Seven alternative valentines…

Shane Murray& James Garner 11 February 2010

Shane Murray and James Garner celebrate a collection of films that avoid the cliches about romance…

1. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is probably the most unusual musical ever made and one of the most heartbreaking romances of all time. Marrying an unconventional, fantastical style of storytelling to a profoundly realist plot ought to have been a recipe for disaster, but New Wave director Jacques Demy pulls off a number of tricks that ought not to work. The plot is simple but shattering: Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), daughter of the owner of the titular umbrella shop, is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic. Guy is then conscripted and sent to fight in Algeria for two years, but not before getting Geneviève pregnant. Realising that a boutique umbrella shop is unlikely to ever be a successful business, Geneviève’s mother arranges for her to marry a successful Parisian jeweller, and our young lovers are separated. Did I mention that literally every line of dialogue is sung rather than spoken? It starts off as a bizarre gimmick and then becomes hugely moving – not least because the music is fitted around the dialogue, rather than vice-versa. It’s not a hugely sophisticated plot, but it works as a tear-jerker because of the chemistry between the leads and the realism of the plot, unlike so many romantic films which rely on contrivance. As for the ending…if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ve got some dust in my eye. Yes, the room has suddenly got very, very dusty.

2. Annie Hall (1977)

The ultimate unconventional romantic comedy, Annie Hall starts with Woody Allen telling us that “Life is full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly” and that his relationship with the title character has failed. The film is essentially Allen’s (he pretty much plays himself) attempt to figure out where it all went wrong and wondering if he can get Annie back. Let alone the best film Allen has ever made, it’s probably the best romantic comedy anyone has ever made – it’s full of great one-liners and slapstick, inventive film-making techniques, and it’s remarkably honest about love and relationships. There’s also a fantastic cameo by Christopher Walken, so even if you don’t like Woody Allen, that alone should be reason enough to see it.

3. Let the Right One In (2008)

As romances go, this Swedish film is pretty bizarre. Oskar is twelve and lives with his mother, while his father is an alcoholic who lives in the countryside. He is bullied at school, and is extremely lonely, until a girl, Eli, apparently his own age moves in next door to him with her father (seemingly). They strike up a close friendship and she gives him the confidence to fight back against the bullies. The problem: she’s actually hundreds of years old, a vampire, and her “father” is her companion who murders people and collects blood for her. To repeat: it’s a pretty bizarre love story. The bleak setting of a 1980s Stockholm suburb only furthers the deeply unsettling tone of the film, which relies on some remarkable performances by the two leads to make the plot both credible and touching.

4. La regle de jeu (The Rules of the Game) (1939)

Repeatedly ranked in the top five films ever made by Sight and Sound’s poll of critics worldwide every decade, La règle de jeu is a tragic satire on the hypocrisy and vanity largely of the upper classes, but also of anyone who falls in love. A series of love triangles are set up in the first act, and during a weekend retreat to shoot and party at a country estate, these relationships all come crashing down to build to a tragic and moving finale. This is a great film for many reasons: director Jean Renoir created a visually stunning film, with a pioneering use of deep focus photography to make the background as important as the foreground, and he smartly re-wrote the film to take advantage of the chemistry between certain actors. Most importantly though, the film is great because of its bittersweet view of love – it implies that whether you follow the “rules” or not, you’re bound to be screwed over and does so in devastating style.

5. Orphee (1950)

Created by the French surrealist Jean Cocteau, this modern interpretation of the Orpheus myth mixes abstract poetry, commentary of the Occupation of France, and special effects far more wondrous and unnerving than any amount of CGI. In this version, Orpheus falls in love with Death (a woman also known as the Princess), and Death’s chauffeur falls in love with Eurydice, lending Orpheus’ mission to the underworld an unusual (and very French tension). Most of the entertainment comes from the hallucinatory effects and the clever updating of the story: Orpheus accidentally looks back at his wife in the rear-view mirror of a car, death is dealt by black-clad motorcyclists, and people in the Underworld are judged by a Nazi-esque three-man tribunal. As befits a fantasy/fairy tale (Cocteau had also directed a similarly unnerving version of The Beauty and The Beast), the mood is dream-like and not everything entirely adds up, but the potent plot adds weight and tragedy to this atmospheric film.

6. Design for Living (1933)

When Ben Hecht adapts Noël Coward for Ernst Lubitsch you have a picture with pedigree. And that was before Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins signed up. The film’s central plot, a ménage a trios between Cooper, Hopkins and Fredric Marsh, was highly controversial in 1933. In 1934 it was banned. In truth the picture isn’t first-rate; its pacing hampered by the lack of a soundtrack. The film’s stilted quality is all the more surprising given that Lubitsch’s 1932 work Trouble in Paradise remains one of freshest of the early talkies. Nonetheless the film does succeed in showing that, in the words of Ludus: “Me and You! / You and Me!…then there’s always more…”

7. Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960)

“Don’t let the bastards grind you down!” Of all the social realist and “angry young men” films and plays of the 1960s, this is by far the most entertaining and the best for Valentine’s Day, if, o course, you are hugely cynical about love. The film owes a lot to the performance of Albert Finney as a snarling, leering, charming jack-the-lad who declares early on in the film’s voiceover, “I’m out for a good time – anything else is propaganda!” Finney’s performance is charismatic enough to make you believe that women would fall over themselves to land this cad, who’s already having an affair with the much older wife of one of his colleagues before starting out with a young girl from the neighbourhood. Finney’s character remains sympathetic partly because of the vast array of quotable lines Finney delivers in his rich Lancashire accent, and partly because it’s all too easy to recognise his rage against the dictates of society, which demand he work until he dies and “tie himself down with some squalling brat”. Finney’s anti-hero is perfect for anyone who’s wondered why we follow the rules we do.

Shane Murray& James Garner