If sappy Hollywood romances aren’t your thing, you’ve come to the right place. Here are 6 films to explore the world of L-O-V-E without triggering your gag reflex.
Before Sunrise (1995) – Richard Linklater
Jesse and Celine are two young adults who happen to meet on the train to Vienna. Gradually, the conversation between them blossoms into something more, until they could be the only two people in the world.
I'll ease you in with perhaps the most conventional romance in this list. Before Sunrise is like many of Linklater’s films in that it’s plot is thin and it’s pacing leisurely. What this allows is a narrative that meanders as the leads do; we just watch as two young, naïve, idealistic humans explore what makes the other tick. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have great on-screen chemistry and together they make the long-takes of naturalistic dialogue seem improvised. The ‘Before’ films make up one of the most even trilogies in cinema, and this first instalment perfectly captures the intensity of new and fleeting love.
Ali: Fear eats the soul (1974) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder
An elderly German woman is lonely – her husband is long gone and her grown-up children ‘have their own lives’. When she takes shelter in a bar frequented by Moroccan immigrants, she is touched by the sincerity and kindness of one of them, Ali. But as their relationship grows, the prejudice and jealousy of her neighbours and colleagues puts pressure on their lives.
Fassbinder himself, being homosexual in a time when that closed doors, was no stranger to the isolation of prejudice. He captures on screen the pervasive stigma that, to this day, separates couples with mixed heritage. Emmi and Ali don’t seem like an obvious couple – there must be an age difference of at least 20 years and they mix in different circles, when they’re not slaving at their jobs. What they do have in common is integrity and decency, and that is enough to set them apart from their peers. The framing of the characters is inspired, often within internal frames created by doorways and obstacles, symbolizing how trapped and excluded they are in their society. Fassbinder’s camera, too, moving only when it needs to, creates distance and seclusion when appropriate. Most modern filmmakers could learn a thing in how a simple story can have such an impact.
The Lobster (2015) – Yorgos Lanthimos
In a dystopia where singledom is illegal (on punishment of transfiguration), choosing a life-partner is like picking off a menu at gun point. David can’t find a connection with anyone and his time is running out.
The Lobster is an absurdist black comedy which depicts relationships as a utility and takes pleasure in cynically deconstructing our pursuit of them. Don’t despair though, this film is sympathetic enough when it comes to the genuine romance that can grow in the most infertile of soil. Who knew? You can’t hurry love. (The Supremes knew). Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz work well together and add perfectly deadpan execution to a witty script. Lanthimos provides a closing ambiguity that will leave you squirming and pondering in equal measure.
Harold and Maude (1971) – Hal Ashby
Melancholy and obsessed with death, Harold is a young man with a very concerned mother. Every time she tries to set up a date, he stages an elaborate suicide. When he finally does meet a like-minded woman, it’s at a funeral, and she’s 79.
Hal Ashby’s cult classic is eccentric and quirky, and did it before it was cool. Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon play the kindred spirits who share a love for the macabre. Together they find a comfort in being who they are and their bond slowly morphs into something resembling romance. What he learns from her, though, is how to make sense of his feelings and embrace anything that comes his way. It is a touching story of self-acceptance and of how kinship can overcome the superficial things that keep us apart.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Michel Gondry
Now that you can forever erase unwanted memories, painful break-ups need not be so painful. But when your life is intertwined with somebody else’s so intricately, will you inevitably lose a part of yourself in the process? Clementine and Joel find out the hard way.
Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter known for his postmodern screenplays with high-concept, cerebral themes (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche New York). Eternal Sunshine is no different. The questions that this film asks about love, like whether such a thing as a soul-mate exists, and if it is indeed better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, are timeless ones and they elevate the film beyond it’s fantastical science-fiction plot devices. Eternal Sunshine is widely considered one of the best films of the 21st Century: a result of its beautiful cinematography, transformative performances and unique screenplay.
The Lunchbox (2013) – Ritesh Batra
A mistake in Mumbai’s famously efficient lunchbox delivery service means the wrong man gets a meal. What follows is a correspondence that sparks a connection between two strangers.
The Lunchbox is a charming, low-key film about feeling appreciated and finding solace in unlikely places. For a film produced in India, it has none of the eclectic chaos of Bollywood and is very measured in it’s tone. To some extent it is reminiscent of Mary and Max (2009), in that it is two people from different backgrounds who find comfort in having someone who will listen and empathise with them. The film doesn’t give us all the answers at the end. It asks us to make our own decisions about who these people are, what they deserve, and what that means for us.
Other films to check out –
Chungking Express (1994)
Eagle vs Shark (2007)
It Happened One Night (1934)
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Three Times (2005)