I spend a lot of time musing about what makes some movies work while others fall short. And, it seems to me that most great love stories don’t really fit particular genres.
Most of the films I return to because they are romantic or erotic have to work on several different levels. To frame this discussion, I have selected several films made during my adulthood that I have admired so much that I’ve watched them again recently.
Let me start with a couple of literary adaptations. Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans is exquisite. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, but what is there is choice, and the score is one of the most passionate I can recall. It’s as if all of the longing that builds up inside the two main characters as they are separated then reunited is expressed in the music. More than in almost any other film for me, music is etched into my appreciation of this movie. The film is set during the French and Indian War of the 1750s, but the story is timeless.
I’m also fond of The Painted Veil. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play a newly married couple who are ill-suited but who come to an appreciation of one another when each finally sees the other in roles outside of spouse in a remote Chinese village during a health crisis in the 1920s. The moment when the wife really “sees” then husband and he returns the gaze arrives after so much build-up that the release is indescribable. The film is lush and beautifully photographed, but the one scene in which this man and woman truly become husband and wife is what draws me to The Painted Veil.
Two Jane Campion films make my list of movies that are hard for me to escape – The Piano and Bright Star – both historical dramas, like Last of the Mohicans and The Painted Veil, and Holly Hunter earned an Oscar for Best Actress in The Piano. One reason these two Campion films work so well for me is perspective. Writer-Director Jane Campion subverts the male gaze that dominates most films. There is also a tactile element to her films that seems to pull me into the screen when I’m watching. It seems that looking and touching are central themes for me when thinking about love and the movies. How could it be otherwise?
Looking is certainly essential to The Secret in Their Eyes, one of my favorite films in recent years. Looking and longing, yes, those are key ingredients for the most romantic and most erotic of films. I don’t want to talk about the plot because that do a disservice to your first viewing of this Argentinean film, but the heartbreak and separation conveyed in the train station scene wash over me anew as I write this. (Why do I suddenly think now of Casablanca? You know why.)
There are many other evocative films I could talk about, Henry and June, for one, but all of my favorite films about love aren’t heavy. I appreciate a range of emotional tones.
To prove it, I’m a sucker for teen movies from the late 80s, particularly Cameron Crowe’s film Say Anything starring John Cusack and Ione Skye. After high school graduation, an undistinguished student but stand-up guy starts dating the smartest girl in school. In its own way, this film is a little subversive, too, because Cusack’s character Lloyd Dobler wants to do whatever he can to take care of and support the beautiful and brainy Diane Cort as she leaves for England to attend graduate school. I think I still have a crush on Lloyd Dobler after all of these years. He’s such a great guy – I want an age-appropriate Lloyd Dobler for myself.