I couldn’t quite figure out why none of my friends could hang out tonight. Then I realized. Right, Valentine’s Day. Great. Tells you more than you needed to know about the status of MY love life. Anyway, since it’s apropos, I thought I’d mention five movies that you might not have thought about to share with someone you love.
And, sure, you could bust out the oeuvre of Drew Barrymore, Hugh Grant, et al – hell, I liked Music and Lyrics and 50 First Dates and Say Anything – but if you want a movie with a little something extra, you might consider my advice.*
1. Madame de… (U.S. title: Earrings of Madame de…), 1953, directed by Max Ophuls.
Not just the most achingly, sweepingly romantic film of all time, but also quite near to being THE finest film of all time. The title character (played by the luminous Danielle Darrieux) is trapped in a loveless marriage – but wholly unsympathetic. She kicks off the action of the film by selling a pair of unique earrings back to the original jeweler a pair of earrings given to her by her husband as a wedding gift. The jeweler, alarmed by the portents of such a sale, meets with her husband (Charles Boyer, in a pitch-perfect performance as the height of propriety), who gives them to a mistress whom he is dumping by putting on a train to Istanbul. By one of those truly cinematic coincidences, the earrings come back to her, as a present from an Italian Baron intent on wooing her. Her process of falling in love with the Baron (played by famed filmmaker Vittorio de Sica in the second greatest performance by a film director in the history of cinema) is truly breathtaking, culminating in a scene where the two are separated by a door and she whispers “I don’t love you” over and over, to herself, not him. They, separated by the final line of propriety, can only come into physical contact at dances, balls and the like. This allows Ophuls to pull off one of the most remarkable scenes in film history – one, long dance fading from event to event, the camera elegantly spinning around the two characters, doomed, and wholly in love. The dénouement will obviously be sad, but the movie never tips over into melodrama. I am completely mystified as to why it is not on DVD (but, thanks to Kathryn, I have a Chinese DVD, subtitled in Mandarin, in the original French). Every time this film plays in Washington or New York, it sells out every showing (I remember the Key Theater in Georgetown playing it for one night, and then extending for five and brining in extra chairs for every showing because it was so oversold). Letter from an Unknown Woman would have made this list, but I didn’t want to recommend two Ophuls films here.
2. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Spanish title: Amantes del Circulo Polar), 1998, directed by Julio Medem.
I’ve reviewed this film before for BYT. I think a quick reminder will suffice for a review:
The ending probably will shock you. It may enrage you. If it bores you, I recommend psychological counseling, and perhaps a heart transplant – or, what’s the word when you have a heart installed because you don’t have one – that’s what you’ll need. Let’s put it this way: Medem was so besieged by emotionally bereft, mournful, and ultimately angry devotees of this film that he essentially remade it as Sex y Lucia, but this time, without the sad ending. And if you haven’t seen that film, well, don’t get me started – suffice it to say it is the sexiest smart film (rather than the smartest sexy film) of the modern era. If you have, you owe yourself the opportunity to see Lovers on the big screen, at least once, before you die. Tragically. Alone and unloved (yes, it’s that good).
I MIGHT concede that it’s wiser to see Sex and Lucia with your love tonight. Maybe. It’s an open question as to whether you’d have better sex after getting turned on by Sex and Lucia or consoling each other after Lovers.
3. Closer, 2004, directed by Mike Nichols.
Only joking. Not about love, but about the Back of Love. Awesome nonetheless. Come to think of it, if you don’t have someone special in your life, or if you really, really, really want them to go away, watch this film tonight. When Julia Roberts delivers the “…like you, only sweeter!” line, I dropped my soda on the cinema floor and I think I screamed out loud.
3.a. His Girl Friday, 1940, directed by Howard Hawks.
Maybe that’s all a bit heavy for you. Of course, I can’t recommend anything without it having a bit of a point, so how about the best comedy ever made, and one of the best romantic movies ever made, written from an anti-death penalty script. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell give a jaw-dropping performance as two news hounds, recently divorced, and their undeniable attraction for each other, and their jobs. Never has the inevitable conclusion of a film been more hilariously and distractingly set up, with physical comedy, political satire and some of the most cracking wit ever displayed on film. You’d have to watch it a dozen times, maybe with subtitles, to get some of this lightning-fast, overlapping dialog – and it’s worth the effort. Not a single line is wasted, not a single shot superfluous to the purpose of pulling you in to this relationship, the story and ultimately the triumph of rakish, undeserved and entirely satisfying love. The only downside to this masterwork of American cinema is that you’ll never feel as funny, clever or charming as you did before you saw this movie – both Grant and Russell are impossibly smart and fast. I thought about another classic American comedy, The Thin Man, but that, at its core, is a detective film that just so happens to have the greatest screen couple of all time.
4. Manhattan, 1979, directed by Woody Allen.
“Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.” A great opening to the most beautiful cinematic love letter to a city, ever. It’s not the most perfect film of all time, nor is it, to me, Allen’s best. But from the opening shot to the closing credits, it is a vibrant, passionate meditation on what makes Manhattan the greatest place on earth. And if you’ve got any piece of your heart in that great borough, you will feel yourself tearing up at times in sympathy with this heartfelt ode. Mind you, you could just watch the final scene in Downtown 81 as Basquiat drives away from the Twin Towers while Suicide plays “Cheree” on the soundtrack, but the comparison is unfair. Context is everything. Curl up with a plate of knishes (from Yonah Shimmel, obv) and enjoy.
5. Vertigo, 1955, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Oh, Hitch. So talented. So fat. So twisted with the notions of love, possession and fate. This movie has more layers than this reviewer could reasonably expect to communicate here. Suffice it to say that the tale of the making of this movie is roughly as twisted, bizarre and unexpected as the film itself, and knowing that story would deepen and enrich your appreciation of what is already one of the top five greatest movies ever made. A brief synopsis: Scottie, played with real malevolence by long-time Hitch collaborator Jimmy Stewart, is tricked into falling for Madeline, played with unearthly grace and power by second-choice and otherwise second-rate actress Kim Novak, as part of a scam. When Madeline “dies,” Scottie, besotted, falls into depression until he sees a woman, named Judy (also Novak), who looks just like her. His attempt to transform Judy into Madeline is one of the most bizarre, gripping and powerful representations of obsessive love or desire or possession – the Pygmalion myth in 70mm VistaVision. All the while, the true love of his life, Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes (a smart, funny, cool lingerie designer? Do they make women more perfect than Midge?), pines away desperately, ignored by Scottie. The set pieces in this film absolutely transform the viewer – and demand to be seen on the biggest of big screens with the finest of sound systems – and the wrenching emotional scenes build and build until one is left completely speechless, helpless in the grip of perfect filmmaking. The formal elements of the film – including the use of color, pacing, time, sound, music, movement, filters, deep focus – is truly dizzying. Along with Citizen Kane, this films sits as the highest expression of cinema as a form of art. And, as I mentioned, the more you know about what this film illustrates about Mr. Hitchcock and how this film was made, the more you appreciate that it is one of the finest works of art of the 20th Century. Sorry, I should have capitalized that A. Art.
*No, Gone with the Wind doesn’t count. Shit movies are shit.