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Contemporary Romance: 10 Great Films

21 January 2009 2,991 Views 10 Comments author: Justine Smith

When people think of the great romances of the screen, they are inevitably drawn to the classics of Old Hollywood, or else the stale and uninspired romantic blockbuster comedies of recent years. The recent cash cows seem to be trying to leach on the successes of the seemingly unaffected and painless comedies of Leo McCarey and to a lesser degree, Howard Hawks. McCarey’s films bringing a unique and unparallelled humanism, while Hawks offers a complex and thorough exploration of gender roles within relationships and society. It’s hidden under the guise of effortless comedy, and it’s easy to miss the tribulations and bonds that are far beyond words, but lie in action and direction. McCarey especially had an understanding of adult relationships, both the serious baggage a person carries with them, as well as the silly and juvenile games each engages in. The romantic comedies of late Hollywood try to cash in on the sentimentality and the guise of fun and laughs, without the consequence or depth of their predecessors. They channel in on the childishness, without attempting to understand why people act that way. They also fall, ironically and unintentionally, into the trap of bland gender stereotypes, something that these classic directors were exploring, and even exploiting, as a means of comedy and emotion.

The great contemporary romance certainly exists, but it’s hardly rooted in the Hollywood of yore. It’s influence seems to come more apparently from Europe, notably Italy and Michelangelo Antonioni. He was the filmmaker of space and distance, and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that at heart, his greatest films were in fact romances, or at the very least about romantic relationships. A visionary, it’s hard not to see the stamp he has had on contemporary stories of love. The guise of modern life and the big city create a new kind of distance between characters, one that rises above the tales and comedies of misunderstanding. However close the characters may come physically, the emotional distance is too great to overcome, at least beyond a few choice moments. His films rarely achieve moments of happiness, as the characters are too emotionally stagnant to truly open up. At the very least, they are allowed occasional moments of human understanding.

In this way, John Cassavetes films also come into play. Like Antonioni, he explored the nature of yearning and desire through characters and people who failed to connect. Faces in particular is about people searching for love and comfort, but who are unable to overcome or rise above their masks and routine. Even when they do, these instances are brief, and often met with callousness or cruelty as two individuals fail to synchronize emotionally. A choice moment would be when Jeannie allows Dickie to spend the night. They open up to each other for one evening, but as soon as morning comes, despite her efforts, the walls are back up and nothing has really changed. He cannot help being mean and distant, and it’s almost as if they’ve regressed even further, an opportunity lost forever.

The very best of contemporary romance cinema (which I’m qualifying as being made in 1990 onward), explores and borrows from all facets of these worlds, while also bringing a unique touch and vision. Some lean more heavily to the cold alienation of the late geniuses, while some revel in the warmth of the classics. Others, like Wong-Kar Wai, are able to take the best of both worlds to create a singular and exceptional vision of love and relationships.

Perhaps more so than a great comedy or a great drama, there is something timeless about a great love story, as while the environments change, the emotions do not. Comedy transforms through culture and time, just as a drama is affected by the norms and biases of a particular moment. Even though one may understand love as a word in so many different ways, the feeling is universal.

Honourable mentions:
The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)

10. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)

Whisper of the Heart is not simply the story of young love, it is that of the very first spark of emotion felt between two people. It’s confusing, frustrating and exciting. The characters are not searching for love but stumble across it, and without the benefit of time or experience they’re more willing to open up their hearts, without fear of rejection or betrayal.

Both characters are in middle school, and have yet to really engage in any kind of romantic situation. Their first moments together are embarrassed and confusing, but the affection is clear. The characters are not met with earth shattering decisions or changes, but the simplicity of their relationship and world creates a vacuum that many people can relate to. Opposed to the sweeping romances of films like Casablanca or An Affair to Remember that seem so distant, so important and so unbelievable (though no less affecting), this is a film is about simple decisions and relationships that are no less powerful or emotional.

The film reaches an emotional climax as Youko Honna asks the boy to play some violin for her, and then joins in to sing. It’s a perfect moment of youthful curiosity, and while the equation of music or art with love is hardly a new one, perhaps there has never been a moment so ecstatically innocent or perfect, capturing the joy and infectious nature of discovery and passion.

9. The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991)

Generally evasive, it seems untrue and misleading to call The Double Life of Veronique a romance. It is a film about two women, who share the same name and perhaps the same soul (at least some transcending connection that defies explanation) who exist in different countries without ever having met. Even though they are strangers, they are able meet in dreams, and share the same thoughts and feelings, there is even a chance meeting on a street while one is on vacation.

