Broken English (2007) stars Parker Posey as Nora, single and lovelorn, surrounded entirely by friends who are married and “happy”. Every guy she meets is a disaster. She’s a train wreck. She has no chance at happiness. Until… she meets Melvil Poupaud as The Frenchman In The Jaunty Hat. Seriously, he’s a Frenchman who is first glimpsed wearing a Jaunty Hat. He arrives just in the nick of time to cater to Nora’s every single cotton pickin’ whim. You might say Poupaud exists solely in the fevered imagination of a sensitive writer-director (Zoe Cassavetes) to teach a broodingly soulful young woman to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.
You might recognize that last sentence. It’s because I ripped it off from the AV Club film critic Nathan Rabin who coined a term which has now become infamous in cinematic circles – The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Rabin originally wrote:
“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
He was referring to Kirsten Dunst’s angelic flight attendant Claire Colburn in Elizabethtown who helps rescue the broodingly soulful Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom). In a recent interview with Moviefone.com, Ms. Dunst apparently learned for the first time that a character she portrayed was responsible for the coinage of this term. She did not seem pleased and I’ve got her back.
Jezebel deemed The Manic Pixie Dream Girl as “(t)he scourge of modern cinema.” But as The AV Club points out in its list of 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the archetype has been around for ages, from Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Natalie Portman in Garden State, a character which in the years upon the film’s release seems to have wrought if not quite enough anger to rival Jar Jar then at least enough anger to equal the Ewoks. And none of these articles take into account – or even so much as acknowledge – the prevalence of the male version of The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, whether it be Broken English’s Frenchman In The Jaunty Hat, Titanic’s Homeless Artist With The Lilting Whisp Of Hair, The Princess Bride’s Roguish Yet Sensitive Man In Black, or Clark Gable in, frankly, anything.
Contrary to popular belief, the whimsically insistent Claire Colburn was not the first Manic Pixie Dream Girl in recorded artistic history. No, that would, of course, be Helen Of Troy in The Iliad. If Homer had authored his epic poem today he would no doubt describe Helen as looking suspiciously like Swedish pop singer Lykke Li, adorned by fashionable scarves, killer boots and, to quote Garrison Keillor, “jeans so tight it looked as if she’d been poured into them and forgot to say when.” And seriously, what’s Paris but a broodingly soulful young man? Okay. That might all be a stretch. (And why does Orlando Bloom play so many broodingly soulful young men without ever appearing all that soulful?) But I think you see my point. Mythological female characters have been around forever and The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is essentially a radiant myth.
Myth. Fantasy. Wish Fulfillment. All these things have long held a place at the movies. Like everyone else I go to the movies to be challenged, to be awed, to be moved, etc., but I also go because sometimes I’m feeling a little low and I wouldn’t mind the fantasy of a blonde who likes Maker’s, indie rock and mental pictures drawing me out of my socially awkward cocoon to be brought to life. Honestly, is that so wrong? How is that any different from, say, Kristin Wiig writing herself scenes in Bridesmaids where she gets to be – cough, cough – in bed with Jon Hamm and be courted by a lovable cop who supports and encourages her baking dreams? She deserves that and sometimes dudes deserve their Manic Pixie Dream Girls, a’ight?
There is no doubt whatsoever we should be 100% right by our cinematic female characters. They deserve a rich tapestry of their own emotion, their own inner lives and their own pursuits of happiness, so on and so forth. Yet I state for the record that a character who concocts a colossal road trip for the main character had to, like, you know, visit those places herself. Claire has her own life, she’s on her own pursuit of happiness, it’s just that for two hours she decides to make like a damsel and save poor Orlando Bloom from distress. Really, when you get right down to it, she’s not all that unlike Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. “What I really want to do with my life – what I want to do for a living – is I want to be with your daughter. I’m good at it.” Claire’s good at being with Drew. So what?
The brilliant film historian David Thomson writes: “In American films, the camera tells a certain truth — it records appearance — but then it adjusts the appearance so that it becomes a lovelier version of itself, an ideal often, but a nightmare, too. Anything except the real thing.” To some (most) Claire Colburn probably represents a nightmare. And that’s totally fine. If you don’t like her, you don’t like her, your prerogative. No worries. But can I please still be allowed to like her?
There seems to be a noticeable absence of girls like Claire Colburn in my life specifically because girls like her don’t actually exist in the real world. So I can’t quite figure out why so many people are so adamant she shouldn’t be allowed to exist in a make believe world either.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? SHOULD THE MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL BE OUTLAWED? CUT SOME SERIOUS SLACK? SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN? TELL US BELOW!