Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Great Romances You’ve Probably Never Seen

As I sat at home on Valentine’s Day, alone and very much single, I watched “(500) Days of Summer” for the third time straight and fell in love with it all over again. I recalled trying to convince a friend the other day to watch it. He hadn’t even heard of it! I realised that most people know of “Casablanca”, “Titanic”, “When Harry Met Sally”, “Love Story” and other popular romances. However, there are several other great romances that are great films with lovely stories and characters but few have heard of them, let alone see them. Sure, they aren’t box office blockbusters or even widely released for that matter. However, these are films that are interesting and often refreshingly different or unique in their take on romance and must be seen. Moreover, most are easily available on DVD. Hence, the list which goes as follows:

Romuald and Juliette: Apart from the names of the titular characters, there is no resemblance between this French film and the Shakespeare classic. Romuald here is a handsome rich executive of a company producing milk products and Juliette is the black obese cleaner at his office with five kids from five different husbands to raise all on her own. When Romuald is falsely implicated in an adulteration scandal, Juliette gives him shelter and helps him deal with the mess created by the spilt milk. From there begins a highly unconventional love story that works delightfully because of its seemingly conventional ingredients. The basics remain the same. However, it is in the execution of the film where the difference lies. The observations on the class differences, adultery, prejudice and sexism with a comic touch throughout are both, entertaining and enlightening. Lovely performances from the principal actors and a superb (albeit a tad long) third act make this film a different and refreshing romance.

Once: Now, this is an Oscar winner that few know about and even fewer have seen. Most who know about it refuse to watch it because it’s a musical. However, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, it is a highly atypical musical without lavish, over the top song and dance and with a very contemporary setting. The music has elements of rock, folk and jazz and the tale is a modern day story of two musicians, a broken hearted hoover fixer sucker guy and a married rose selling Czech mother. As they work together to create the music, they affect each other’s lives in unexpected ways. “Once” has a good story set to fantastic music with lovely spontaneous principal performances. The music actually drives the plot forward and the film resonates for a long time after it is over.

Some Kind of Wonderful: John Hughes understood teen angst like nobody else. The 80s were his time and each film he wrote on the topic is a classic. It’s amazing how well most have aged and still remain relatable in an age of “Gossip Girl” and “Hannah Montana”. Most people think of him as they recall, at best, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles”. The more ignorant ones only know of “Home Alone” which is something of a travesty. However, the one film of his I really loved and which is rarely spoken about is “Some Kind of Wonderful”. It takes a very basic love triangle premise set in high school in the 80s and deals with issues like peer pressure and class differences. In that way, it’s “Pretty in Pink” (another work written by Hughes) done right. The writing is much more sensitive and convincing. The observations on class and the need to conform from the viewpoint of Amanda (Lea Thompson) are much more believable. Moreover, Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) is perhaps one of the more interesting heroines in romantic comedies and steals the thunder from all the other characters. Teen angst is very well personified in Keith (Eric Stoltz) and the way in which the story is very well culminated. There are only two ways in which the story could have ended. But the lovely thing about it is that the movie keeps you guessing almost till the very end and does not botch things up by making it painfully obvious. An under-rated romance, it is a very good watch and the most believable fairy tales that John Hughes came up with.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss: This movie is a small independent film that was loved by critics and is a truly different take on romance. Set in Los Angeles, the hero is a washed up nobody living with his best friend and the best friend’s girlfriend. On New Year’s Eve, when he is caught by the girlfriend masturbating to a photoshopped nude picture of hers, the best friend suggests that he find a date online for the evening. No one should spend new years alone and have someone to kiss at midnight. So he makes a date online with a woman, who turns out to be a beautiful aspiring actress who is enigmatic, inscrutable and very rude. After several missteps, the two decide to spend the evening together and embark on little adventures. In the process, each affects the other’s life in unexpected ways as the characters slowly reveal little quirks, secrets and sides to their personality that both startle and endear.

The interesting thing about this movie is that it features two central characters that are hardly the typical romantic leads. He looks ordinary, even ugly. She is beautiful, emotionally volatile and has much to hide. The popular template of a one night romance is well used here thanks to interesting characters and a very different ending. You think you know how it will pan out. But you don’t and enjoy the movie all the more for that. Shot in black and white, it is very contemporary and yet, has a classic feel to it. The scene when midnight strikes while they are stuck in traffic is poignant and memorable much like Jack and Rose with arms spread wide or Anna Scott proclaiming in a travel book store that she is also just a girl. A small film that remains with you for a long while after it’s over, this one is truly a great romance.

Kisses: The second Irish film in this post, “Kisses” is about two troubled kids, Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry) who run away from their home to spend a night on the streets of Dublin on Christmas Eve. Shot partly in colour and partly in black and white, the film captures the magic and horror the children experience on the streets of Dublin. Featuring an amateur cast, this film, while undeniably slight, manages to draw you into its world and keep your attention throughout. It is simultaneously warm and cold, happy and sad, a celebration of life from the perspective of two teenagers. Some moments make you laugh; some others scare the hell out of you. Each part of the film has been executed well and falls in place into a solid whole. The performances by the teenage actors are very good. As the morning dawns, you see two different people emerge from the night from the ones who entered it. And as you leave the characters, you take a part of the night they shared together with you.

