There’s a question that characters in romance plots rarely bother to ask themselves: incuriously, because it really wearies all the luxury and calm of their airheaded pursuits. The question is asked by Thurston Meems in The Marriage Plot (by Eugenides): “a sly-looking boy with short, gelled hair. His eyebrowlessness, along with his pale complexion, [give] his face a superintelligent quality, like a floating, disembodied brain.” Trust a guy like this, a low-slung and pretentious semiotics undergrad to ask the question. He asks, “Would we know what love is if we hadn’t heard the word?” Is it possible, phrased differently, to experience love without a kind of cultural mainframe in which “love” has a meaning; coherence?
Let’s just ask that question now, because faced with the glut of romantic comedy out there – Semi-Soet fitting like a jigsaw-piece straight into the puzzle – we become aware that there’s a repetition, uniformity; a protocol by which all the most sincere and real of romances must ostensibly conduct themselves. We all know that romantic comedies are tilted to favour the viewing tendencies of – to phrase it charitably and economically – the more stupid of females. Deep, sublimated sexual hunger (although, sometimes, it’s brash and avowed) drives the plot, as does a certain quilt-work of dreams: full-blooded, earthy romance is no longer the exclusive right of the princess and the ponce; romance works in mysterious ways; romance completes the alchemical yin-yang, fills that sullen void in your chest – you know, the void both produced and sated by consumerism.
Semi-Soet is actually a wholly appropriate self-referential title, although possibly – given the critical spin I’m about to give it – it wasn’t intended. In the logic of the film, “semi-soet” (meaning semi-sweet) name-checks the fact that much of the action is centered on a wine-farm. But from the perspective of the critic, semi-sweet just suggests that this film isn’t quite as sweet as it hopes. Parts are definitely sweet, please don’t mistake me. As far as the romantic-comedy genre goes (I cannot, I hope you will forgive me, permit myself to seriously write “rom-com”: that would be the final dreaded capitulation), the film is slick, on-target, cute, funny. But, of course, I append those four superlatives imagining the likely opinion of someone who has been systemically oppressed throughout history to believe that the highest station in life is to get married and launch a few neonates out into the world at large.
The taste is a little more acrid at certain moments of inquiry. This film is generically lame, inasmuch as most romantic comedies are just the reductive fantasies of easily-amused women in thrall to social dogma. And it’s also part of a cultural onslaught that seeks to “genericise” (so to speak) the world – to create a world in its own image. What I mean by this, is that impressionable young lasses lap at this milk and it corrodes their brains. They then stagger out of the cinema re-primed like droids programmed by the cheap platitudes of Hollywood. I mean this critically: Semi-Soet is like The Devil Wears Prada of Afrikaans romantic comedies! (Incidentally, they’re welcome to use that as a promotional blurb on the poster, if they can be bothered – with the exclamation mark and everything; I’m being generous, just giving back for the two hours’ of anaesthesia this film put me through.)
Is it even necessary to get your narrative exposition on in film criticism, anymore? We could plot a graph here, or hastily scribble a diagram – all these films have almost exactly the same plot, they switch out the surface elements to create the illusion they’ve done any work whatsoever. (Scriptwriters are basically copywriters now, flogging junk to a doped population. Both parties are laughing themselves to sleep at night, laughing all the way to the psychoanalyst’s couch when they suffer a sudden moral apoplexy about their poisonous role in modern life). Stated abstractly, Semi-Soet goes like this: attractive single girl; a love candidate she doesn’t like at first; they fall in love through all their tribulations; she discovers he lied about his real identity; they break up; they sob and retreat, she into frozen yoghurt and chocolate, he into hardcore business propositions, ‘cause hell he be such a man; they realise they love each other; dramatic avowals of love; kissing and credits. I’m surprised Jane Austen wasn’t given writing credits, because she wrote this film two hundred years ago, only she called it Pride and Prejudice.
Okay, let’s flesh up all this bone-work. Jaci is a single workaholic, a strong independent woman (you can almost hear Destiny’s Child singing “throw your hands up at me” as she closes a business deal in the film’s opening scene). She’s trying to get a new contract with the Vrede and Lust winery. A notorious capitalist is trying to muscle out the company she works for, and this new contract is her only hope to give them some staying power. Problem is this: the guy who runs Vrede and Lust is an old, conservative “family-man” kind of dude and he would never suffer the imperiousness of a female representative who didn’t have a partner! I mean, Jesus Christ, no woman should be single. They clearly all need a phallus in their lives and to imagine a young woman without one – well, this is just sacrilege, an assault on the holy nuclear family. So, Jaci plans to hire a model to act as her boyfriend, to help placate the old bastard and win the contract. In some sort of confusion that you can spot coming from fifty furlongs, however, she ends up confusing the notorious capitalist mentioned above – the handsome J.P. – as her model and ends up taking him with on a weekend to the Vrede and Lust wine farms.
Trust me, although I might not have done it linguistic justice in the paragraph above, there is something catastrophically, cyclonically unreal about this premise. I’ll explain this through the use of the interrogative. This owner of Vrede and Lust: what’s his story? Is he a winemaker or a social engineer? What in the eff does a woman having a boyfriend have to do with her ability to represent his company? Which serious owner of such a vast and profitable business would dare such an intrusion into the private sphere? And does he hope – as he appears to from several shots – that if this couple drape their lips over each others’ faces, this is somehow a reckonable signifier of their enduring love and desire to re-populate the world with little shits just like them? This film isn’t normal. The engine of the plot is illogic. The world in which this thing takes place is a convenient confection, designed to cover up a little laziness on the part of the writers.
Not so fast, there’s a final qualifier. Something which I almost ritualistically refuse to do is meet cinema on the terms it supplies. What this means in cases like Semi-Soet is that you lower the bar, dumb down the vocabulary, aim for the common denominator: in short, you recognise with condescension that this film is part of a sadly quite anti-intellectual culture, and give it a pardon on those grounds. Well, I want to state explicitly, that if I played that game, I would have no choice but to remark that Semi-Soet is good; great even. If you’re a woman who spends most of her life “lark not in an intellectual mood ‘n shit” you are going to love this. But, I’m not going to allow that lassitude so instead I conclude the film isn’t good; it’s generic and obvious, more papsak than Bordeaux. It’s a film you’ve seen so many times in your life that you misrecognise it as reality. Here’s another unrealistic-expectation generator for young women, a purveyor of mock-romance marketed as the real thing, the ultimately desirable thing to complete you. This is another consumerism of romance – human emotion captured and made marketable by boring status-quo film-makers.
*Semi-Soet opens in theatres across Mzansi on Friday 17 February 2012.