The romantic aspect of the film lies in a quest by the French Veronique to discover the source of strange phone calls and packages that lead her on a journey, just as her life takes on a massive change.

What separates this particular film from the others on the list is the symbolic nature of the relationship. The man Veronique pursues is a puppet master and a bridge of two worlds. His presence represents a romantic and sexual extension of the idea of interconnectedness. Though, I am hardly an expert concerning the thematic concerns of Kieslowski’s films, the idea that somehow there is an unseen presence holding us all together also runs through the other film of his I’ve seen, Trois Couleurs: Rouge. In that film, a model discovers that a retired judge enjoys spying on his neighbours. Though at first disgusted by his behaviour, she comes to see the beauty in their lack of awareness in the relationship they have with each other. Kieslowski’s world seems secular, but there is an tangible emotional connection that binds us to other people. A soul? Fate? Mind? It’s really impossible to say.

The film revels in sensuality with warm golden hues that illuminate both Veronicas’ worlds. The focus on curvature, the bending of light, space and time is consistently titillating, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s made apparent that both women enjoy sex. There is even a meditative and curative facet to their sexual encounters, and though not nearly as transcendent as the unspoken connection between both women, it is perhaps as close as two humans can possibly come to experiencing the interconnectedness of spirit. The film’s romantic aspect is on one level, the romance and connection between two people, but it really reaches for a much larger scale, establishing a very palpable joining of two bodies and two souls that represent us all.

8. The Piano (Campion, 1993)

The Piano is a film as much about passion as it is about love. Though sometimes used interchangeably, the words have different meanings and are explored thoroughly in this film. Holly Hunter plays a mute, Ada, who had the resolve as a six year old to never speak again, and lives her life through her unwavering passions. Her greatest love is her piano: not only her voice, but a reflection of her very soul. People can’t help commenting on her playing, calling it unnatural and penetrating. It disturbs them that someone’s playing could possibly have such an effect on their body and mind.

When she arrives in New Zealand, she meets her husband to be. A well meaning but ignorant and close-minded land owner, he refuses to bring her piano back home with them because of the weight. This sends her into a fury, and much like her resolution not to speak, she decides not to treat him as a husband until she gets what she wants. Her passionate outcry brings her to the attention of local worker, George, who brings the piano to his home under the pretence of wanting to learn to play, using it as leverage to forge a relationship.

Reluctantly, she consents to teaching him, under the allowance that she would be allowed to play whenever she wanted. He even offers to return the piano to her, in exchange for moments of forced intimacy and vulnerability. These encounters begin as a sort of uncomfortable blackmail, that slowly becomes love. George realises how false this connection is, and turns her away, confessing both his love and embarrassment. It doesn’t seem to be this moment that changes her opinion of the situation, but it does invoke the realisation that it was no longer the piano that was bringing her to his house, but the feelings she had for him.

In spite of the shaky beginnings, it’s clear that George is the only person, who can appreciate and understand Ada’s passion. Her husband, though at first intimidated by her strong will, soon rallies against it with surprising vitriol and violence. The others who surround her, do not understand why any woman would be anything but meek and obedient. After his misguided beginnings, George resigns and treats Ada as he would an equal, even though the rest of the world is fighting to push her down. It’s her strength and passion that reunite them, and allows their romance to bloom. She finds both peace and a desire to live when she is with George, but is more than able to take charge of herself. Their relationship places them as equals in all facets of life, and brings them a great amount of happiness.

7. Conversations with Other Women (Hans Canosa, 2005)

Split screen technology has been too quickly dismissed as little more than a distracting gimmick. Though it’s still widely accepted among concert films, and perhaps you’re occasionally heist, Hans Canosa has legitimized it for the dramatic romance. Conversations with Other Women features two characters who meet each other at a wedding. They had once been in love, but have now moved on to new relationships. The use of the split screen separates the characters physically and emotionally, creating a very real barrier that they are forced to bridge. There is a huge amount of anticipation for these moments, and they resonate with beautiful sensuality.

The film is intimate and personal, as we’re offered a look into time and memory. Their feelings with each other seem to remain, but circumstance and time seem to prevent them from returning to each other. One wonders if they still love each other, or simply yearning for youth. One only sees the past through rose-coloured glasses, and at first it seems as though they remember the sweet moments, and almost attempt to relive them under the charade of flirting strangers.