Say Anything: Before his most popular works, "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous", Cameron Crowe made this little gem of a teen romance. Fairy tale romances have rarely ever been this warm and endearing. John Cusack, a nobody at high school, decides to ask the most popular and intelligent girl there, Ioan Skye. She is heading to London to study and his only career interest involves professional kickboxing. But he is good hearted, earnest and sensitive. What starts out as an odd pairing soon develops into a beautiful relationship that runs into trouble as it faces parental opposition (John Maloney) and an uncertain future. Featuring some fabulous writing, performances and soundtrack, "Say Anything" is one of the great romances of the 80s that few know about or have seen. It is poignant, mature and really well written and directed. Cameron Crowe wrote the film as a 90 page novella before writing the script. It remains an enduring classic featuring the fabulous theme song "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel. Watch it for the quirky performance of John Cusack, the intelligent direction of Cameron Crowe and you will not be disappointed.

Harold and Maude: This is perhaps the most different love story of all time. Satiric, black and deliberately odd, this is romance at its most unbelievable. Yet, there is poignancy to the romance here that is undeniable. This is one of those movies that draws extreme reactions: you either love it or hate it. I loved it. Hence, I write about it in this post. Directed by Hal Ashby, “Harold and Maude” is a love story between a rich young man obsessed with death (Bud Cort) and a septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) who is obsessed with life. While he spends his times conceiving various (and increasingly painful and gory) ways to die, she lives life entirely on her own terms with absolute disregard for everything else, even the law. They run into each other at funerals of peoples neither are related to nor even know. Set to the music of Cat Stevens, theirs is a romance that evokes shock. As they fall in love, she teaches him a thing or two about life. This is like “The Graduate”, only darker, edgier, quirkier and much better made. It features characters that are despite their oddities, very much human. Be it his obsession with death or her quirky collection of art, there is a sweetness to the movie that is undeniable. You see Harold’s neglectful family and you get some idea of where the kid is coming from. There is sadness to his humorous obsession with death. You see Maude and she is disarmingly adorable as the liberated and free-spirited septuagenarian. Ultimately, this is not for everyone. Ebert, probably the most popular movie reviewer in the US (and one of the few I regularly follow) hated this film. This is also one of those films (along with “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dead Poets’ Society”) that I think he is wrong about. Sure, this is not a great romance for several. But for the rest, it is a rare gem that makes you laugh, cry and leave the film with some rare perspective.

Before Sunrise/Sunset: Now this may be seen as an odd inclusion by a few as it is a relatively popular film(s). Directed by Richard Linklater (“School of Rock”, “Waking Life”, “Dazed and Confused”) and starring Ethan Hawke (“Dead Poets Society”) and French actress Julie Delpy, these two movies in my opinion together form one of the greatest romances of all time. It is easily my favourite romance of all time. Nevertheless, most people I have spoken to haven’t heard of the movies at all. The story is of two young people: an American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), touring around Europe and a French girl, Celine (Julie Delpy), returning from Hungary get talking on the train and decide to spend an evening together in Vienna to get to know each other better. They talk about the things most people do: life, death, aspirations, disappointments, their pasts, futures (together and apart), friendships etc. In that process, they fall in love and make certain commitments to each other. The second movie takes up the characters again 10 years later and looks at what happened between them and what could have been. While the first movie is a beautiful and surprisingly believable fairy tale romance, the second makes things real in a way few romances have been able to achieve.

While the first movie covers the event of one night, the second takes place in real time and sees how the characters have grown and evolved in the time gone by. Both are embellished with excellent conversation wherein the true magic of the film lies. It lends so much credibility to both the movies: in the first, it makes us believe that such a romance is actually possible and in the second, it provides the much needed insight into the characters for the revelations it has to offer. The second film has an added punch probably because it is co-written by Hawke and Delpy and (particularly in the case of Hawke) bears some uncanny resemblances to his own experiences in the 10 years gone by. The characters are sketched out over the two films with great care and seem straight out of life. The movies are also so rich in detail that each repeated viewing adds a new perspective. A friend recently wrote a fantastic post on the first film analysed purely from his observation of the eyes of the actors throughout the film. Ultimately, this tale of chance meetings is a modern day fairy tale romance that achieves something rare: it not only makes us long for such a romance but actually almost convinces us that it is possible. While it may be too talky for the half-brained, for the rest, it is not only a stunning romance, but also, in my humble opinion, the greatest of our times.


  1. I completely agree with u when it comes to Before sunrise/sunset..hope Linklater comes up with part3 for our sake as i can't seem get enough of the 1st 2..;)