Wednesday, February 14, 2007

10 Movies About the Soul-Crushing Horror of Love

Sam Cooke's "Cupid" is a great song that has been ruined by overuse. Now, when I hear it, I think about all the stupid commercials and bad movies in which it has appeared, and not the heartfelt, simple sentiment at its core or Cooke's impeccably smooth vocals. Which sucks.

That's how I feel about the entire Valentine's holiday. Unlike most bullshit annual American festivities, there's a very sweet, straightforward sentiment at its core. You should take time out to recognize the unlikely, wholly remarkable gift of having love in your life. Because most people don't. We're all pretty much alone in this life, when all is said and done, so having one person out there who you truly care about and who reciprocates those feelings is damn special.

Unfortunately, marketing executives, overeager newspaper editors and other assorted assholes have morphed this extremely basic, natural idea into something deformed and hideous. A consumerist nightmare in which an individual is expected to somehow demonstrate his or her affection via fiduciary extravagance. In other words, you don't really love, Mr. and Mrs. Modern American, unless you buy all this useless crap. How will your spouse/partner/fuck buddy know that you really care unless you get them a plush bear in a necktie that was hand-sewn by Malaysian 8 year olds?

I rarely have girlfriends when Valentine's Day comes around. (I rarely have girlfriends, so it's just a matter of percentages.) So I don't really feel that pressure that some seem to feel when February 14th rolls around. I never have to worry about going all-out to impress someone, in the vain hope that they won't leave me for someone they haven't had mediocre sex with so many times. And I'm well past the point of feeling alienated or left out of holiday celebrations. I'm a childless unpatriotic atheist Jew with a small family composed entirely of other childless unpatriotic atheists. My year is defined by being left out of holiday celebrations.

Still, a holiday seems as good a time as any for a themed movie list. So here are 10 Films About the Delicious Agony of Love. Okay, or Lust.

The 4th Man

Jeroen Krabbé stars as a gay writer who seduces a mysterious but hot blonde (Renée Soutendijk) intending to mooch off of her, but slowly grows obsessed with her. Then he begins to suspect that she might have killed her past three husbands. Paul Verhoeven's cheesy erotic thriller Basic Instinct tells a similar story, but he nailed the mixture of swooning Hitchcockian suspense and gallows humor better the first time around with this 1983 Dutch-language film.


The frequently overlooked mid-section to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, this pitch-black comedy's bleak outlook perfectly suits its titular lack of pigment. Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) marries Dominique (Julie Delpy) and moves with her to Paris. He's unable to perform in bed so she quickly grows tired of him. This break-up ruins Karol's entire life, forcing him to return to Poland with nothing but a twisted scheme for revenge. Kieslowski somehow manages to present a creepy, unrequited, vengeful love as both funny and tender.

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Alfonso Cuaron's films leave a lot unsaid. As in real-world human relationships, most of the truly crucial information in his screenplays exists outside of the dialogue. In Y Tu Mama Tambien, the thrill of the road trip undertaken by two impetuous adolescents (Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal) and their glamorous older lady friend (Maribel Verdú) is in the mystery. The trio is unsure of where they're going; not all of them even know why they are going or what's really going on. And we in the audience are fed information slowly, in wayward glances and knowing assents. (Though the title provides a bit hint as to the backstory).

Almost as a sly joke, the film's voice-over narration never once clarifies the on-screen action, but instead provides the Mexican landscape with historical and social context. Cuaron thus simulates the daze of our waking lives in his cinema, extending our ignorance about the motives and thoughts of those real people around us to his fictional characters, about whom we expect to be informed. You can never really know anyone, the film seems to suggest, and that may be a good thing. Because if you get to know someone too well, they stop being any fun.

(NOTE: I'm told that much of the Spanish-language dialogue consists of idiomatic language and puns, so it's very possible that a native speaker would have a completely different take on the style of the film's storytelling.)


Of course we come around to Hitch on the anti-Valentine's Day film list. He's quite possibly the least romantic director of all time. Notorious focuses on one of his trademark fucked up, manipulative, creepy love affairs. British agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) asks an old flame, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), to ingratiate herself with a group of Nazi sympathizers living in South America. By, you know, fucking an oily Claude Raines. Of course, Devlin's still in love with Alicia, so even as she does precisely what he has asked her to do, he feels the need to torment her and make her feel cheap. Most of Hitchcock's films in some way deal with an obsessed man who wants to utterly possess another person (usually a woman, but not necessarily), but nowhere is the desperation to subjugate a woman as intense, needly or unsettling as in the last half hour of Notorious.

