By Hannah Tyler
At the end of In the Mood for Love, Tony Leung finds a shallow crevice in the wall at Angkor Wat, whispers a secret into it and fills it with mud and moss.
At the end of Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck exchanges a wordless look with Audrey Hepburn. He slowly walks away though an echoing grand Italian room only to find that when he turns around she hasn’t come back.
At the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant goes to the opera only to watch her ex-lover, Adèle Haenel, unbeknownst to her, weep to Vivaldi’s Summer.
The last thing I want to write about is romance. Every single thing in this world has been thought and overthought and romance is the worst thing in this world to overthink, because as soon as you pin it down it loses the mysterious unknowable quality that makes it exciting in the first place. All of my favourite romantic movies have sad endings, because that is the only way this kind of romance is sustained. It feeds on the gap between what you feel and what you are able to put into words. On circumstances beyond your control. Romantic movies are full of stories that are only beginnings.
Websters dictionary defines romance as: having no basis in fact and impractical in conception or plan. This is why every romantic comedy (an important subgenre of romance) ends with a wedding or people ending up in a relationship. Marriage does not match the definition of romance. And yet it’s the most romantic thing in our society to do. It’s not mysterious or exciting and it definitely has a basis in fact. Marriage is papers and organisation and asking what you want for dinner. It is comprised of facts. It is supposed to be a beginning but it’s mostly an end. A marriage is a long unbroken conversation about practicalities.
It feels like romance has recently been turned down in films, like some of the colour has seeped out. There have been various musing about a lack of horniness, but not so much romance. There are several reasons for this. Romance is generally about fantasy and the world is very real right now (In a way that some would argue feels like too much). In addition, relationships are a mess in terms of power dynamics because of all those times people used their power to do Extremely Bad Things, there is the acknowledgment that relationships have the capacity to be places of extreme happiness but also the possibility of them being a nightmare.
Of course, there are still plenty of romantic films, but the romantic subplot feels particularly sidelined—romance happens alongside life. In the The Old Guard, Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli’s romantic relationship is the heart of a film that is so full of excellent characters that it means something that they stand out. A comic book adaptation that is about a bunch of immortal warriors living in now, Joe and Nicky meet fighting on opposite sides of the crusades and their relationship begins just after they die. They have been together for over a thousand years and no part of their relationship has gone stale. The idea that romance is purely mysterious and unknowable forgets that intimacy is incredibly romantic. I would say it was just as romantic to be made a cup of tea every morning, for your toast to be delivered lightly toasted (because who wants hard bread?), for them to order you food when they can see the first glints of grumpiness in your eyes. Intimacy is also about a lot of things other than food.
Palm Springs employs a very pretty straightforward metaphor for the potential monotony of long term relationships. Every day Andy Samburg attends the same wedding, but one day he drags Christin Milioti into his time loop with him, and she is, quite understandably, pissed. They have fun in their intifinite November 9th, until Christin Meloti can’t do it anymore and spends her time researching quantum physics and literally blows them up as a couple to finally get to November 10th, where they remain together, by choice rather than by circumstance. And this is the key to retaining romance isn’t it? The rejection of being a couple out of circumstance or economical value or societal convention. Marriage is still an economic decision—very few single people can buy a house, or event rent a flat on their own, without help.
In Love Life Zoë Chao plays the best friend and roommate, who leaves her long term relationship under threat of moving in and having kids. Her turn into an addict feels like a punishment for not wanting to settle down. And I feel like that is unfair, I wouldn’t want to move to New Jersey with Patrick from The Bold Type either. Her character is redeemed when she marries someone she met in rehab. Part of being ‘fixed’ from her addiction is wanting to conform.
There is a type of mainstream films that would have always included a romantic subplot, that now no longer do because of capitalist girlboss feminism that misinterprets strong women as those who are never vulnerable. They are able to do it on their own, sometimes with their friends who are also their roommates who are there to tell her she can do it on her own. The female character being relegated to being someone’s goal or wife is very real, but that doesn’t mean the romance now has to disappear, just that they might be able to do other things too. There has always been the perception that romance is just for girls. How can you ascribe to one gender love and connection, the best things about humanity, and then have it derided because of it?
“In popular culture love is always the stuff of fantasy. Maybe this is why men have done most of the theorizing about love. Fantasy has primarily been their domain, both in the sphere of cultural production and in everyday life. Male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape.”
If you remove romance from films as something characters want, what do you replace it with? Work has so far been the proposed solution but that seems just as limited scope for providing characters with pleasure and agency. Work can be a source or creative freedom and ambition. But it is, most importantly, work. So many of our sitcoms are now workplace based—The Office, Parks and Rec, Superstore and Brooklyn Nine Nine to name a few. Whilst Superstore in particular uses its setting to critique the erosion of workers rights, what does this say about our culture that we watch things set at work in our time off? Most of them contain a central will-they-won’t-they romance. Is it the romance that makes the setting bearable? Or it is just the case where work is the only place these days you’ll find a large group of people that have to be in the same place at the same time?
Romance films have always been about economics, they just have been overshadowed by the romance for the past few decades. Your Austen, Brontë, et all adaptations often skipped over the parts about dying a pauper, and maybe Gerwig’s Little Women was one that finally painted a full picture of the economic reality and societal ramifications of not marrying. There is power in marrying and power in rejecting marriage completely.
Our perception of romance as pure escape is a mistake. Romance is about possibility. Romance films give people time to live outside their lives for a while—and then they go back to their old lives or they change them completely. They are about perspective. They allow people to see their lives within patterns and systems—societal and economic, and see what they want to accept and what they want to reject. What is in their own control and what isn’t. They are about love and connection, but also about our priorities. How to escape when you are trapped, and how to put your life together in a way where you are always free.
At the beginning of Before Sunset, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke meet on a train to Vienna.
At the beginning of Lovers Rock, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn gets ready to go to a west London party where she will meet Michael Ward.
At the beginning of The Piano, Holly Hunter and her piano lands on a beach on New Zealand’s South Island. She will teach Harvey Keitel how to play.