In honor of this week’s holiday celebration of love and/or capitalism, it seems worth asking the following question:
What’s the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen?
Real romance is about honesty. And there’s no movie more brutally honest about what love is, and the ways it inspires and destroys us, than Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. For all its sci-fi trappings, the film is a clear-eyed look at the same parasitic/symbiotic relationship that keeps dragging all of us into and out of intimacy with the people who eventually drive us mad. (Or, to quote one of my favorite TV writers, Jacob Clifton: “The thing that makes you awesome is also the thing that makes you suck.”) The film’s ending—in which Joel and Clementine, having wiped each other from their minds, prepare to embark on another emotionally doomed relationship—is equal parts horror and beautiful, deluded optimism. And what could be more romantic than that?
Love doesn’t need to be consummated to be romantic. (Some would argue it’s more romantic if it isn’t.) Likewise in cinema, characters don’t need to tangle their naked bodies together in a dark, shadowy bedroom to convince viewers of their mutual attraction and admiration. Lost In Translation captures this sentiment rather perfectly. Throughout their budding, flirtatious friendship, lonely Tokyo travelers Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) seem always on the edge of more explicitly expressing their love for the other—physically perhaps, or only with words. But their age difference, their spouses, or something else entirely keeps them from doing so. Short as their time together is, writer-director Sofia Coppola makes space for a well-earned fight—distilling the sore spots in their dynamic—so that the two can reconcile. The unspoken is powerful in this film. These people don’t need to say how they feel about each other. They already know. And like that silent bit of dialogue whispered in Charlotte’s ear at the end, the audience doesn’t need to hear it either.
When it comes to romance onscreen, I want the emotions honest and everything else fanciful. And though there are some aspects of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg that might seem modest by the standards of a Busby Berkeley spectacular, Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical really hits that true-to-life/larger-than-life sweet spot. In its recitative style and candy-colored production design, it’s a 90-minute dream—albeit a dream that’s suffused with the tragic ache of the star-crossed love affair between umbrella-store clerk Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). It’s crushingly honest about life’s unexpected curves, but the visuals and the ever-present music elevate the quotidian compromises Geneviève and Guy make (and the decisions life makes for them) to the stuff of epic romance. And, as in the case of a certain high-profile Umbrellas imitator (which is a perfectly enjoyable movie! Really!), Deneuve and Castelnuovo are utterly convincing in their portrayal of the two lovebirds—magnetic when they’re together, heart-rending when they’re apart. Hell, you could probably strip the soundtrack right out and get the same palpitations and gut-punches from the footage of the actors gazing longingly at one another or staring off into the garishly hued distance. But I wouldn’t want to.
Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love isn’t just the most romantic movie that I have ever seen, it’s the sexiest as well. Kar-wai’s rightly revered valentine to romantic yearning and unrequited passion is sensuality incarnate, a film of gorgeous surfaces and hypnotic imagery that’s also blessed with tremendous heart and soul. Select favorites from Nat King Cole’s only add to the atmosphere of ripe, luscious sensuality, leading to a movie so suffused with romance and heartbreak that it’s like a love song you can’t hep but listen to over and over again, even though it makes you cry.
I’m going to go even more old-school than Erik, all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and black-and-white. To my mind, there is no better love story than 1946’s Notorious. Bergman and Grant have smoldering chemistry as the daughter of a traitor and the G-man who wants her to make good by becoming an American spy. Unfortunately that plan includes her marriage to a Nazi (Claude Rains) in South America, which curtails their romance. Notorious long held the Guinness World Record for longest screen kiss, in still the hottest (and mostly improvised) scene I’ve ever seen between two fully clothed people. The fact that the clinch involved the two most attractive presences in film at the time may have had something to do with it, or that the kiss turns out to be the last time the two can really be together. Black-and-white movies from the 1940s seem extremely stylized from today’s viewpoint, almost surreal, but that’s why I love them: a perfect monochrome world in which love conquers all, even Nazis.
My choice, like Gwen’s, is an old-school Hollywood movie, but it’s romantic in a different sort of way. Ever since seeing it for the first time in high school, I’ve always held the 1940 Howard Hawks classic His Girl Friday up as a sort of romantic ideal. Even though they’re divorced, newspaper editor Walter (Cary Grant) and his ex-wife/former employee Hildy (Rosalind Russell) are still clearly crazy about each other, and their attraction is based just as much on their rapid-fire repartee as their physical chemistry. And while Russell’s milquetoast fiancé adores her, he also wants her to give up the journalism game and become a housewife, not realizing that she’d be bored stiff within the week. Walter is the only one who really understands what Hildy means when she says, “I’m no suburban bridge player, I’m a newspaperman.” The couple that chases leads together, breaks up and then gets back together, apparently.
