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Love is a universal feeling and, if some people find screen romance a little icky, the universality of the emotion is still powerful enough to ensure romantic movies travel well.
From east to west, the new millennium saw a range of innovative approaches to the romantic drama, from the meandering fever-dreams of Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wei and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul to the convoluted plots of Canadian Guy Maddin and Miranda July in the States.
In England, Paweł Pawlikowski uncovered a major new screen talent in Emily Blunt, whose spirited performance opposite the equally charismatic Natalie Press in ‘My Summer of Love’ (2004) is one to return to for those fans who missed this underrated rural romance at the time.
For those who are less enamoured by l’amour, these movies still have plenty to offer: the lush aesthetics of ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000), the absurd humour and bizarre imagery of ‘The Saddest Music in the World’ (2003) and the philosophical ponderings of ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’ (2005) enable these masterful dramas to transcend their generic trappings and inspire the audience as they work their charm.
It’s me. If there’s an extra ticket… would you go with me?
Wong Kar-wai’s films have always been infused with nostalgic and tragic romanticism, with movies such as ‘Happy Together’ and ‘Chungking Express’ overtly focussing on how relationships begin and end – and all the messy stuff in the middle.
With ‘In the Mood for Love’, though, the director graduated from his more punkish roots to create a deceptively classical-seeming romance that won over a new fan-base with its distinctive retro aesthetics and sizzling adultery theme.
Heart-throb Tony Leung and demure icon Maggie Cheung play neighbours in 1960s Hong Kong, who believe that their respective spouses are having an affair. A friendship builds between the two characters, blossoming into a love they cannot act on for fear of hypocrisy. Each carries their secret with the epic gravity of a golden age Hollywood idol.
The film, however, reflects its eastern providence in its submersion of narrative in favour of mood, texture and emotion. The sensual, award-winning cinematography, period costumes and music create a world to become immersed in rather than a plot to follow. A heart-wringing, spine-tingling modern masterpiece.
She said she didn’t even finish high school. But teaching me is easy since I knew nothing. Like raising a dog she said…
Weerasethakul’s movies are typically imbued with his personal sense of mythology, soft science-fiction, and magic, making ‘Blissfully Yours’ – his second feature – something of an anomaly, due to its rigorously material-bound narrative.
Min is an illegal Burmese immigrant in Thailand, where he is seeing local woman, Roong. She tries to help him get treatment for a rash along with the paperwork for him to work legally in Thailand, with no success. Their would-be friend, the older Orn, is likewise at an impasse with her own husband, following the death of their first child.
Mid-way through the movie, the action relocates to the jungle, where the three main characters take a break from the pressures and hopelessness of city life. Sexual and combative tensions continue to rise between the trio, but Weerasethakul evokes a sense both of timelessness and mutability in their sensual enjoyment of the new surroundings.
As such, while the ‘magic’ does not occur on-screen, a peculiar sense of humanist spirituality pervades the delicately constructed scenes, delivered with a slightness and understatement that make for a unique document of a single extended moment in the turbulent lives of the characters.
The strength of Weerasethakul’s vision is to create, with the barest resources, a profound statement on the essentialness and futility of love and of living in the moment.
Idealism and business rarely mix…
A comic melodrama with a musical heart, Maddin’s most accessible movie to date posits the contest of the film’s title in Winnipeg, 1933, where beer baroness Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) believes the search for the world’s saddest music will encourage her customers to drink more ale.
Nation after nation sends their saddest musicians to Canada to sell out their tragic histories in the hope of winning the cash prize, but the story thrives on the complicated romantic arrangements of the central characters: Port-Huntley, her former lover Chester Kent, his nymphomaniac amnesiac girlfriend, and various other family members juggle their musical ambitions with their romantic proclivities.
Maddin is famous for fetishizing the mistakes and side-effects of cinema techniques of the 1920s and ‘30s, filling ‘Saddest’ with grainy, tinted film stocks, deliberately clunky sound and arch-bordering-on-corny performances. The results are funny, tragic, ridiculous and both visually and sonically astonishing.
If you leave me, I’ll kill you… and then I’ll kill myself…
With a grace and humour largely absent from British films of its time, ‘My Summer of Love’ was and remains a breath of fresh air.
The Yorkshire-set romance between working-class Mona and upper-class Tamsin (Emily Blunt in her cinematic debut) is beautifully evoked by the contradictions and rawness of the nature that surrounds them.
Meeting one sunny summer’s day, the teenage girls are immediately curious about each other, coming from such different backgrounds and – while both fun-loving and bored – evincing opposite or complementary personality traits.
As their friendship shifts towards love and sex, the born-again brother of frank and irreverent Mona threatens to interfere, and it’s slowly revealed that neither he nor Tamsin are quite what they claim.
What might have become a dull and gritty piece of kitchen sink realism in the hands of a lesser director is, under Pawlikowski, expanded into a rich and sensual romance with thriller elements, making it both an intellectually and emotionally rewarding find.
I want to be swept off my feet, you know? I want my children to have magical powers. I am prepared for amazing things to happen. I can handle it…
Strangers Richard and Christine are two particularly sensitive and emotionally scarred adults who meet at the shoe shop where Richard works. Immediately sensing their likemindedness, a romance tentatively begins between them while they try to make sense of their respective private lives – Richard as a single father, and Christine as a struggling artist.
Although Miranda July, who also stars as Christine, was previously best-known for her own artistic career, ‘Me and You’ is no video installation but rather a conventional, sensitive indie drama with an unusually resolved philosophical core.
A supporting cast of similarly sensitive/eccentric characters approaching their love lives from oblique angles completes the deceptively simple picture. ‘Me and You’ adds a fascinating new layer to the complex artworks that represent July’s idiosyncratic take on love, life and existence.
These fabulous auteurs are responsible for some of the most innovative movies of the past two decades, and if elsewhere they’ve approached topics ranging from time-travel to gangsters to Nazis, the early noughties found them in a romantic state of mind.
Did they get you in the mood for love?