Reading Carnival into Notting Hill
Johae, Antony, Literature/Film Quarterly
The success of the Universal Pictures film Notting Hill (directed by Roger Micheli, written by Richard Curtis, and starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) put the district in west London, Notting Hill, on the international map along with Beverly Hills, though it was already well-known in Britain for the race riots that took place there in 1959, and then later, Carnival, an annual event held during the public holiday at the end of each August. This association of the district of Notting Hill with carnival brought to my mind Mikhail Bakhtin's theories on the carnivalization of literature and struck me as a possible critical approach to the film.
Apart from reviews in newspapers and on websites, no serious criticism of Notting Hill 'has emerged since it was first distributed in 1999. Yet in my view it does warrant critical analysis of the kind that would go beyond mere synopsis of the action and facile praise or dismissal; a criticism that would disclose the film's deep structures rather than presenting an uninformed opinion tending to close off any possibility of sustained critique. Susan Hayward when introducing "Comedy" in her Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts gives credit to Notting Hill as an example of a good, recent British comedy (albeit that it is an American production ), but what precisely it is that warrants her approval is not explained.
Most of the reviews do seem to recognize that Notting Hill fails into the category of "romantic comedy," but without any kind of qualification of what is entailed. With this in mind, I shall take as my starting point a "classical" description of the film as modern romantic comedy while at the same time pointing out the theoretical limitations of such an approach. The paper then takes on a comparative methodology and leans toward archetypal interpretation, following Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Critiasm (1957). Here again, the shortcomings of such an interpretive procedure are, from the outset, drawn attention to when extrapolated theoretically. Finally, a multi-dimensional reading based on some of the ideas Mikhail Bakhtin first postulated in his Problems of Dostoevski's Poetics (1929) is undertaken and, as with the other two analyses, theoretical entailments are discussed.
Of the three critical routes to be taken in this paper - generic, archetypal, and dialogic - it will be seen that the latter yields the most complex interpretive possibilities. However, following Bakhtin's practice, these cannot be treated as three mutually exclusive critical systems; the question of genre, for example, will figure in all of my readings, though each interpretive procedure will be seen to generate dissimilar outcomes: traditional genre criticism, which goes back to Aristotle's Poetics, tends to be prescriptive and to fix categories of literature according to specific characteristics. The implication is that a literary text (and this may include drama and film) cannot be fully interpreted by a reader (or auditor) unless, a priori, it has been categorized - a kind of deductive methodology that sets out to be conclusive but ends up allowing only a limited view of the text according to matching generic data. In other words, the text is tested to see whether it conforms to the fixed criteria of a particular genre and, if it does not, it is liable to be downgraded because of its lack of homogeneity. Due to the limitations of such an interpretive approach, I shall not dwell long on it, although if one wants to take such a one-dimensional view, it will here be demonstrated that Notting Hill follows the conventional pattern of romantic comedy.
My exegesis of the film following Northrop Frye will merge quite naturally with genre criticism, since archetypal interpretation itself has tended to prioritize genre, the main difference being, as Frye says, "not so much to classify as to clarify such traditions and affinities, thereby bringing out a large number of literary relationships that would not be noticed as long as there were no context established for them" Anatomy 247-48). …