Addicted to Love is not a film anybody likes or cares about, or even remembers. It’s one of those films disappeared in the sands of time, managing to have literally zero cultural impact. There’s so much media today – peak TV, a boom of indie films scrabbling for a smaller piece of the pie, three hundred hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute – that we’ve created a modern inverse of the lost films of early cinema. Those films quite literally ceased to exist, either due to studios dumping them to make space or accidental destruction by fire (nitrate film, which was standard before the 1950s, can spontaneously combust if stored improperly). The Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s film preservation non-profit, estimates that ninety percent of films made in the US before 1929 are lost.
That’s a tragedy, and something that will never happen again, now that there are digital copies of just about everything, which won’t wear away or explode. But lost films could sometimes “exist” at a cultural level even when they were literally gone: probably no-one alive has seen The College Widow, but lots of people have seen the Marx brothers film Horse Feathers, which parodies it. This capacity for existence in the collective memory is a capacity to bring films back from the dead – a copy of the 1922 film Beyond the Rocks, starring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, was discovered in 2000 among a collector’s donation to the Netherlands Film Museum. It was restored and screened in 2005. “I do not believe these films are gone forever,” Gloria Swanson wrote in her memoirs in 1980. She was right.
The inverse of this problem is when a film is widely available – as most films are now – but unloved. Almost every existing film is accessible in some form, but we have so much control over what and when we watch things, that it’s become something much more deliberate. It’s easy to praise this changeover – choice! People love choice! – but I can’t help but think something is lost. There’s so much media that we need curation more than ever, but there’s less and less quality curation available. People obsess over Rotten Tomatoes scores like they’re a definitive measure of whether a film is good or not, but don’t actually read a selection of critics they trust and whose perspective they understand (not least because film critics were the first casualties of print media’s slow death). Much has been made of Netflix’s abandonment of its back-catalogue of classic movies, probably too much, but it is important, as a symptom if not a cause: there is a feedback loop of extraordinary recency bias, where the only thing on offer should be stuff you already know you like. Almost every film existing is on demand, but you can’t demand something you’ve never heard of, and no-one is going to offer you something you didn’t demand.
But there are still ways to get into classic movies, despite that. The AFI’s list of the one hundred best American films has its problems, but it’s a start. It’s also the reason I saw Citizen Kane for the first time. If you have a television, film channels show a lot of crap, but if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll catch loads of gems. There’s still the problem of deliberateness to a greater or lesser extent, but if you manage to have the fleeting thought, “I’d like to watch some older films,” you’ll find plenty of directions to go from there.
But what of the unloved? What of the films that nobody likes or cares about, or even remembers? I’ve seen Addicted to Love twice, both times through happenstance, by which I mean, Irish TV stations’ commitment to rerunning the handful of films they bought in the 1990s. The first time I was maybe eleven or twelve years old, and I watched it because it was the film that happened to be on TV that night, like most films I watched. I thought it was kind of horrible. The second time I watched it was a couple of weeks ago, because it was on TV, sometime after midnight, and I wanted to see what it was like now that I was older. This time, I loved it.
Addicted to Love was a critical and commercial failure when it was released in 1997, probably not helped by a marketing campaign that barely hinted at it having a dark premise. It’s about Sam, an astronomer whose girlfriend, Linda, breaks up with him for a Frenchman called Anton. Sam immediately goes to New York to squat in the building across the way and stalk her. Pretty soon, Maggie (Meg Ryan), teams up with him, because Anton is her ex-fiancé who left her for Linda. Sam rigs up a camera obscura to reflect Linda and Anton’s apartment on the back wall, and Maggie bugs them. They do a whole selection of heinous things to try and ruin Anton’s life. And inevitably realise that they like each other much more than they ever liked Linda and Anton.
Meanwhile, it had a trailer that called it “a movie for anyone who’s ever been dumped,” like its relatability is its selling point. Who among us hasn’t bugged an ex’s apartment? It’s got a complete nothing title (as pop song titles go, Every Breath You Take seems the obvious choice). It had one of the most impressively non-descript posters ever, right up there with Just Go With It or James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know in its ability to convey nothing about the film other than that it has actors in it.
It’s not the film you would have expected to see, I suppose, particularly from Meg Ryan (Matthew Broderick had been in The Cable Guy the previous year, which is a way darker movie). But a marketing campaign that presented it as a black comedy would have missed the mark too. Some of the negative reviews at the time did think it wasn’t quite dark enough to work. “Maybe Addicted to Love might work as a pitch-dark comedy,” Kevin Thomas wrote for the LA Times, “but in the way Robert Gordon has written it and Griffin Dunne directed it, it gives us the impression that we’re supposed to take drastic, irrational revenge as a larky laff riot.” But that’s only true if you treat tone as an on-off switch, where a film is either dark or light and never the twain shall meet. There are films that would need to be darker or much less dark to work (My Best Friend’s Wedding springs to mind), but that doesn’t mean any film whose premise is darker than its tone is broken. That’s a basic assumption that at its fullest incarnation lands you in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where tone is so consistent that it feels oppressive.
