close reads

How When Harry Met Sally Used Physical Spacing to Tell Its Love Story

It’s safe to assume that the main theme of When Harry Met Sally is about whether men and women can be friends, since the characters talk about it a bunch. However, on the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, I’d like to offer another reading: When Harry Met Sally, with all of those cute old couple interviews, is a movie about how people come together. Not only is that the story Nora Ephron was telling with the plot, but it’s also the one told visually by director Rob Reiner. In every scene involving Harry and Sally, the physical distance between the two in the frame reflects where they are emotionally. And I mean every scene. Here’s a scene-by-scene slideshow of screenshots, GIFs, and videos that explains what I’m getting at and illustrates how Reiner used spacing in the mise-en-scène to tell this love story. You’ll never be able to watch When Harry Met Sally the same way again.

This is the first shot Harry and Sally are in together, and look at that giant gap between them. Note the size, and all the debris that separates them. At this time, the two don’t particularly like each other. They have two completely opposing worldviews. Over the course of the film, reconciling this brings them together emotionally, and physically, in the frame.
This comes after Harry says Sally has never had great sex. Visually, they are separated not only by the table, but also by those two men at the counter in the back. Sex is a major source of conflict between the two throughout the movie, consistently creating distance.
Sally drops off Harry, they say good-bye, and then go to complete opposite ends of the frame. They are never more physically apart in another shot. They are never more apart romantically.
Sally is not happy to see Harry. There is a gap between them, but it isn’t as large, as the fact that Harry is getting married softens him to Sally.
Harry starts talking about how men and women can’t be friends again, and the space gets larger. Sally leans away.
Harry and Sally run into each other many years later at a bookstore. Sally stands back a bit, but as soon as Harry reveals he’s getting a divorce, she steps closer, literally removing some of the distance between them.
After chatting about their breakups, they talk in the park and touch each other for the first time, albeit slightly.
They are now friends, and as friends, they have an intimate late-night phone call. This shot reflects how close they’ve become yet how they’re still very much separated.
As they talk about their bad dates, they crouch very close to each other (nearly touching), but as soon as Harry says he still had sex with his, Sally leans away.
Sex creates distance.
They are getting very close.
The awkward double-date scene features this clever bit of camera work.
Coming right after he runs into his ex-wife, Harry is in a terrible mood and pushes Sally away. It comes to a head in the next scene …
But then.
Close.
Uh-oh, sex creates distance. They instantly go from as close as they’ve ever been to back to a divided frame.
Instantly, it’s like they were back in the diner, with two people separating them in the frame.
After an awkward dinner at Jess and Marie’s wedding, they’re even further apart. Now three people separate them in the frame.
That is a giant gap, which makes sense, as they haven’t been this far apart since the first act.
When Harry realizes he loves Sally, what does he do? He runs. He has to remove the distance between them as quickly as possible.
Unlike their first kiss, this is shot in extreme close-up. Reiner wants to make it clear that they are as close as possible; they are in love.
One last two-shot, but this time Harry and Sally are right next to each other. Go back and compare it to the first one. They’ve come a long way.
How When Harry Met Sally’s Used Physical Spacing