Thursday, June 3, 2010

Four Films About Love

Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas in The English Patient

"Love means never having to say you're sorry," the dying Ali McGraw told hubby Ryan O'Neal in that popular tear-jerker Love Story (1971). But not only did the movie excuse you from having to apologize, it also saved you from the complexity of love’s transgressions. Love Story said that love could transcend all of life’s tragedies and could cure us all of life’s ills – it might even ennoble us. Lou Rawls once sang that “love can be a hurtin’ thing,” but if you want a hit movie about painful subjects, love best be a healin’ thing. Hence, redemptive dramas like Terms of Endearment (1983) or Ghost (1990) became box office triumphs whereas more ambivalent pictures like James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008) didn’t (in this picture’s case, it was also criminally underrated).

Over the years, love and its redemptive powers has been a winning formula in romantic melodramas. But, in recent decades, this cloying approach has found its way into art house type pictures as well. The English Patient (1996), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, contained an ad slogan that read, “In Love, There Are No Boundaries,” but according to the film (and Michael Ondaatje’s poetic novel), in love, there are no moral consequences, or personal accountability for your actions, either. Set against the political intrigue that led to World War II, the story traces the memory of a downed pilot (Ralph Fiennes) who is remembering the adulterous relationship he had (and lost) with an adventurous woman (Kristen Scott Thomas). He becomes the “English patient” of a disenchanted nurse (Juliette Binoche) who cares for him, as well as the subject of suspicion for a Canadian (Willem Dafoe) who’s been hunting him.

The English Patient is a sweeping and absorbing picture directed by the late Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply, The Talented Mr. Ripley) that comes right out of the tradition of such romantic and political melodramas as Casablanca (1942). But where Casablanca is about a love triangle that ends with the Bogart character giving up his adulterous love (Ingrid Bergman) so that she can best aid her anti-Nazi activist husband (Paul Henreid), The English Patient offers us the reverse. Fiennes’ pilot not only goes to any questionable length (including collaborating with the Nazis) to maintain his affair; the audience is asked at the end to feel sorrow for his personal loss, plus, be moved by the healing power of love that restores the nurse’s faith in humanity. In Casablanca, Bogart says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” but in The English Patient, it’s the world that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Not only does love mean not having to say you’re sorry, love is also more important than any of its political consequences. The English Patient, which discards the nobler and chivalrous sacrifice of Casablanca, became the perfect Yuppie idea of romance, one that embraces narcissism.

Lars Von Trier called his Breaking the Waves (1996) “a simple love story,” but it might be more accurate to call his idea of love simplistic. What he has trumped up is that old sacrificial myth about romantic martyrdom where pure love becomes doomed because its purity cannot be accepted in a repressive, unforgiving world. Bess (Emily Watson) is an innocent Scottish woman who lives in a Calvinist village that is so boorish and repressive that the Church elders don’t even put bells in the belfry. (We get the idea of how anti-life they are because they spend an inordinate amount of time at grave sites consigning recently deceased folks to Hell.) Bess spends most of her days jumping up and down in delirious excitement, or talking to God. She might be schizophrenic; she could be a true believer. Emily Watson, unfortunately, doesn’t give us much of a clue as to what she is. Her acclaimed performance (at the time) reminded me of all the frantic mugging Brad Pitt supplied a year earlier in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). When Bess meets the worldly oil-rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), they marry and carry on an obsessive affair that Von Trier sees as preferable to the lives of the stodgy moralists who rule the town. (We are tipped to Jan’s worldliness because he has a pony-tail and likes to smoke reefer.) When Jan becomes badly paralyzed in an accident, however, Bess – at his request – becomes devoted to him by offering herself to the desires of other men in order to stir the memories of their blissful marriage.

The masochistic drivel in Breaking the Waves might have made better sense if Bess’s madness was inseparable from her dutiful devotion to Jan. But then the movie might have been about how repressiveness cripples even those who struggle against it. Ever the pedantic sadist, Von Trier gets pumped turning Bess’s plight into a mythical Christ story with her martyrdom laid out like the Stations of the Cross. My guess is that Von Trier sees madness as a form of spiritual purity: Bess gives up her sanity for everlasting love. I gave up on the movie itself.

Giving one’s soul for love is also the driving force in Scott Hicks’s popular Shine (1996), a film about the Australian prodigy pianist David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) who was driven to madness by a brutally dominating father (Armin Mueller-Stahl in a role he could probably perform in a coma) and redeemed by the love of a life-affirming woman (Lynn Redgrave). Suggestive of Compton Bennett’s kitsch-fest The Seventh Veil (1945), where Ann Todd plays a concert pianist who becomes incapacitated when a Svengali character (James Mason) exerts his control over her, Shine looks for someone to blame for Helfgott’s madness – and the picture lays it all at the door of Dad.

As in Breaking the Waves, Shine needs someone (or something) to blame in order to put across the abiding virtue of the protagonist in his quest for love and understanding. (Shine earned some controversy when Helfgott’s sister told reporters that her father never beat David, in fact, he went to great lengths to help him when he became mentally ill. She also questioned the film’s assertion that their father was a Holocaust survivor because their dad left Poland before the Holocaust began.) Shine wants us to feel good about feeling bad. It’s a story about the failed promise of an artist at the brink of greatness (in his case performing Rachmaninoff’s demanding Concerto No.3) who suffers a nervous breakdown and never fulfills his nascent talent. Hicks’s movie would have us believe that his breakdown became a breakthrough because he faces down his evil father and marries a free-spirited woman who sets him back on the concert trail. What the movie doesn’t address is the quality of Helfgott’s playing (technically poor and erratic) in order to concentrate the story on how a once broken man found his love of music and triumphed over adversity.

James Gray’s Two Lovers provides a more honest appraisal of the travails of love, with both its virtues and its consequences. Based loosely on Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights (1848), Two Lovers is about a paradoxical form of spiritual rejuvenation. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed young man who still lives with his Jewish family. Working in the garment trade, they want him to marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of family friends they also hope to merge with in their business. While Leonard is taken by Sandra’s desire for him, he simultaneously encounters Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a troubled neighbour who captivates him. He begins to fall in love with her although she is caught up in a turbulent relationship with a married man.

It’s no secret that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our most exciting actors. (He gave a wizardly performance in Gray’s 2007 We Own the Night where he slowly evolved from a lively cocky kid operating in the world of gangsters into a darkly disconsolate man who goes straight within his family of cops.) In Two Lovers, Phoenix portrays a loner torn by his desire for a love affair borne of pure longing that's coupled with an ambivalent acceptance of a relationship that would offer him emotional stability. Phoenix is equally matched here by Paltrow who hasn't been this softly carnal since Great Expectations (1998). There's also fine supporting work provided by the lovely Vinessa Shaw, whose character holds out both the promise and the snare of blind hope; while Isabella Rossellini, as his concerned mother, provides darkened shades of empathy. Unlike most redemptive films about love, Two Lovers provides the kind of wistful romanticism that lingers much longer. It says that love's regrets are sometimes inseparable from its deep desire.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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