It doesn’t take long for the baggage to catch up with them however, beyond the changed circumstances that hold them back from getting back together, there is an inability to forgive each other for past wrongs. Time has not healed the wounds, and the film’s only apology is not heard, told in silence… or more accurately, told under the deafening circumstance of vanity and pride. The inability to reconcile their mistakes and those pains make their obvious chemistry and compatibility all the more painful. Even when they reach out and touch the other, it’s all with the knowledge that they will simply return to their lives as if nothing had happened between them.

6. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

Though Steven Soderbergh has always been excitingly modern in execution, one has only to look at his Ocean’s films to see his aptitude and understanding of the classic Hollywood formula. Out of Sight captures a classic formula for romance: two characters strung together through unusual circumstances, in this case a prison break. George Clooney is a prisoner, while Jennifer Lopez a U.S. Marshall and by a strange twist of fate they end up locked in the trunk of the same car. Following a traditional formula, they hate each other, only to fall in love through a series of shared experiences bred out of immediate sexual chemistry.

In that early scene where Lopez and Clooney are in the trunk of a car together, one can’t help thinking of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, when Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are handcuffed to each other. In both films, the sexual chemistry is immediate, but love blooms only later. Soderbergh is unafraid to hide his influences, and the characters let their guard down as they talk about movies. Bonnie and Clyde is mentioned, almost foretelling a doomed love affair. However, it lends to a strange kind of warmth, as Clooney accepts that fate from the onset. This leads to a brief discussion of Faye Dunaway, and Lopez comments on not believing that Dunaway’s character in Three Days of the Condor could fall in love so quickly. Again, Soderbergh uses his self-awareness to establish mood and expectations.

The offbeat style and non-chronological editing of the film further adds to the sense of the spontaneous nature of the character’s relationship. Fantasy scenes are cut in, emphasizing the anticipation as much as the time they do have together. This comes together beautifully in the best scene of the film, as they’re both having dinner downstairs, talking about what could have been, edited against them undressing and making love upstairs later in the evening. One can’t help being reminded of Roeg’s Don’t Look Back, and its famous sex scene (again, an instance of Soderbergh’s self-awareness as a filmmaker). While that one, cut against Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland getting dressed evokes familiarity, this evokes the forbidden nature of their romance, and a playful sense of discovery.

5. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)

A whirl wind of pop songs, blonde wigs and stuffed polar bears, Chungking Express is a playful ode to pop art love. The kinetic atmosphere that guides the film allows for chance meetings, fate and even entertains the idea of love at first sight. The film even follows a sort of unparalleled and unconventional form, allowing for two stories to be joined together, interconnected only through a passing moment between two characters.

For me at least, it’s the second story of love that is the most captivating. The moment Tony Leung, dressed in his uniform, walks up to the restaurant, removes his hat, and places his order, all to “California Dreaming”… I was in love. There is always something so deceptively simple about Wong Kar-Wai’s filmmaking that allows for moments like this to be transcendent. He puts the viewer in the position of looking the character straight in the eye, a person to person moment, moving beyond the screen. This shot is lead up to by Wong Kar-Wai’s characteristic framing, and use of exaggerated focus to set him apart from the pack. Even though Faye, the young woman working at the food stand, is taken by him immediately, the audience knows from the onset

The film tackles urban loneliness amidst the rocking and energetic world of popular culture. The music, the malls, and even the cultural iconography lend to a world that is brimming with lifeless “stuff”. They do have meaning though, as the characters feel the need to personify them as an extension of their own isolation. Faye seems intrinsically aware of this, and when she visits the cop’s apartment (when he isn’t home), she is taken by the desire to re-invigorate his life through these objects. He returns home every night, still heartbroken after an affair with a stewardess, and goes through his home talking to his objects. Even when they start to change, his own depression seems allow for a sort of extended sadness to pervade even over the new items of his world.

What draws these characters together is, in part, a shared loneliness as well as the same sense of dreaming and fantasy. They are aloof, shy, but clearly passionate dreamers. Even Faye, who has an effervescent personality, is somehow subdued by the presence of the cop. Suddenly lost for words and awkward, she almost seemed more comfortable when she could live and experience his world without him. Though, in that moment of new opportunity when she returns to the restaurant and her signature toon is playing, she reprises her bubbly attitude, and seems prepared to tackle what lies ahead but this time, she won’t be alone.

4. All the Real Girls (Green, 2003)

Tender and heart wrenching, All the Real Girls captures the disappointment of betrayal and the fears of commitment. The film begins as an example of beautiful vulnerability and sensitivity, and even as thing begin to fall apart, the emotional tenderness to which the characters have surrendered themselves to, even temporarily, is incredible. In part, I think, even that perfection serves to drive them apart. The fear that it might not always feels this way, and instead of waiting to see what happens they push each other away.

