Peter Weir’s follow-up to Dead Poets Society, Green Card was both his first solo screenplay since the 1970s, and his first screenplay for an American film. Not surprisingly, then, it focuses upon issues of dislocation and immigration, reimagining the screwball comedy of remarriage through a contemporary green card marriage. The couple in question are Bronte Parrish, played by Andie McDowell in one of her breakout roles, and Georges Faure, played by Gerard Depardieu, who was just starting to become a household name in the American market, with Cyrano de Bergerac released the same year. While Bronte and Georges are complete strangers, they both get something out of this marriage of convenience – Georges receives American residency, and Bronte is able to acquire a property in an exclusive New York apartment complex whose board prefers married couples. However, after Immigration Services announce a crackdown on green card marriages, Bronte and Georges have to pretend to be the real deal, meaning that Georges has to move in and they have to concoct a plausible romantic history.
Unlike most other treatments of green cards marriages, however, residency isn’t really the focus, with Georges’ story quickly giving way to the question of whether or not Bronte will be able to retain her apartment. While the apartment itself is quite beautiful, Bronte was really only drawn to it in the first place due to the massive greenhouse nestled at its core, since plants are her passion, and she works as a horticulturalist with the Parks Department where she specialises in constructing community gardens in the projects. Of course, it’s impossible that a public servant could ever afford a residency on this scale, let alone an ancillary greenhouse on this scale, but that’s part of the fantasy, as an atmosphere of fertility, fecundity and romantic naturalism blooms out over the entire film. Most of the city scenes focus on Central Park in some way – indeed, the greenhouse is almost like a fragment of Central Park transplanted to Bronte’s apartment – while the soulful synth score is driven by Enya’s Watermark, which gained a new level of visibility after being featured in some of the key sequences here. Similarly, there are lots of scenes on the top of Bronte’s apartment complex, which overlooks Central Park, and which feels a bit like the canopy of the city, as she grows plants with the aid of a moisture metre, seeking out air uncontaminated by the smog below.
In other words, the whole film is suffused with a green palette, as both Bronte’s property and George’s residency converge upon a lush, arboreal version of New York that bedecks virtually every available space with foliage and George O’Keefe prints. Against that backdrop, Weir offers quite a brilliant spin on romcom conventions, as Bronte and Georges have to devise a meet-cute for themselves in order to appear plausible to Immigration Services, since it seems that couples whose relationships most conform to romcom stereotypes are most likely to be cleared for residency. It’s surprisingly suspenseful and moving to watch them trying to come off as a bona fide married couple, especially Georges, who mistakes Bronte’s name and then finds himself at a loss to direct an immigration agent to the bathroom in what is supposed to be his apartment. Across these scenes, McDowell is also wonderfully memorable, exuding a awkward, discomfited, fractious vibe that prevents the film ever settling, suffusing every scene with a low-key screwiness that’s far more romantically suspenseful than you might expect.
In part, that’s because the whole green card drama allows Bronte to tap into a wider sense of social precarity and urban flux, turning her into something of an immigrant in her own city. As she and Georges continually pretend that they’re married for Immigration Services, and continually pretend that they aren’t married for their friends and family (who aren’t in on the scam), the dialogue just grows screwier and screwier. As in classic screwball comedies, that seems to both condense the spaces around them to so many echo chambers, but to also imbue their rapport with a more expansive line of flight as well. In the process, Bronte’s apartment both contracts and expands at once, until it stands in for everything constrictive about their marriage but also everything lush and romantic about the greenery of the city as a whole. Even as they grow closer, however, they don’t quite work as a romantic couple, or belong in the same romantic comedy – there’s a genuine sense of mistranslation – and yet that’s what makes Green Card so enjoyable, as its two romantic leads become ever more tentatively curious about what it is, exactly, that renders them so apparently incompatible with each other.
Not surprisingly, Bronte’s roof garden and greenhouse becomes the main space of contention as the romantic tension builds. From the outset, she instructs George “Don’t go in the greenhouse…it’s my special place,” to which he retorts that “You like plants better than people.” In that sense, this greenhouse forms the pastoral interlude so critical to screwball comedy which, as Stanley Cavell famously argued, typically featured urban couples retreating to the natural sphere (usually New England) in order to restore and renew their marital vows. In Green Card, however, that pastoral space is located at the heart of Bronte’s apartment, while New York never feels as if has decisively reclaimed the natural environment still growing and flourishing at its core. Yet that very convergence of urban and natural life also means that there’s something synthetic about this natural space, and the Enya textures that contour it, just as the greenhouse is where Bronte and Georges are most inspired to simulate their romantic rapport for Immigration Services.
As a result, whereas traditional screwball comedies saw couples transforming a superficial, socially-sanctioned marriage into an enduring, personally-motivated marriage, in Green Card it still feels like Bronte and Georges’ second blooming of romance is a simulation – or is so at risk of remaining a simulation that the film can never quite commit to it an emphatic way. Hence the beautifully open ending, in which Bronte and Georges share a lingering, romantic glance that could mean any number of things – that he will return from France, that she will follow him to France, that they will remain in a long-distance relationship – as he is finally taken away by Immigration Services. It makes sense, then, that Bronte’s former partner – who Georges gradually supplants – is not quite synthetic enough in his commitment to nature, encouraging her to move out to a rural vegetarian collective even as she starts to realise that her performative rapport with Georges may end up being truer to her green side after all.
