Film & Television · Marriage & Life Partners · Relationships & Dating

In the Mood for Love:
Romantic Movies for Valentine’s Day

Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which Ephron wrote and also directed, is another romantic movie whose subject is the nature of love itself. Meg Ryan is a writer, happily engaged but wondering if Mr. Right is a little too right. Tom Hanks is a widower on the other side of the country whose son talks to a late night talk radio host about his father’s loneliness. Meg Ryan’s character hears him and is intrigued, and the rest of the film follows how they eventually find each other— against the odds, as usual, and find they are the perfect fit. Along the way, Meg Ryan and her female friends (including a wonderful Rosie O’Donnell) muse on the nature of true love, and there is a very meta scene in which men mock women for their devotion to weepy romantic movies, illustrated by the classic Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr film An Affair to Remember (1957).

Woody Allen is someone whose repeated trope of older men and much younger women has raised eyebrows in the current climate, but his much-beloved film Annie Hall (1977) has an fairly age-appropriate love interest, played by Diane Keaton. Another, Manhattan (1979), is also one of his best, despite the fact that the girl he loves is still in high school (a low bar, even for him). But it has a critical attitude toward the hero’s interest in young girls, and mocks his narcissism (“Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love”). The final shot of Allen racing through the streets to find her as a Gershwin song swells on the soundtrack is very affecting. It is interesting to note that these two films, among his deepest and most affecting, were both co-written with collaborator Marshall Brickman.

A few other comedies that should not be missed, or should be watched again for good measure:

Holiday (1938)
The Apartment (1960)
Jerry Maguire (1996) (“You had me at hello.”)

Crossing Boundaries

Serious (and/or tragic) romances cross some boundary or taboo. Traditionally, adultery and class divisions have fit the bill, from Madame Bovary to Anna Karenina to An American Tragedy. The most extravagantly romantic film about adultery is Dr. Zhivago (1965). It is also about the Russian Revolution, the soul of the artist, and really bad weather. A truly beautiful film, it makes adultery look forgivable if not inevitable, as the protagonist falls for the young Julie Christie, who was never more beautiful or idealistically photographed.

Another sumptuously beautiful adulterous romance is The Age of Innocence (1993). It is based on the Edith Wharton novel, so don’t expect things to work out, but it is wonderfully sexy, considering that the love is never consummated (or maybe because of that) and pointedly reveals the cynicism and hypocrisy behind the “rules” society dictates for how we must behave.

The clear winner in this category, and perhaps all, is Brief Encounter (1945). Directed by David Lean (who also did Zhivago), it is as lean and spare as the other film is resplendent. Two ordinary middle-class, middle-aged Brits meet by chance and a “violent love” ensues. It is one of the best films ever made about the madness of love, made all the more vivid by its modest backdrop.

Two personal favorites in this category are The African Queen (1951) and Dirty Dancing (1987). In both, the obstacle is social class, and both are wildly entertaining and moving in very different ways showing lovers at opposite end of the age spectrum. But they have the same message: you never know who you’re going to fall for. Love is as individual as you are. A more recent film about the constraints of social convention, beautifully made, is Brooklyn (2015).

Today, customs and boundaries are less rigid in some parts of the world (which may be why almost all of this year’s romances were set in the past). Recent films have taken a historical look at the obstacles facing gay lovers, including Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Carol (2015). The former made big news when it was released, but Carol is an equally good film. Was the reaction more muted because lesbian sex is less “transgressive” than gay male sex? Or does it reflect how much things have changed in just one decade, an era that witnessed the national legalization of gay marriage?

I’m not including here many of the most beloved classics, including Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Love Actually, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, etc. The 1997 version of Titanic, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is an all-time fan favorite, but it leaves out the most romantic scene (though there is a visual allusion to it) included in other versions—the true story of Macy’s owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida, who refuses to get into a lifeboat, as she is entitled to do as an elderly (and first- class) female passenger. Reportedly, she said “I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together.” She insisted that her maid take her place, gave her fur coat to her, and was last seen standing on the deck with her husband. No matter how many obstacles and conventions are torn down, there are many ways life can try to separate lovers, and so there will always be great love stories to savor and re-live.

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