Using the backdrop of small town life, it evokes the possibility of love as a feasible means of escape from the mundane feelings of entrapment that Paul is confronted with. His affection for Noel, though, is so much more than a means of escape, it’s an opportunity for transformation and happiness. He is a renowned womanizer in town, and Noel’s older brother even warns her that she should stop seeing him because she is setting herself up to be hurt. There is something very different in how Paul sees Noel compared to other women, and perhaps it’s in his idealized view of her that leads to its failure.

Still, one can’t help seeing why they fall for each other: they are able to share their deepest thoughts and feelings and be themselves. At the same time though, as things escalate, and the outside world begins to interfere, fear creeps. Though Paul is patient and understanding towards Noel, as this is her first relationship, his fear of hurting her holds him back. Noel’s naïvity prevents her from truly understanding why Paul behaves the way he does, and it’s that very innocence that both attracts and pushes him away. He can’t cope with the idea that someone would trust and love him for who he really is, and unconsciously puts up a barrier between them. He doesn’t want to ruin what they have, and fears that by truly committing himself to her, that they will lose everything. He is afraid that if he has sex with her, that everything will change and he will lose her. He pushes her away, not wanting to be the first person to hurt her, but when she turns to someone else, he realises even if he were the one to hurt her, at least he truly loved her.

In a way, he fails to see how difficult it was for her to be vulnerable and open to someone else, and when he is unable to reciprocate, it hurts her more than he could really understand. When she later betrays him, he fails to understand immediately why she acts that way. His anger doesn’t let him see how much she’s hurting, as he’s only blinded by what was lost and a deprecating self-hatred.

Everything seems to fall apart as soon as it began, and the audience is as stunned as the characters. The heartbreak is so real, and so painful. I don’t think another film captures that feeling more efficiently. There is no one to really blame, the only thing the characters are guilty of is fear; the fear of pain.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

The title, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is lifted from the poem “Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope. Though Pope is best known as a satirist, this particular work is inspired by the story of the doomed love affair between a student and a teacher. The couple had married in secret, but when her parents find out of their relationship (still unaware they had wed), they exact a brutal revenge and castrate Abelard. The tragedy separates them, and they both enter cloistered life. Eloisa though, is tortured by her passion, especially in dreams and memories. It’s especially difficult, as Abelard no longer loves her, and even if he did, would be unable to reciprocate physically. The specific line used in the film, refers particularly to Eloisa’s pleading. All she asks and prays for is forgetfulness, because her life tortured by lost love is unbearable.

Though hardly as over-dramatic as Pope’s poem, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shares many crucial themes, ideas and patterns with it’s inspiration. The castration, in this instance, is a sort of self-mutilation on the part of Clementine as she wipes away her memory of Joel. It’s a sudden act that leaves him heartbroken, unsure what to do, and motivated by his despair, he decides to ask the same. In this fantastic environment, one is able to willfully erase his or her memory by a machinated process, and one wonders if Eloisa would act in the same way if the opportunity would arise. For Joel, there was the same hopelessness, but with a window of escape.

Though tortured by his memories and dreams, as soon as they start to disappear, Joel can’t bear the thought that he would really lose them forever. He relives the moments, the good and the bad, the best and the worst, and tries to hold onto them as they disappear like wisps of smoke. Though one is always told it’s better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all, it’s only in the immediate possibility of truly losing Clementine forever that he is able to understand what that really means.

The film’s format works beautifully, allowing a lifetime of memories, and what could be years worth of a relationship to fade in and out. There are those moments of brisk spontaneity, lust and comfort, as well as those torturous moments of insecurity, anger and even hatred. It’s mixed in with a sort of child-like fear of abandonment, and those escaped moments into childhood highlight those primitive needs and eventual fears of being left alone, lost in a world that seems to big and great to bear by yourself.

Exploring love through ideology and even philosophy, the film at the very least, comes to a conclusion about the importance of emotional honesty as well as the inherent difficulty in relationships. The former is explored more thoroughly through subplots, as characters use this technology to manipulate the perspective of lovers. While the film ends on a note of hope, it’s with the added knowledge of bumpy roads that lie ahead, perhaps ones that will be insurmountable. In light of the film though, that fate does not seem so painful.

