The similarities between the two films reveal the potential terror lurking beneath an idyllic romance.
It’s safe to say that David Fincher‘s 2014 film Gone Girl surprised a lot of audiences (this means that if you haven’t seen the movie, beware of spoilers ahead). But even putting the twists and turns of the plot aside, there was an unexpected move in the promotional campaign that still stands out to me. The first trailer opened with some musical notes that any rom-com fan will recognize as the beginning to “She.” The song was originally recorded by Charles Aznavour and then famously covered by Elvis Costello to serve as the theme for Roger Michell‘s 1999 film Notting Hill. For the Gone Girl trailer, the song was covered by Richard Butler.
The cover serves some purposes. The lyrics that are typically viewed as romantic ironically juxtapose the plot points concerning Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his potential guilt in the death of his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). Butler’s cover of the song also throws us off. While Costello croons soothingly, Butler’s version sounds darker, even a little garbled at times, to have a more haunting effect. Putting the trailer aside, comparing the overall sound of the songs alone can tell you that one was made to serve a more lighthearted film.
She may be the face I can’t forget
The trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or the price I have to pay
In Notting Hill, the song first plays over the opening credits that introduce us to Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) a famous, larger-than-life actress who is, naturally, the face no one can forget. It perfectly suits the romantic story about Anna and Will Thacker (Hugh Grant), a London bookstore owner who falls for her and must contend with the struggles that arise from her celebrity if they are ever going to be together. Spoiler alert: this is a rom-com. They get together in the end.
In Notting Hill, the lyrics reveal the idea that there’s so much more complexity to Anna than the side of her that the public sees in movies or in tabloids, a theme that runs through the entire film. But in Gone Girl, the topic at hand is the darker complexities of Amy. Now we can look back at the trailer with the knowledge that she faked her disappearance to frame Nick for her murder, and is capable of murder herself to forge the perfect relationship that she wants to feed to the public. In this context, lyrics like “She may be the reason I survive” are an especially inspired choice to pair with a film where Amy decides to come home and prevent Nick from facing a trial where he would surely receive the death penalty.
But the similarities between the two films don’t end with their use of this song. Both explore the differences between the public persona of characters and who they really are, the fickle allegiances of tabloid journalism, and the results of Nick and Will each fully understanding the women they have committed themselves to.
Much of the drama in Anna and Will’s relationship comes from her feeling isolated from the real world and real human experiences because of her fame, and his fear of getting close to her only to lose her and have to be reminded of his heartbreak every time he goes to a movie theater. When pre-fame nude photos of Anna leak to the press, she laments that the media can manipulate them into seeming like she acted in porn, even though that isn’t true. Anna’s concern isn’t about the photos as much as it is about how the tabloids can bend the truth, and alter her public persona, to serve a more salacious story.
When Will and Anna do get together, it’s only after they’re able to see past the miscommunications that come from Anna being on a pedestal because of her celebrity. As Anna famously tells him, “the fame thing isn’t really real, you know? Don’t forget I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” As it turns out, underneath Anna’s public persona, there’s a real person who is sweet, loving, charming, and Will’s treasure, not the price he has to pay.
Amy Dunne, on the other hand, succeeds where Anna fails in perfectly constructing a public persona that only presents the side of her that she wants people to see. When Amy decides that Nick failed her and she needs to get revenge and teach him a lesson, she carefully creates a persona that the masses will eat up. She becomes the missing pregnant wife, presumably killed by her psychopathic cheating husband. When she comes back to him to start over, she presents herself as a survivor who fought to return to the man she loves to devote herself to being a wife and mother.
The film is structured to withhold the truth about Amy until about the hour mark, at which point it is revealed to the audience that she orchestrated her disappearance. Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who adapted the screenplay from her novel, construct a large part of the story around Amy’s diary entries. The confessional implications of the diary promise us that she’s telling the truth and that Nick is the bad guy. As Nick unravels the mystery, we come to learn how and he and Amy reached this point, but up until the plot twist, Amy has laid the perfect groundwork for us — and the cops and the media — to believe her story and suspect Nick.
In one scene that occurs before the twist is revealed, Nick and his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) are watching a Nancy Grace-esque show about Amy’s disappearance. The two are usually framed in a conventional two-shot, except for one instance where the TV host, Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), states that Nick exhibiting a lack of empathy makes him a perfect candidate to be diagnosed as a sociopath. At this moment, Fincher shoots Nick head on as he looks up, almost staring directly at the camera. This shot isolates Nick from Margo, the character who understands him and humanizes him most. Affleck’s expression channels Nick’s quiet rage and emphasizes what Ellen has just said as a way to challenge us to believe Nick truly could be a sociopath who murdered his wife.
While Amy perfectly manipulates the media, and the audience, into loving her, Nick falls at the mercy of the public’s perception of him. One flash of a smile at a press conference and he becomes the most hated man in America thanks to Ellen Abbott. One good and seemingly confessional interview later and he’s back in everyone’s good graces. The truth doesn’t change between these two events — Nick is always innocent in Amy’s disappearance. But what changes is that Nick receives coaching from his lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) on how to present himself properly to the cameras. Nick’s relationship with the media is so warped that to prove his innocence, he can’t just tell the truth, he has to sell the truth.
This turn of events also aligns the audience with Nick and Amy. Before the plot twist, we’re meant to follow the media’s perception of Nick and even believe that he could have killed his wife. After the plot twist, when Nick and Amy double down on their lies and conceal more and more from the public, we know the truth and in a sense become complicit in their actions.
In Notting Hill and Gone Girl, all of these struggles between media manipulated public personas and the truth of who someone is culminate with a romantic union. In typical rom-com fashion, Will and Anna get married and settle down after mutually confessing their love for one another. The film’s final moments show them getting married and Will attending a film premiere as Anna’s date, before ending on a shot of them in a park together with Anna pregnant and both of them happy as can be. They accept the publicity that comes with Anna’s profession but also agree to see past that and love each other for who they are.
Nick and Amy also end up staying together in a situation where Amy is pregnant and they both have seen the truth of who the other one is underneath their public personas. But unlike Notting Hill, the circumstances of Gone Girl don’t make for a conventionally romantic story. It turns out that underneath it all, Amy is capable of doing just about anything to secure a relationship where Nick will rise to the challenges she puts before him and be the man she wants him to be. In turn, Nick — mostly out of a desire to not be like the father who abandoned him and because he knows the media would crucify him for leaving — agrees to stay with Amy and raise their child.
But that’s not the whole story with Nick. Fincher and Flynn leave the film’s ending as somewhat ambiguous, but Amy makes a fair point when she asserts that Nick does like to be challenged and he wouldn’t truly be happy with a nice but boring wife. Amy has proven she will do anything for Nick and, as Margo tearfully confronts him about in one of the film’s final scenes, there’s a possibility that Nick, deep down, somewhat admires Amy’s tenacity and wants to stay with her. As Nick asks in the film’s final voice-over, “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?” He flips from asking Amy directly to rhetorically asking about their shared actions. His use of ‘we’ unites them as he agrees to share complicity with her.
Underneath the terror of everything that occurs in Gone Girl, one of the great lasting fears of the film is how idyllic it could have been if it wasn’t for the depths of Nick and Amy’s darker sides. In Notting Hill, romance occurs when Will and Anna see past all the public drama and accept each other for who they are. Gone Girl might not be as conventionally romantic, but Nick and Amy do accept each other for better or worse. After all, by the end of the film, Amy is also a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her. For Nick’s sake, he just better hope he loves her the right way this time.