy five years previously. It’s the story’s way of examining these very human contradictions which serves to make Harry not only very believable, but relatable too. He remains as obnoxious as ever though, and Sally seems to be convinced that she made the right call all that time ago.
Only in the third encounter, another six years on, do we begin to see how time, experience and maturity can really evolve our personal needs. Sally has different requirements than she once did, as does Harry, who’s softer round the edges and more inclined to give others their say without railroading the conversation with depressing anecdotes. They become friends, and contrary to the assertion Harry made in the car when they met, friends who supposedly don’t want to sleep together. The companionship they share is where the film begins to track its own path. Other films would have us see our characters learn about each other in a romantic context, but here, we see Harry and Sally support each other without the pressure of love on their shoulders.
Of course, they still share a fair number of differences. When Harry Met Sally is able to paint comparatives in a way no film to this day has ever come close to matching. Harry’s blasé “I’ll have the Number 3” juxtaposed with Sally’s minute-long explanation of how she’d like her food cooked based on whether or not the café has fresh whipped cream or not is ridiculously fun to watch. Funny too, if only for its irony, is the double date where Harry and Sally both try to set each other up with their respective friends only to see them go off and eventually marry each other anyway.
How remarkable, that a film almost thirty years old still stands out in its bravery to take an audacious new look at what relationships mean in a modern generation. Certainly, it remains as relevant as ever for its candid discussions on sexuality. I can count on one hand the number of films I’ve seen which really get to grips with the fact that sex can be emotionally messy, physically messy, and worse still – completely disappointing. Not only does When Harry Met Sally go there, it goes there with the intention of making you squirm with its relentless, unabashed truth bombs. The scene where Ryan fakes an orgasm in a diner sat opposite a slack-jawed Harry (who’s confidence in his sexual talent is seen to be hugely shaken) is utterly iconic. Yes, we’ll all have what she’s having.
See, that’s what When Harry Met Sally has up its sleeve. A gloriously written script, one which is funny and insightful and honest, one which never rushes character development or becomes over-eager in a way which would preempt the film’s glorious climax. Harry’s speech at the end is one which has inspired many copycats, although none executed with the same level of satisfaction – the culmination of a substantial build-up, a story with frustrating characters that nevertheless, we love and root for.
Life is convoluted, and humans tend to drag their feet to come to obvious conclusions. What When Harry Met Sally wants to remind us of, is that sometimes, the only thing that’s getting in the way of happiness is our own reservation. Take the risk, jump over the walls we build around ourselves, and there could be a Harry, or a Sally, on the other side.
By Maisie McGregor