I snoozed and lost on this one, as some of the best answers (like The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and In The Mood For Love) have already been taken. But I’ll chime in with another one that never fails to make me swoon: Out Of Sight. Steven Soderbergh’s funky crime caper, based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, takes a prototypical dynamic—the mutual respect between a cop and the robber she’s chasing—and twists it into a witty story of forbidden amour. Neither George Clooney nor Jennifer Lopez have ever been better than they are here, falling for each other in the trunk of a getaway car, their antagonistic attraction slowly deepening into a doomed love affair. Out Of Sight helped make movie stars out of both of them, and it’s no wonder: The scene where the two take a “time out” at a Detroit hotel is one of the sexiest in movie history—in part because of the duo’s urbanely smoldering rapport, in part because Soderbergh uses non-synchronous editing to sensually overlap the seduction and the hook up. When the two meet again, they’ve reverted to their “roles” on the law-to-lawless spectrum. But Out Of Sight still lets us see where their hearts really lie.
When I was in high school I went over to a friend’s house for a sleepover and demanded that we watch Roman Holiday. As I recall, the girls gathered were not impressed, but I still thought it was the pinnacle of romance. There’s an easy case to be made against William Wyler’s film being particularly romantic given that it’s basically about two people using one another. But their respective conflict is also what makes it so achingly gorgeous. Their dreamy tour around the gorgeous titular city captivates you, and all the while you know about the deception they are both engaged in that makes their love impossible. There’s only one way for it to end: with longing that lingers. Perhaps my affection for the movie is related to how young I was when I first saw it, but I just can’t let it go.
The answer to this is obviously In The Mood For Love. But since it’s taken I’ll go with my second choice for best romantic film: Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, the Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable caper that was the first to win all five major Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). The dialogue crackles between Gable’s gruff newspaperman and Colbert’s rebellious socialite, traveling together for mutual means in a now-classic sour-then-sweet relationship. There’s a case to be made that this 1934 film set the template for an untold number of rom-coms that would follow its setup of circumstances pushing two unlikely people together, watching as they fall in love. I’d argue no film has done it better since the original.
Before Sunrise probably ruined several of my early relationships, as the idea it presents of love as an instantaneous connection that sparks a soul-searching conversation that never ends—that is, in fact, impossible to tear yourself away from—is a total screenwriter’s fantasy, even if the film styles itself as a lower-key, less contrived depiction of romance. Nevertheless, I remain fully seduced by Richard Linklater’s talky tale of two strangers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, playing just slightly idealized versions of their rumpled hipster American/luminous French sylph selves) meeting randomly on a train, then wandering around Vienna together chatting about life and trading grad-student quotes like, “Media is the new form of fascism.” It’s one of the most romantic movies ever made about arguably the best part of love: that initial surprise in finding that you can connect so deeply with a person who, had your timing been off ever so slightly, you never might have known. The connection here was so special and meaningful, and felt so genuinely like falling in love for real, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have since returned to do it all again for two sequels, 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight. Lucky for me, that last one reveals that even these supernaturally simpatico, bon mot-bantering soulmates can start to get on each other’s nerves after a while.
While there are a few films here that would’ve been in my top five responses for this question, there’s still one remaining that I’m more than happy to stump for: the 1998 film Fucking Åmål, renamed Show Me Love for its English-language release. The feature-length debut from Lukas Moodysson, it features the brutally honest and lovingly rendered portrait of two teenage girls making their first fumbling steps to falling in love. Agnes and Elin’s relationship rings true in large part thanks to the awkward and oft-humiliating process of being young, passionate, and unsure how to respond to basically any situation. Both girls have messy private lives on top of the difficulties of coming out as lesbians in a small town—something that still poses risks throughout most of the planet, unfortunately. (Small towns, you are giving yourselves a bad reputation for the thousandth year straight.) Between home and school, all the usual adolescent problems already feel like the end of the world on a weekly basis, without the added stress of realizing that girl across the room just might be the one for you. It’s both cringe-inducing and joyous, as only the best celluloid romances are. (The narration for the trailer above is also cringe-inducing, unfortunately.)