You hear, growing up, that love isn’t exactly like they show it in the movies. But what movies? To focus only on romantic comedies rotating through basic cable, sure, one might glean a starry-eyed vision of head-over-heels adoration and nonstop sex that is unrealistic for the average couple. But as the Cinematheque’s programming in the week surrounding Valentine’s Day shows, love in the movies is anything but simple. For a medium often assailed for its “happily ever after” messages, film has proven to be a mightily fertile breeding ground for complex depictions of love and romance.
We don’t even have to look too deep to see this. One might expect a David Lynch or Luis Buñuel or Billy Wilder to have a particularly cutting view on the topic, but even major Hollywood classics like Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are so because of their emotional complexity. Casablanca famously ends with the central couple not getting together, as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) bids adieu to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) after she has begged him to work things out for them. They’d been lovers years before, until she found out that the husband (Paul Henreid) she believed dead was still alive. Now she doesn’t know where her affections really lie. In a twist on the usual love triangle, Henreid plays a genuinely good guy, worth standing by and plenty charming in his own right. Ilsa is facing a genuinely adult decision between two perfectly-viable people; if one had come into her life at a different point, or not at all, she would be just as happy with the other. No wonder she needs someone to decide for her.
In stark contrast to the novella upon which it’s based, Breakfast at Tiffany’s does give us the happy-ever-after. To say, however, that the film offers a simplistic love story based solely on the ending would be a mistake. Paul (George Peppard) adores Holly (Audrey Hepburn) immediately, as all men seem to, and she seems somewhat inexperienced at developing friendships with men without toying with their desire for her. She flirts and teases, making romantic plans for the two of them and sneaking into his bedroom, even while secretly making plans to be whisked away by one of her richer suitors. “I’d marry you for your money in a minute,” she tells Paul at one point, pretending he has any. “Would you marry me for my money?” “In a minute,” he replies, though he hardly requires even that. “Well,” she says, “I guess it’s lucky neither of us are rich.” But he’s not so innocent either - Breakfast at Tiffany’s is, along with Jacques Demy’s Lola and Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels, one of the great films of this era about the expectations men place upon women for their friendship. She may tease, but she’s ultimately honest about her desires. He is dishonest about his, playing along with her kindness while lusting after her with every glance. Peppard, often regarded here as a limited actor, portrays Paul’s insincere devotion perfectly. He imbues what could be a flat character with a degree of perversion.
Male illusions about beautiful women are perhaps a too-frequent topic in art, as we see it further reflected in Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, in which a middle-aged man (Fernando Rey) practically tears himself apart pursuing a flamenco dancer who, just to complicate matters, is played by two different actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina). There’s little, if any, rhyme or reason to the transitions when they happen, and the effect is constantly disorienting...as love often is. This elusive hunt for a two-faced woman also provides the center of Billy Wilder’s landmark film noir, Double Indemnity, in which Fred MacMurray helps Barbara Stanwyck murder her husband and collect his life insurance policy and, wouldn’t you know it, everything goes wrong. But even before everything goes wrong, Wilder and Stanwyck are constantly playing both sides of the character. We see both the woman MacMurray desires and the one who is manipulating and will eventually betray him.
These couples, or potential couples, haven’t even had to deal with the question of children, which throws a whole other wrench into things, as we see in the double feature of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. Both feature protagonists overwhelmed by parental responsibility - in Eraserhead’s case, one largely unwanted; for Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, the mission to kidnap one greatly desired by his infertile wife (Holly Hunter). Neither has a particularly sunny view of the responsibility of parenting. Lynch gives us a horrendous child that Henry (Jack Nance) struggles to understand and accept, while Raising Arizona’s most outlandish set piece revolves around the attempt to acquire a package of diapers. Both films trap their men in tiny, nightmarish homes that gradually disintegrate their freedoms and rob them of their individuality, making the burdens of child-rearing into physical and psychological threats that leave them questioning their very purpose. If they are to prevail, it will be through love, but I’d hate to give anything away for readers yet to experience either.
It may amuse some that the sunniest view of romance, love, and marriage in this week’s programming comes from Ingmar Bergman and his landmark film The Seventh Seal. Yes, to be sure, the central thrust of the story tells of a knight (Max von Sydow) journeying home from the Crusades, delaying his final reckoning with Death (Bengt Ekerot) through a series of chess games. Not particularly uplifting stuff, even if he will see his wife again at the end of the road. But along the way, he meets a pair of married actors (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson), who travel from town to town with their infant son putting on amateur plays in impoverished towns for a bit of money here and there. Their existence is meager, but they are in perpetual joy in the presence of one another, and their hospitality provides the rare bit of true rest in the knight’s journey. The couple truly loves, supports, and desires one another, hopelessly and completely, in the midst of a world on the verge of destroying them. Truly a love story for our times.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and a contributor to CriterionCast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.