We all love to be in love. It can make the world go ’round or bring life’s routines to a screeching halt. We hunger during the chase, revel in the ecstasy of the moment, and then writhe in agony when the whole thing goes sideways. Sometimes the connection lasts for years, evolving with age; other times it can extinguish quickly having run its course to a natural end.
This genre isn’t nearly as popular as it once was before tabloids and television sated our voyeuristic appetite for stories of pursuit, courtship and seduction, all but wiping-out the big screen version where love and attraction was the sole, unadulterated theme. It seems to have become a secondary theme in most plotlines today, something that’s dealt with in the midst of noisier action, but those films that do take the dance seriously do it with zest, both sacred and profane.
Criteria are simple: two characters and a spark that drives them – sometimes to destruction. It’s a chemical reaction between two (usually) people that cannot be resisted. Someone should analyze why our most popular romance films end in tragedy, but that’s for another day.
Here are five of my favourite love stories:
À bout de soufflé (Breathless) – Jean-Luc Godard (1959)
Godard’s inverted love story breaks the all rules in plot and style, but is definitely a romance nonetheless. Michel is a thug who is doomed at the start, so the play between him and Patricia has no proper beginning, courtship, or future, only the “now”. The film was a popular milestone of French New Wave cinema and most definitely helped kick-start the Hollywood rebirth in the later 60s. “I told you being afraid is the worst sin there is.”
Romeo and Juliet – Franco Zeffirelli (1968)
Zeffirelli’s opulent version of Shakespeare’s most famous love story is mythic in its gorgeous production values, lush score, and beautiful leads. In spite of all this visual distraction, he manages to capture the undeniable attraction the two lovers have for each other, all set to some of the most famous lines ever written. The play was first filmed in 1908; most recently, in 2016. This version remains the quintessential one for me.“For never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo”
L’Atalante – Jean Vigo (1934)
I usually reserve this spot for Murnau’s Sunrise, but to change things up I’m going with another oldie with an unusual setting. Vigo’s story takes place almost entirely on a river barge and concerns a newlywed couple with adjustment issues. Jean is wrapped-up in his responsibilities on the barge and Juliette gets cabin fever and pines for the nightlife on land, leading to a near disastrous result. Although remarkably stylish and original – even exotic, it speaks directly to anyone who has made the transfer from “single” to “in a relationship”. More like “It’s complicated.” Historically, one of the best films ever made.
Brokeback Mountain – Ang Lee (2005)
Screw sexual orientation tags (please), this is a romance on par, even better, than most. The social obstacles Ennis and Jack faced in 1963 pale in comparison to explosive tension caused by Ennis’ inability to come to terms with himself, his feelings and commit, leading to a hardscrabble life physically and emotionally. What could have been we’ll never know, but not taking the chance to find out is heartbreaking in the end. Classic unrequited love. “Jack fuckin’ Twist.”
Brief Encounter – David Lean (1945)
I’ll wager there isn’t a man or woman on the face of the planet who hasn’t been confronted by this: You’re happily settled with a partner and going about your business when, out of the blue, you spot someone in the most unlikely of circumstances and feel an overpowering attraction. Few act on it, but Laura risks her marriage and family for the attentions of an attractive doctor, also married, she meets at a train station. Over time, the relationship begins to take control and…I’ll leave the rest with you. Passionate and painful, David Lean proves he was master of the intimate as well as the large canvas.
Now, I’m certain that you might think these to be obscure choices – not to mention somewhat tragic in their own ways – but a post on romance was not going to get by without mentioning them. Of the thousands of movies that claim this genre, what are your faves?