Three movies about Love
that got it so very right
Love is at the center of so many movies.
There are romantic chick flicks and romantic comedies and sex comedies
even. Even action movies are about getting the girl, whether it's
about saving her or just impressing her. And yet, they're rarely
love, just attraction. Love is something deeper and more
than that. Here are three movies that I think got it right in
Note: Spoilers abound, so
the text is colored out. You can read it by highlighting
it. However, if you haven't seen these, I recommend you seek them
out at your earliest convenience instead of having them ruined for you
by this discussion.
On its surface, this seems like it
should be a broad film like so many others. No substance.
The movie poster screams that it's going to be nothing more than a
Hollywood clown car. They cram a big cast into it and tell you
shallow little stories that don't require you to think too much.
Just grin and enjoy your popcorn. After all, with ten subplots,
there's only about 13.6 minutes for each, right? Less for some,
in fact, since more time is yielded to the bigger stars' stories.
But you'd be wrong. And I
was too. Instead, this movie leaves the viewer thinking about the
many forms of love. Love doesn't have to be a romantic "boy meets
girl" story. It doesn't even have to be a "boy meets boy" or
"girl meets girl" story that is only now finally getting mainstream
treatment. This is a meditation on the very nature of love.
Love isn't just for lovers. There's romance, sure, but there's
more to love than Valentine's Day sentiments. The various stories
in this picture illustrate not just relationships but lessons about
Love transcends age and
rank. In what is arguably the most memorable (though not
necessarily best) story, newly-elected Prime Minister David falls for
Natalie, a young aide in his office. They do their best to
pretend against their attraction, but it is very real (and quite
convincing on-screen). They both know its something they
shouldn't do, but it comes naturally, and they succumb to it.
Love transcends gender. A
jaded singer's manager works tireless to promote the man he has put his
faith into years ago and still believes in. They're best friends
and may not even realize that what they have is far more than a
business arrangement worn smooth over time. They genuinely love
one another, and their relationship is as real and ingrained as any
lasting marriage. It may look different, but they're Ozzy and
Sharon by other names.
Love transcends blood. Liam
Neeson's character has just lost his wife and is now raising her son
Sam without her. In theory he needn't feel compelled to raise the
child now that the man's wife/the boy's mother is deceased, but he
loves him like his own. Genetics are irrelevant in the matter.
Love should be expressed no matter
what stands in your way. It doesn't matter that Sam's crush on
his classmate may never amount to anything. His step-father
encourages him to tell her anyway, whatever it takes, as she is leaving
the country for good to move to the States. He explains that
sometimes there's a "too late" beyond which we don't get any more
chances to say "I love you," so take them now.
Love means putting someone else
first. Laura Linney's character Sarah has been in love with her
coworker Karl since she met him nearly three years earlier and finally
asks him out. The date goes successfully, but just as things are
getting hot and heavy at long last, she gets a phone call from her
mentally ill brother and rushes to his aid. She will always put
him ahead of her own needs, even at the expense of what she wants most
indiscretion. Put another way, love forgives. Emma
Thompson's character discovers that her husband (played by Alan
Rickman) is flirting toward an affair with his secretary. She
calls him on it, but she doesn't leave him. She never states it
quite like this, but her resolve says, "I don't want to lose you.
If you still want me, I can let go of this mistake so we can be
Love transcends right and
wrong. There's the inevitable love triangle story (which is
probably the most poorly developed and least interesting of the lot) in
which a man is secretly in love with his best friend's girlfriend, to
the point that he even aids enormously in their wedding. He
eventually confesses his love to his friend's new bride, but he refuses
to act on it and break up the marriage. He does the right thing,
but his love is still very real, even if his timing is completely wrong.
Love requires more intimacy than
sex. Martin Freeman and Joanna Page play characters working as
body doubles in nude scenes. Naked they're comfortable around one
another, but making real connection between them is awkward, and they
find it difficult to have a substantial conversation with their clothes
on once he musters the courage to ask her out.
Finally, love transcends
words. In my favorite piece of the entire film, writer Jamie is
on a holiday and develops an attraction to Portugese housekeeper
Aurélia who doesn't speak a word of English (nor he any
Portugese). She is all he can think about, to the point that
after he returns home to England, he dedicates himself to learning her
language. He goes back to see her and to ask her to marry him,
only to discovered she learned English in his absence "just in cases,"
as she puts it.
