There’s something quietly satisfying about Harry Burns’ sweeping statements. As he confidently tells Sally Albright how her chirpy demeanor is merely blissful ignorance, we appreciate his honesty.
Both Harry and Sally have very different outlooks on life but they fit together like puzzle pieces. Harry meets Sally on a car trip to New York, as he critisises, condemns and insults her positive energy (itself a visade as her frustration waiting for him reveals). Both are passionate people and instantly likeable, and we can relate to them more than the vast majority of characters we see on screen today.
Spanning an enormous period (beginning in 1977 and finishing in 1989), When Harry Met Sally is strikingly on trend, as time is as important as seen recently in Linklater’s Before… trilogy. Serving almost as an introduction, the two flashback brief encounters show how easily the love of your life can slip through your fingers. That is until, finally, they spend a few months getting to know each other, developing from passing acquaintances to besotted lovers. Arguably, they’re perfectly suited from the off, but they don’t realise this. They bicker and banter, even setting up their best friends (including a post-Star Wars Carrie Fisher) by accident in the process, but it is only in the inevitable final moments that they truly connect with each other. This is the sincere foundations of almost every snarky rom-com since the 1990’s (though few have ever reached such lofty heights). When Harry Met Sally has the perfect balance between both genders, with characters that are ultimately inspiring as much as they are interesting. Sally is intelligent and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, with a career she has carved out since her degree. Harry is a sports fan and a funny guy, but he is honest, open and forthcoming. Harry and Sally are anything but the cliché of a weak, subservient woman with a strong, silent man.
The New York context (soaked in self-depreciating Jewish humour) and relationship narrative could mean that it’d be confused in a line-up of Woody Allen films. An influence perhaps, but without the cruelty and perverse old-man-young-woman plot of Allen’s movies. When Harry Met Sally manages to be a softer story with a wistful, adorable central couple who melt your hearts through flirty quick-witted jokes and a warm smiley grin. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are, for the most part, talking about ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ is what men may struggle to discuss, his verbal machine-gun reveals those practical and restrictive theories men build in their mind: women and men can’t be friends; high maintenance and low maintenance women (and “the worst” are high maintenance women who think they’re low maintenance); hieroglyphs are an ancient comic-book about a character named Sphinxy. The latter may be a mere joke, but as he explains his outlook Sally clarifies or debunks his theories. Rarely are the ‘strong, silent’ men so open and, crucially, happy to debate such beliefs. Even watching Casablanca together, it’s clear he watches romances comfortably and talks, a lot, about his emotions. He can be cruel in his treatment when he sleeps around but he wants them to be happy and assumes they are.
Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, this is a film created by the cream of the crop of rom-com filmmakers (Reiner behind one of the finest comedies in This is Spinal Tap and Ephron behind one of the finest romances, Sleepless in Seattle). The split screen phone-call between best friends is a marvel to watch as directing and writing meet effortlessly, leaving you out of breath when the conversation ends – It’s cleverness only matched by the subtitling used in Annie Hall. Even divorces and exes exist, and shape Harry and Sally, but they’re background fodder as this film looks to a happy, optimistic future. When Harry Met Sally is playful, joyful and full of love – even if the love only truly peaks in the final scene.
BFI LOVE runs until 31 December 2015 at BFI Southbank and various venues across the UK. To find your nearest LOVE event visit www.bfi.org.uk/love.