Addicted to Love has to be one of the weirdest mainstream releases of the late 90s. In essence, it’s a response to the upswell of surveillance experiences, and the rise of a new kind of surveillance addiction, on the cusp of the new millennium, but it’s not quite sure whether to approach this from the perspective of a romcom or a dark comedy or a psychological thriller. At heart director Griffin Dunne seems interested in the ways in which online stalking might soon be normalised and folded back into the rhythm of the romcom, but doesn’t quite know how to do it yet – or is perhaps unwilling to do as seamlessly as, say, There’s Something About Mary, the surveillance romcom par excellence, released the following year. Instead, Dunne, and screenwriter Robert Gordon, trace out a lineage of cinematic surveillance to come to terms with a moment when the act of watching, and being watched, was becoming universal.
Dunne starts by positioning surveillance as part of the grand tradition of American art, and a cornerstone of the United States’ cosmic vantage point on the world, in the form of Sam, a Midwestern astronomer, played by Matthew Broderick. Every day, rain or shine, at exactly the same time, Sam trains his enormous telescope on a nearby field, where his loving wife Linda, played by Kelly Preston, waves back at him. As the film presents it, there’s nothing creepy about this daily check-in – it’s a testament to the epic scope of Sam and Maggie’s love for each other that they commune across such great lengths of space and time on a daily basis. This all changes, however, when Linda travels to New York for a holiday, and sends a cursory note back to Sam to inform him she has taken a lover, and that their romance is over.
From here, Sam travels to New York, where his addiction to watching takes on another iteration again. Whereas the Midwestern sequences of the prologue recall the grand panoptic vistas of nineteenth-century painting, Sam now takes his cues from the corpus of American cinema. Breaking into an abandoned building across the street from where Kelly has shacked up with her lover Anton, played by Tcheky Karyo, he constructs a camera obscura in order to project the interior of their apartment, which is clearly visible through a series of plate glass windows, onto the back of his own room. He even paints the back of the wall so that the image is clearer. Having drawn upon the camera obscura as the origin point of film, Sam also takes inspiration from one of the most canonical films about watching – Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Like Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries, he watches the apartment all the time, either from his own window, or from the projections made by the camera obscura on his back wall.
By this stage, then, Dunne has established that the surveillance culture of the present has its roots in both nineteenth-century pastoral and the evolution of cinema as a medium. The next iteration comes in a homage to the end of Rear Window, when the subject of Jeffries’ surveillance finally looks up and meets his gaze. Here, that moment occurs much earlier, as a woman breaks into the apartment across the street, looks up to see Sam staring at her, and promptly makes her way up to his loft, where she challenges him to explain himself. This woman turns out to be Maggie, the ex-partner of Anton, played by Meg Ryan, who has found herself in a similar situation to Sam. He’s desperation stalking, whereas she’s spite stalking, but the two quickly form an uneasy alliance, and decide to shack up together in the abandoned building, so as to pool their resources to rupture their ex-partners’ relationship.
Maggie, and Ryan, introduce a more contemporary quality to the surveillance. She’s a cyberpunk culture jammer, and seems quite at home squatting in the dereliction of the inner city. Sam simply wants to get Linda back, but Maggie revels in the anarchy of their situation, as when she steals Anton’s credit card simply to buy a string of random, chaotic items, or when she pays a gang of kids to spray Anton with perfume-filled water pistols. She’s also more tech-savvy, and seems to have surveillance in her blood, confessing to Sam that she has already entered Linda and Anton’s apartment several times, and has the entire place bugged, which quickly turns their surveillance into a forerunner of reality television. With Maggie around, the camera obscura starts to morph from a residue of a more classical era of surveillance to the kind of avant-garde, retrofuturist installation that you might expect to find in a trendy downtown apartment that has only just been reclaimed from urban decay. By attempting to rehabilitate their respective relationships, Sam and Maggie often seem like the forefront of urban renewal too, gathering all the decrepitude of their own building around one of the many site-specific art works that populated 90s cinema – works that tacitly acknowledged cinema’s limitations in envisaging a properly post-cinematic networked future.
It’s only a matter of time before this more contemporary surveillance morphs into a fully-fledged precedessor to online stalking, or reality television. Sam insists that “I’m not spying, I just want to be with her,” while both he and Maggie become obsessed with the ups and downs of the couple across the road, and soon start to feel like members of the same fan community. Their romance, such as it is, emerges from this shared fandom and fantasy – despite living together, and being together all the time, they only sleep together on their first joint foray into the apartment. Later, Maggie’s grandmother comes over, and while she stumbles across the surveillance equipment, Linda and Anton’s dialogue is so compelling that she simply mistakes it for her own generation’s version of reality television: a lurid radio play.
In this way, Addicted To Love presents us with nineteenth-century romanticism, the cinematic medium, and the rise of culture jamming as part of a broad evolution of surveillance that has led to the present moment. Yet the genius of the film is that this is never presented as a straight or neat lineage. Rather, Dunne suggests the emergence, and convergence, of all these possibilities at once, producing a profoundly atonal film that often seems to be culture jamming the very idea of the romcom itself. One of the stranger by-products of this atonality is an ugly, abject, repulsive edge to much of the comedy. Sam, for example, keeps a tank of cockroaches, and continually feeds them, before setting them loose in Anton’s restaurant, right when a notorious food critic has come to dine. In an inspired gross-out sequence, the cockroaches run riot, clambering over every surface, into the critic’s food, onto his spoon, and then into his mouth, where he crunches down on them. At one point, Maggie notes that this project is “the most revolting thing I have ever done,” but she’s not above resorting to the abject herself either. When she first meets Sam, she talls him a story about how her father once had to remove maggots, one at a time, from the family dog’s rectum: “That’s love, Sam.”
However, Addicted to Love is not content to contour the romcom with abjection – it soon strays into a profanity that was rare for any genre at this time in Hollywood, let alone the romantic comedy. When Anton tells Sam that he is going to kill him, behead him, and copulate with his eye sockets, Maggie brushes it off: “He says that to everyone.” Jokes about pig testicles, and riffs on how much people “produce” during intercourse, all add a strange edge to the tone, as if the competing surveillance lineages had added a new level of violent intimacy to everyday life. These revolting obscenities also tend to be delivered at fever pitch, or with cacophonous noise in the background, whether a sparking car or a howling monkey.
From that perspective, Addicted to Love perhaps makes sense as an anti-screwball comedy, except that there is now no remarriage, no clear reining in of cacophony to romance, and no chance of a traditional pastoral interlude once the Midwestern sequence implodes. The result is an off-romcom, both driven and decentred by Broderick and Ryan’s terrible juju, as well as by the fact of Ryan being cast utterly against type – and especially against the type of her regular romcom self, of whose charmingly befuddled mannerisms not a trace remain here. If anything, Broderick is in the regular Ryan role, as Maggie seems to intuit, since she’s driven to disavow him at every opportunity (“You are a strange, tragic, little man,”) to the point where you can’t really believe they end up together, despite what the ending tells you. For Sam and Maggie aren’t really lovers, but online commiserators, collaborative trollers, 4Chan moderators before their time, shoehorned into the 90s romcom with incongruous delirium.