What’s interesting about Addicted to Love is how not dark it is, instead melding elements of black comedy with the fantastical and the wacky with a helping of screwball, in a way that allows Addicted to Love to avoid treating its characters’ actions as normal and reasonable or needing to delve into the muck of their psyches too much.
The best way to explain it is that it’s like a John Patrick Shanley film, except that’s a terrible way to explain it, because John Patrick Shanley’s directorial debut flopped so hard that he didn’t make another film for the guts of twenty years and when he did it was Doubt, which emphatically does not have the kind of tone I’m talking about. But John Patrick Shanley wrote Moonstruck, and then wrote and directed Joe Versus the Volcano, and those films have a really wonderful, unusual tone: fantastical without being otherworldly, operating on a twisted-up kind of storybook logic. “I’m not sick except for this terminal disease?” Tom Hanks says to his doctor in Joe Versus the Volcano. The terminal disease, for the record, is a brain cloud. (“Brain cloud! I knew it! Well. I didn’t know it. But I knew it.”)
Addicted to Love is a little more grounded than Joe Versus the Volcano, a little less so than Moonstruck, but it’s got something of that tone. In the opening scenes, Sam is organising an extremely over-the-top welcome home for Linda – featuring a giant banner in the middle of the street – then comes home only for Linda’s dad to impassively read him a break-up letter from her. When she breaks up with Anton in the film’s third act, her dad comes to New York to read a break-up letter to him, as well.
“What’s your name?” Maggie asks Sam when they meet.
“Mike,” he answers.
She doesn’t miss a beat before saying, “What’s your name, Mike?”
Roger Ebert complained that Sam and Maggie were “supposed to be” intelligent, but actually had the “maturity of gnats”. I have no idea why he thought Sam and Maggie were supposed to be anything but incredibly immature – it’s a film about stalkers – but he comes weirdly close to getting it when he says, “Anton has an adult’s understanding of the world, and the Sam character thinks he’s living in a sitcom.”
Of course Sam thinks he’s living in a sitcom. Or, at least, dreams that he is.
Addicted to Love is about watching. Sam and Maggie sit on their couch and watch the camera obscura projection of Linda and Anton’s apartment, sometimes listening in via Maggie’s bugging set-up, sometimes with the sound off. They eat popcorn and talk about what’s going on screen. They do impressions of what they might be saying. The silhouettes they cast against the wall when standing are shot to mimic someone standing in front of the projector at a cinema.
At one point, when they know Linda and Anton are staying away overnight, they break in. “It’s so much smaller than it looks on TV,” Sam says. They do some sabotage stuff – panties in the couch, receipts between books, hairbrush swirled in the toilet – but eventually they’re just playing at being Anton and Linda, wearing their clothes and mimicking their photograph poses. It cuts back to the building across the street, to the projected image on the back wall, to the speakers.
Sam and Maggie have sex that night, but they’re in-character as Linda and Anton, so it doesn’t count.
Sam doesn’t exactly think he’s living in a TV show, but he does think Linda and Anton are. He watches their lives play out on screen, but with a barrier more permeable than between audience and show. He and Maggie can spend their days setting up elaborate plotlines and spend their evenings watching them play out. Their motivations get muddled. On one hand, Sam thinks he’s the romantic hero destined to get the girl: after all, he’s sensitive and “nice”, and Anton is French, which is movie-code for asshole. On the other, he’s an observer right down to his core – even when he interacts with Anton, getting a job in his restaurant, there’s an arch detachment, like he’s mostly just thinking about how he’ll tell Maggie the story later. Sam being an astronomer has a lot less to do with showing that he’s supposed to be intelligent than to show that he spends most of his time observing things from far away.
Addicted to Love is about two deeply weird people finding the only other person on the planet who would find the other’s behaviour romantic. Not unlike Secretary, a film about two people with complimentary extreme kinks, it finds sweetness in an unlikely place.
“How did you two meet?” Anton asks Sam about the mysterious woman he loves.
2 thoughts on “Camera Obscura: In Defense of Addicted to Love”
Addicted to Love may not have ascended to the lofty box office heights of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, but it is very enjoyable to watch Meg Ryan suppressing her usual mannerisms to immerse herself in a bizarre film featuring voyeurism, mouldy strawberries, and monkeys wearing lipstick.
For a long time I was ashamed to admit how much I liked this film. Then for a while I chose to call it a guilty pleasure but that wasn’t accurate either. “Addicted to Love” is and always will be – one of my favourite movies. Rest assured, you’re not the only one who likes this one.