Of all the storylines, I think
this one says the most about romantic love. It gets at the fact
that you fall in love with who a person *is* rather than what they
believe or say. In the case of these characters, the language
barrier was impenetrable, but their affection grew out of their sense
of one another. For example, I fell in love with my wife so fast
as to be based on an intuitive sense of her identity rather than a
collection of relatively trivial discoveries like what her favorite
movie was or what she minored in as an undergrad.
So, yes, the movie is sappy.
Yes, it's overly broad. It's never subtle, but maybe, just maybe,
love is so ubiquitous a phenomenon that we have to get hit over the
head with multiple trite examples of it in order to realize just how
pervasive it is, how many colors it comes in. A collage is
greater than the sum of its parts, none of which you need to examine
too closely to get what the whole is trying to say. As Hugh
Grant's Prime Minister David explains in the film:
"Whenever I get gloomy with the
state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow
Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a
world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me
that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified
or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and
daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old
friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know,
none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate
or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it,
I've got a sneaking suspicion... love actually is all around."
I spend a lot of time apologizing
for recommending this movie too, even though it's the polar opposite of
"Love Actually" in so many ways. It's one of those
character-driven independent movies with a meandering script and
doesn't really balance itself effectively along the comedy/drama
continuum. It's a little all over the place except at being an
amazingly honest movie about the process of falling in love.
It's unfortunate that this film
simply never found its audience. Admittedly, that's largely
because of the way it was marketed. Whacky sells, and so movies
are often presented as comedies (think "About Schmidt") when they may
actually be very sober meditations on very adult concepts (e.g.,
"Schmidt" dealt with the purposeless of post-retirement life, the
emptiness after losing a spouse, etc., but the most salient element of
the trailer was long-past-her-prime Kathy Bates' topless character
attempting to seduce Nicholson's character in a hot tub). "Broken
English" was a victim of the same bait-and-switch. Perhaps a
viewer going into it without such pre-conceived expectations would be
able to see it as the mature love story it actually was.
Granted, the film is by no means
perfect. Like I said, it's somewhat directionless in spots, but I
took that to be a deliberate attempt to reflect the central character's
aimlessness, and that's probably confusing to most Parker Posey
fans. Her performance this time around is in stark contrast to
most of her previous work as a strictly comedic character actor.
She brings some of that with her to this role, but there's more
dramatic weight here. Zoe Cassavetes proved herself a capable
writer and director here with deep insights for her cast to convey
throughout. It is such an effective movie at dealing with the
emotional (not just social) awkwardness of love. I'm hoping for
an expanding body of work from with continued frank discussion as
I will be the first to admit that
there isn't a lot of plotting in this script, and that's sure to lose
many viewers. Normally that would have lost me as well. I
can't stand character-driven movies. There's just too much
emotion and not enough plot twists. I want a story that has a
synopsis, and I probably won't even be interested in seeing it if you
can't tell me something like, "There's these two robots who have to get
these secret plans from this princess to an old warrior...," but
there's nothing like that I can say here.
In fact, it takes much of the
movie before Posey even meets the man (played by French actor Melvil
Poupaud) she'll fall for. She doesn't especially like him.
It's not entirely clear if he's even serious about her or merely
pursuing her for a physical connection while he's in town. But
that ambiguity is so much better delivered here than in anything
involving a Meg Ryan or a Matthew McConaughey (ugh!).
The thing I most connected with
was the depiction of how fragile we are as we're falling in love.
When it's genuine, we're excited and yet terrified of being
excited. Love means there's this possibility that we will settle
into something secure and enduring with someone we want nothing more
than to be with all the time. And at the same time, is this too
good to be true? Even if it *is* true, even if (s)he really means
it, what happens next? For all the joy, those early stages of
falling in love are simultaneously as terrible a feeling as you're ever
going to experience. ***Love is sad, and not just when it
ends. Posey puts that all on screen without ever asking these
questions aloud. Maybe that's too subtle for a general audience,
but I've recommended this movie to multiple friends who have
subsequently sought it out, and they all came back ecstatic over
it. There's something special here that people identify with, or
maybe I just hang with the right crowd.
But just when you think maybe
things are about to start going well, that's when the movie takes a
turn and Posey's lover goes back to France. She's sort of adrift
again for a while. It isn't clear if we're still watching a
romantic film at all anymore. Finally she goes to France looking
for him. She loses his number, only to happen across him in the
flesh, completely by chance (This is after some minor adventures as a
tourist that also lead to short but substantial existential
It's the last scene that sells
it. Few movies are that good that they can build to a climax so
satisfying. They manage to say everything about love, merely two
people sitting in a cafe sharing a beer and a quiet conversation.