In that sense, Green Card often seems to anticipate the way in which relationships are disseminated through contemporary social media, since anyone who has applied for residency in any country will know that relationships with a higher social media presence are often considered to be more legitimate, and more replete with evidentiary value. In particular, the scene in which Bronte and George take Polaroid selfies in and around the greenhouse feels like a precursor to modern films about romances evolving and defining themselves through social media, especially since these photographs are entirely fictitious, ostensibly depicting them enjoying holidays in every location conceivable. They are, in effect, an Instagram couple before their time, and we spend so much time in their apartment that you really start to to notice the complete absence of all contemporary social media fixtures, forcing them to fashion all their competing social media selves and interpersonal interfaces using a Polaroid camera and their bare hands. It’s not just the way in which Bronte and Georges record images that makes them feel ahead of their time either, but the way that peruse them, culminating with Georges flipping through the album of Polaroid selfies as Enya’s “Watermark” plays in the background. From the perspective of the 2010s, it’s a remarkably prescient vision of how our social selves might one day be parsed and synthesised in this way, as well as the manner in which that very process might be naturalised and folded back into the apparently organic texture of everyday life.
Interestingly, many of these selfies seem to speak to the dissonance between Bronte and Georges – at least for the audience, who see the backstory – and yet it is also that dissonance that makes them so memorable, allowing them to tap into a more anarchic potential in the city and a more sensuous potential in each other. Yet it’s here that Green Card hits a bad note, since this dissonance is more or less framed as African American, or as analogous to the dissonance between African Americans and the white life of New York City. Not only does the film open with an African American boy drumming on the subway, but Bronte first meets George at Afrika Café (“I’ll never forget Afrika…where we meet”), eats regularly at All Nations Café and – most dramatically – initially tells people that Georges is in Africa, that he studies African music, that he is a composer of African music, but that he is not himself African. As Weir folds Soul II Soul and Babatunde Olatunju into his Enyaesque soundscape, it’s hard not to feel that Bronte and Georges’ marriage is something of an unholy alliance that treats African Americans as collateral damage. Similarly, it’s hard not to feel that Bronte is harvesting something from the African Americans who use her community gardens in the projects as much as giving back to the community herself.
Those tendencies crystallise in the centrepiece of the film, in which Bronte and Georges realise that they are late for their final Immigration Services interview and are unable to find a cab, leading to a mad dash across Central Park. As time ticks down, they eventually leave the path to cut across trees and grass, until they find themselves sprinting across some of the wildest and most untamed remnants of New York City, in what looks more like the original forest of Manhattan than anything cultivated by Frederick Law Olmsted. Whatever their subject matter, Weir’s films often centre on some kind of ethereal, otherworldly musical interlude – the Vangelis segments in Gallipoli, the barn raising scene in Witness, the recognition scenes in The Truman Show – and this scene fulfils that role in Green Card. I remember, years ago, reading an interview with David Hare in which he stated that all his plays started with a single image – Plenty, for example, started with an image of a woman reclining on a box – and I found myself wondering whether Weir’s whole conception of Green Card started with this image of a man and woman dashing through the heart of Central Park to an immigration interview.
At the same time, however, this sequence also forms the crux of Enya’s presence in the film, as Bronte and Georges’ run is scored to “Storms in Africa,” one of her most iconic tracks, as well as an undeniably transcendent and cinematic piece of music on its own terms. In this context, however, it strikes a false note, as the presence of Enya and the excision of African American people starts to feel like the same thing. More specifically, it feels as if the synthesised jungles of Weir’s New York are both utterly dependent upon the presence of African American immigrants but also keen to subsume their presence into a European immigration narrative – or to even pretend that they weren’t immigrants to begin with, and are instead somehow the native, “natural” inhabitants of Manhattan, the original Native Americans. Present everywhere and yet visible nowhere, this African substrate is for that very reason more palpable than nearly any other American film of the time made by a white director, and yet the way in which it is continually absorbed back into Bronte and Georges’ narrative feels quite distasteful and dated as well.
In that sense, the final immigration interview says it all, as Georges finds himself unable, at the eleventh hour, to recall the brand of Bronte’s face cream, which apparently turns out to be a critical piece of evidence in establishing whether or not they know each other. Even by itself, this skin cream would be an apt image for the strange whitewashing and whitefacing of New York that takes place over the course of Green Card, but the fact that the brand in question is Monticello – and that Georges is unable to recall Monticello – seals the deal, since my experience of visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia is not all that different from my experience of watching Green Card. In both cases, you’re presented with a celebratory white structure that you can only fully engage with by ignoring its African foundations, with Georges finally composing his own piece of New Age, Enyaesque music for Bronte, in order to lure her back for one last meeting at Café Afrika.
Nevertheless, to its credit, Green Card doesn’t use this exoticism to broker any kind of enduring stability for Bronte and Georges. For one thing, they only seem to realise how much they love each other when testifying for the final Immigration Services interview, in a logical conclusion of all the social media self-fashioning that has taken place across the film. For another thing, their final meeting at Café Afrika is fairly short lived, as Georges is quickly apprehended by Immigration officials, resulting in a profoundly provisional atmosphere for the end of a romantic comedy. In one brief second, it feels as if he and Bronte have finally, really, glimpsed the full displacement of African Americans, and all the New Yorkers they never notice. Similarly, for one brief second, Bronte and Georges are genuinely dislocated from each other, and as dislocated from their favourite African haunt as the African kernel of the city has been dislocated from their appropriative fantasies of it. And while this recognition and remembrance of Monticello may only last a second, the brilliance of Green Card is that it ends with this second, as if to force you to revise what has come before it, in one of the deftest and most deconstructive romcom endings that the 90s would produce.