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 about love, just attraction.  Love is something deeper and more meaningful than that.  Here are three movies that I think got it right in their own ways.


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.


Love Actually

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.  Like...

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 in life.

Love transcends 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 together."

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."


Broken English

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 Cassavetes matures.

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 discussions).

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 equivalent statement.

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 overtly stated.


The Office (BBC version)

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 tension.

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.





Copyright 2012 Ale[x]plorer.
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