In this scene in particular (and in most of the film generally) there's
so much written on the faces of these actors that a lesser director
(e.g., a Michael Bay) would require tons of TNT to make an emotionally
You come to understand that
Posey's character has been battling herself. She wasn't pushing
her lover away; she was pushing away love. The movie closes with
the two characters tacitly settling a treaty to move forward.
Posey's character surrenders in a way that is unconditional.
***In love, you don't just surrender to another person, you surrender
to the feeling itself. That's a powerful statement that I've
never seen expressed in those terms before, even though it's never
The Office (BBC
I'm cheating a bit by calling this
a movie, but this differs from conventional television programming in
that it was apparently conceived as a finite story, not one to be
milked until all the life was gone (as the once-great American version
of "The Office" threatens to do, sadly). To date, Gervais'
original series stands as the greatest love story I've ever seen.
The entire series is filled with an awkwardness so pervasive that it is
palpably painful to watch at times. Most of this is due to
Gervais' performance as middle-manager David Brent's inability to gauge
where his behavior crosses into inappropriateness for the
workplace. However, the most significant subplot of the series is
the forbidden, never-consummated office romance between Tim and
Dawn. For all of the other hilarious bits centered around David
Brent (e.g., his awful dance, the inappropriately-timed rendition of
his "Free Love on the Freelove Freeway," etc.), I always think of the
series as a serious romance with comedy thrown in to break up the
I can't think of another love
story that treads so carefully, tenuously forward. Most modern
romances plow ahead and then pull back just enough to leave the
audience wanting more (think "Friends" throughout its entire
run). "The Office" doesn't play that kind of shell game with
commitments ("We were on a break!"). You have to go all the way
back to Jane Austin or the Brontes to find something this delicately
constructed. This has the sensibilities of literature, not the
clumsy delivery of a younger medium. It's an insult to the medium
to call it a sitcom.
There's no promise of a happy
ending for any of the characters, never mind the would-be lovers.
The series is so grounded in the harsh reality of life not always
working out, that you're cursing the penultimate scene where Dawn
leaves for the States with her long-time fiance, while poor every-man
Tim is left standing there with his dreams of a happy future
dashed. There's even Tim's soliloquy (presented as a
"confessional" for the documentary cameras) in which he explicitly
rejects the "happily ever after" concept as incompatible with the
nature of life outside of the artifice of narrative fiction.
No one has had a happy
ending. David Brent was rendered redundant (English for laid
off... or politely fired). Gareth has never successfully found a
girl and simply buries himself in his work to find purpose.
We're led to believe there's no chance of a reunion between Tim and
Dawn. Among her final shots in the series, she's shown looking at
the "Secret Santa" gift from Tim, and it's just a goodbye present, not
an engagement ring. How can the story recover from plotting this
committed to its course of action? But then she returns in the
midst of (what else?) Brent having to explain a joke to fellow
office-mates Gareth and Tim. Her unexpected appearance brings us
from the depths of despair to unparalleled joy.
Meanwhile, on the other side of
the screen, Dani and I had worked our way through the series, not
really sure where things might wind up. In those last moments as
Yaz's "Only You" is playing prominently in the background, we found
ourselves completely over-whelmed, the pair of us literally bawling on
the couch as the love story unfolded to its unexpectedly happy, joyous
ending. It was perhaps the most beautiful conclusion to any
romance I'd ever seen, and I was sharing it with someone who felt it
just as much. We were madly in love, and it was reflected back to
us what those characters were feeling to be united as a couple.
"Only You" went on to be "our
song." I played it to Dani when I proposed to her several years
later. It was the song at our wedding for our first dance.
Less than a year later Yaz reunited for the first time in twenty-five
years to tour. Their encore: "Only You." And a year after
the night after seeing them concert, it was the perfect postscript: Our
son was born.
I'd known that song -even owned
the album- for years before Dani and I had met, but it was "The Office"
that vulcanized its significance for us. To this day, I can't
watch the aforementioned scene between Tim and Dawn without
crying. Maybe it's simply that watching it with someone I love
made it special, or maybe it's knowing what true love is when you see
it played out to perfection. Whatever the case, "The Office" will
always be *the* love story for me.