2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)

In Wong Kar-Wai’s stylized masterpiece, loneliness breeds longing as two characters, suspicious that their respective spouses are having extra-marital affairs, come together to form a troubled relationship. There are moments of confession and vulnerability sometimes born out of speculative scenarios concerning their lovers, but mostly their affection grows in silence. They rarely say what they mean, and even though they may have polite conversations over tea, for the characters, words seem to be little more than a formality, almost a preventative tool from allowing their romance to escalate. They even collaborate on a writing a martial arts serial, as if to distract themselves from the obvious sexual tension.

Wong-Kar Wai’s talent is in the ability to fixate and eroticize the everyday. The world becomes a pastiche of colour and mirrors, illusions and fantasies that make an ugly world a beautiful place. Clothing and smoke become inexplicably erotic, as they become as central to the film as the characters themselves. It also creates a very peculiar sense of isolation : as the characters seem to be suspended in time and space, unable to connect, or perhaps unwilling. The extended pain of failed romance, and the fearful opportunity of a new one holds the characters back from even touching each other, as physical contact seems like a confession of both guilt and desire.

Though set in 1962, no film in the last twenty years captures so woefully and passionately romance and love, in a cold and alienating modern world. The setting works as an extension of the characters’ state of minds, utilizing a sort of suspended passion and warmth. The film is about an emotional affair, a much neglected romance in any kind of cinema. One does not need to touch to be engaged, the mind and heart are far more powerful than the body, and the connection more potent and affecting.

Few films are able to channel an otherworldly atmosphere that hit so close to home, the world of In the Mood for Love, exists only in memory and through ecstatic feelings of desire and affection. More accurately, a mood like this may only exist in the cinema. There is a final montage in the film of the ancient temples of Angkor in Cambodia, and in that strangely ambiguous moment, one can’t help thinking of the lush and troubling environments of Antoinioni’s cliffs and ancient cities in L’Avventura. The temples become as surreal and, even disturbing, as the former, and suddenly two masters are joined hand in hand, one building on another, creating something fresh and timeless that film fans will no doubt still be talking about 40 years down the line.

1. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

When we first meet Pocahontas, she is little more than a teenager, and by the time she dies, she is just barely a woman. From blissful ignorance, to that first love, and the eventual abandonment of her family, to the creation of her own, she experiences a lifetime and more of love and relationships in just a handful of years.

The film is about the clashing of worlds. More than just the discovery of North America by the Europeans, it’s about the encounter and understanding of new experiences, feelings and settings. About how suddenly, a relationship or thought or experience, can complete transform how one understands what surrounds us; our very existence.

The first love between Pocahontas and John Smith seems perfect, especially to her. An initiation into the possibility of new experiences and emotions, she is taken by him, his breadth of experience, his representation of something entirely foreign and special. Her innocence and his idealism allow him to make promises that he perhaps does intend to keep, though is clearly unable to do so. It is not entirely fair to call his affection selfish, though it is short sighted. He is more in love with the idea of her innocence, than he is with loving who she is. He fails to understand how his words and promises might be misleading, and the possible consequences his actions might have. If he truly loved her, he might have acted differently, perhaps even left for her.

Though so young, the calmness and confidence that she exudes allows him to be perhaps too trusting, not allowing for the idea of reality to enter his mind. His passion leads her astray, and eventually she is lost without her family and without him. A stranger in a foreign way of life, too heartbroken to even care that her identity is being stripped from her, she seems to live endless days of monotony and internal torment. It’s at this breaking point that she meets another man, John Rolfe. The pain from her previous relationship prevents her from fully committing herself to him immediately. She seems afraid of betrayal, and she doesn’t feel the same ecstasy for him as she did for Smith. Rolfe truly does love her, and is more understanding than Smith ever was or could be. He never pushes her, and is always honest and true. He allows her to realise that love takes many forms. His patience, and especially his understanding, allows him more insight than John Smith. Instead of simply being in awe of her presence, he is compassionate to her plight and existence as a human being.

Eventually, she has a son and they visit England. Here, she meets John Smith again. He is still taken by her, but she is changed. The film allows Pocahontas a peace of mind, and an understanding of love that one can only hope is possible. The film ends on a note that love can be passionate and true, even without the sting of heartbreak or uncertainty; that love can mean peace and understanding. It never feels idealized or unrealistic, and though Pocahontas herself is exceptional, her love isn’t. Through the experience of two very different but equally life altering romances, Pocahontas grows and transforms into a beautiful and passionate woman. Her last moments feel simple and true, absolutely peaceful as we are allowed a brief look into the happiness her passion has offered her, even in her last days she is not subject to petty insecurities or even loneliness — she loves and is loved.

Edited by: Matt Schneider

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