Friday, February 14, 2014

The Most Romantic Films of All Time: The Post-War Era

In which we continue our survey of the greatest meditations on love the cinema has produced -

A Short Film About Love (1988)

Krzysztof Kieślowski's extension of an oblique vignette from his magnificent Decalogue is perhaps more accessible than the original version, but still haunting in its suggestive contradictions.  An inexperienced young man spies on a mature, sexually active woman, and slowly falls in love with her as he observes her many couplings. Finally he works up the nerve to approach her himself. The resulting confrontation is, shall we say, highly complicated morally, emotionally, and sexually. Above, the possibly redemptive conclusion that the director added for the extended version.

Annie Hall (1977)

Now, of course, Woody Allen's entire legacy is mired in controversy.  But I think it would be a shame if we lost touch with his artistic achievement because of that.  Can we find a way to censure him while somehow hanging onto Annie Hall and what her smart, rueful whimsy meant to her era?  I hope so.  Of course so much of Annie is tied up with star Diane Keaton herself - whose given last name is "Hall" and whose nickname is "Annie."  She counts as one of the last muses of the cinema - perhaps the last great muse.  Hmmm.  I think there's another blog post somewhere in that .  . .

Dr. Zhivago (1965)

This is probably the only breathless "romance" on the list. Long pilloried by intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals alike, David Lean's blockbuster has nonetheless endured as a monument of high Hollywood taste.  Many, of course, have found peace with their weakness for it by claiming it's nothing more than a guilty pleasure. But the shocking truth is that, like a handful of other Tinseltown epics, it does often hover on the verge of high art (particularly by the low standards of "high" art today).  Lean's direction was never more eloquent (nor was his budget ever bigger), and Robert Bolt's screenplay, although it ignores the tone of the novel, is often wittily ironic. And star Julie Christie is a force of nature - perhaps the only actress of the day who could hold her own against one of Lean's landscapes. Speaking of which - the brilliant sequence above, in which Zhivago's mother is buried in the earth, could be read as a kind of aesthetic confession for this director.

La Jetée (1962)

Chris Marker's one-of-a-kind film essay (it's largely composed of still photographs) is a curious blend of science fiction, philosophical musings, and that peculiarly French mode of romantic fatalism.  But it's also indelible, and its pessimism only seems to cast its hero's bottomless yearning into extremely high relief.  The source of the almost over-elaborate 12 Monkeys, this half-hour "featurette" is one of the few movies that could be accurately described as a poem.

Breathless (1960)

More French romance, more fatalism.  The downside of Jean-Luc Godard's career - which was kick-started by this transformative New Wave fable of aimless youth and gangster fantasies - is that it inspired the unconscious parodies of Quentin Tarantino.  But the upside is everything else.  Breathless (technically its title, À bout de souffle, should be translated "Out of Breath" - a key thematic point) remains coolly fresh and calmly savage even today. It's so cool and calm, in fact, that the depth of its romantic streak only slowly sneaks up on you. Belmondo and Seberg were never better, the casual cinematography became a cultural touchstone, and you could debate whether Godard really had anything more to say after this opening salvo.

The gentle coda of Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

This most forgiving of Bergman's rare comedies has been compared to Mozart, and for once the comparison is justified. A roundelay of lovers work through rueful life lessons over the course of an endless midsummer evening (on the grounds of an enchanted country estate); to give away more would be to spoil things. Starring Bergman regulars Gunnar Björnstrand and the ravishing Eva Dahlbeck, Smiles is not just major Bergman, and a defining romantic comedy, but one of the most luminous films ever made.  Above, its wry conclusion.

La Belle et la la Bête (1946)

This classic Jean Cocteau concoction depends on its décor (courtesy Christian Bérard, Lucien Carré, and René Moulaert) to an extent very few movies do.  But the haunted house of love that this team created for their reading of this fable is by now an icon of romantic surrealism.  The performances (from Josette Day and Jean Marais - another muse, btw) are as exquisitely remote as their setting is lush; and the pace is certainly deliberate. But somehow all this studied poise reads as a mode of unconscious sublimation - and so assists Cocteau in conjuring the brooding atmosphere of a dream.

Notorious (1946) 

Now you thought for my Hitchcock I was going to pick Vertigo, didn't you.  Well - sorry; but Notorious is actually far more romantic than that self-referential opus (which is really more about guilt, obsessive fetish, and death, anyway). Indeed, Notorious may be the most silkily entertaining picture Hitch ever made.  A very vulnerable Ingrid Bergman, a knowing Claude Raines, and an intriguingly objectified Cary Grant all spy on each other in high style down in Rio (well, a rear-projected Rio), while in their spare time, Ingrid and Cary work through a series of increasingly intense variations on romantic masochism. Also noteworthy for the first appearance of a key Hitchcock type: the vengeful Mother.

Coming next: The Most Romantic Films of the Classic Era.

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