That Obscure Object of Desire

Luis Bunuel has two actresses trade off scenes as the romantic lead in this snide, sarcastic take on obsessive love. Mathieu (Fernando Rey) falls desperately in love with Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), who does not seem to feel the same way. Or maybe she does. Anyway, she decides to flirt with him and keep him around, but never lets him get too far. Naturally, the more Conchita taunts Mathieu, the more driven he becomes in his pursuit, oblivious to all save his lustful desires. (There are hints about the crumbling world around Mathieu, an encroaching anarchy aided by frequent terrorist bombings, but he's squarely focused on getting laid.)

Bunuel sees us all trapped in this ceaselessly repeating, hopeless pattern. Just about all of his films deal in the comic futility of the human experience. We all want to love, but we absolutely cannot stand to be loved. As soon as someone demonstrates his or her undying devotion to us, we lose interest. And should we meet a person who cannot stand our very presence, whom no amount of pleading or flattering or wooing can win over to our side, we become obsessed. Oops.

The Locket

This brilliant film noir isn't available on DVD for some reason. It's an intricately structured mystery in which groom Harry Blair (Brian Aherne) is approached the night before his wedding and warned off his future wife. A complicated series of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks makes Nancy (Laraine Day) appear to be a kleptomaniac and a liar, but how can Blair find out the real truth before it's too late?

There's a lot to love about this film - John Brahm's stylish Otto Preminger-esque direction, a great droopy performance from Robert Mitchum, truly excellent black and white cinematography. But, as with a lot of other films of the WWII-era, what I'm really attracted to is the essential pessimism of the enterprise. Because it's extremely Freudian (the central motif is a locket, as in unlocking repressed memories), it's also a bit didactic, and very cynical about human nature. Given the right circumstnaces, we're all thieves and liars, The Locket suggests. So the secret to a successful courtship is sorting out the damaged goods from the rest of the pile.

All the Real Girls

Though it still has a downer second half, this is probably the most uplifting film on the list. Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider play a young Appalachian couple experiencing true love for the first time. At first, it's all sunshine and eskimo kisses and bucolic splendor, but as they always do, things grow complicated and the affair ends. Painfully. Director David Gordon Green and cinematographer Tim Orr turn this small town slice of life into a real visual feast, one of the most sensitively and subtly composed modern American films. This film makes Garden State look like "Bananas in Pyjamas."

In the Mood for Love

Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen Chan (Maggie Cheung) are next-door neighbors and close friends. Then they discover their spouses are having an affair with one another. This presents a real Catch-22. They clearly have chemistry together, and now they have a perfect excuse to break their marriage vows. But to commit adultery would make them every bit as bad as their traitorous significant others. So self-satisfaction and martyrdom win the day, at least for a while.

That asshat Christopher Doyle's gorgeous cinematography and the vibrant, lived-in '60s period detail make the movie Kar-Wai's most aesthetically pleasing, but it's the modulated, withdrawn Leung and Cheung performances that give the film its woozy, breathless energy.


Mike Nichols started his directorial career with the most savage takedown of marriage ever made, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was among the cynics who felt he'd never again make a film worthy of mention alongside the classics of his early career, but he got there with this adaptation of Patrick Marber's play. Two sets of unfaithful couples battle it out over the course of a year, and no one is left unscathed. All the actors (even Julia Roberts!) do solid work, but Clive Owen's got the most fascinating arc. Simultaneously the most perverse and romantic character, his Larry realizes that falling in love is exactly like dying, only it takes a lot longer.


Warren Beatty plays himself in every movie, but he really really plays himself in Hal Ashby's Shampoo. Hairdresser George Roundy, drifting in and out of the beds of Los Angeles' most eligible bachelorettes and trophy wives, is Warren Beatty with a less impressive resume. Let's faec it. Screenwriter Robert Towne does a simply amazing job of making George's quandry, not exactly one shared by the bulk of humanity, feel universal.

To give up womanizing and stick with one woman would be to grow up, which means getting older, which means getting closer to death, which is something George is not prepared to do. So he continues to screw up his life by chasing momentary pleasures and cheap thrills, getting less and less out of them each time. The final shot, with Beatty watching Julie Christie drive away and out of his life, gets me every single time, and I've seen the movie at least 5 or 6 times.


Reel Fanatic said...

That's a great list, for sure .. My favorite one there would have to by Y Tu Mama Tambien .. One other I would recommend, if I may, is Bertolucci's Beseiged with Thandie Newton and David Thewlis

Anonymous said...

Unlike your assumption, Warren Beatty did NOT play himself in Shampoo, nor was it in any other way autobiographical. Based on The Country Wife by the noted playwright William Wycherley. Beatty wrote an important part of the movie (the entire political dinner/fundraiser part).