Yes, it’s another shameless and entirely unofficial and unauthorised tie-in with the BFI’s Love season. We asked our contributors to talk about their favourite romantic films – what happened next will shock you!
Clueless – by Emma Street
When Jane Austen wrote Emma, she wanted to create “a heroine that no one but myself will much like.” Amy Herckerling’s Clueless (Emma re-imagined as a 1990s high school comedy and, yes, I did just use the word ‘re-imagined’ there) stays true to its main character’s initial unlikeableness. Why should we care about Cher (Alicia Silverstone), a rich, privileged Valley teenager obsessed with fashion and shopping with only a shaky grasp of the world outside her super rich insular lifestyle?
We do care, of course. Because, like Emma Woodhouse, Cher tries her best, gains self-awareness and accepts her faults. During a moment of clarity, she decides she needs “a complete makeover, except this time, I’d makeover my soul.” Which she does through a combination of selfless acts and butting out of other people’s business, which leads her eventually into the arms of her hero. As with Jane Austen’s original story, it’s clear to the audience that Cher and her Mr Knightley figure, Josh (Paul Rudd), are perfect for one another from their first scene together. We just have to wait for Cher to wake up and smell the pumpkin spiced skinny latte.
Is Clueless a love story? Well, there’s no guaranteed Happy Ever After for Cher and Josh. As Cher points out “I am only sixteen and this is California not Kentucky.” It’s certainly a film about romance, though. As Cher manipulates those around her in her attempts at matchmaking (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much) we can see the dating game being played out in all its variations against a backdrop of English classes, hanging out at the mall and totally ‘dope’ parties.
Cher is determined to remain a virgin until she finds true love. A decision as subversive in 1995 as Emma saying that she doesn’t want to get married in 1815. You can’t say Cher hasn’t thought it through, mind you. “You see how picky I am about my shoes and they only go on my feet.”
Between Heckerling’s direction and Silverstone’s delightful portrayal of Cher, a character that should have been deeply irritating is made warm and engaging. I suppose, Jane Austen can take rather a lot of credit for that, too. The parallels between Clueless and its original source are all there but Clueless isn’t just a clumsy rehash with Louboutins and brick-sized mobile phones. It’s very much its own movie. Emma Woodhouse never gave us dating advice like this: “Sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex.” Although, to be fair, she was probably thinking it.
I Know Where I’m Going! by Kate le Vann
They’re all my favourites, the movies in the Love season. I’ve picked I Know… because it’s the only one that’s only about love. Brief Encounter is also about goodness and duty and being British, knowing your pain can’t matter when you’re causing someone else’s. But I Know… is about surrendering to love, knowing that it’s more important than anything and anyone in the world. It’s the love you’ve dreamed about, the love you deserve, the love that will come for you when you’re not looking and whether or not you want it. It’s the love that knows the real you, it’s not fooled at all – beneath your terse, sarcastic blue-stocking outer you are tender and true and your heart is wilder than the sea. Aren’t you. Isn’t it. No, don’t speak, just kiss me.
It’s the story of a determined young woman (we would now call her a Type A personality; in the film she is called Joan) who sets out to marry her fiancé on a remote Scottish island. She must wait for fair weather before making the final leg of her journey but by the time the storm has passed she knows she has fallen in love with another man.
Our heroine may capture a laird, but it isn’t a Cinderella story. Joan’s blithe fiancé, who won’t do, is the one with princely riches, and if Cinderella’s happiness is earned through obedience and patience, here we are rooting for an obstinate mercenary. She risks three lives to push ahead with her sensible plan. There’s no makeover: she is plain, and your last boyfriend was better looking than the Laird of Kiloran, but as you well know, real, grown-up love for romantics like us can take or leave physical beauty. Still, it is a fairy tale, with wishes and curses proving stronger than Joan’s reckless attempts to deny that she and MacNeil are in love. Well before they admit it, they get very close: despite both of them being terribly British and terribly awkward, he is so shockingly physically forward in some scenes that it almost presses through the screen to touch you. After the film, our lovers will ardently tumble among the spiky purple ling; from the moment they first see each other, we know where this is going.
A Matter of LIfe and Death and In the Mood for Love by Ron Swanson
I wrote about Brief Encounter recently, and about how, for me, it was a film about different kinds of love, and a film that paid full appreciation to the kind of safe, secure love that doesn’t pull up trees, or shake anyone’s existence to its very core. It would be fair to say that that kind of love is not at the centre of the two films I wish to write about today.
A Matter of Life and Death is yet another of the string of classics churned out by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger during, and just after, World War 2. It, like their peerless classic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film set during the War. David Niven plays Peter – a RAF pilot, who, as the film starts, is about to make a crash landing. He connects, over the radio, with June, an American radio operator (played by Kim Hunter), and spends his last moments alive flirting with her.
At least, that’s what was supposed to happen – as it turns out, Peter is missed by his heavenly guide, whose responsibility it was to find him, and bring him up to the afterlife. As it happens, Peter wakes up, mostly uninjured, only a handful of miles from June’s base. The two meet, they fall instantly, passionately and overwhelmingly in love. Of course, at this point, the guide realises his mistake, and comes to find Peter, to bring him where the universe has decided he belongs.
It’s a fantastical concept, of course, and the film is most famous for its more fantastical moments – the design of the stairway to heaven is stunning, and the scenes set in heaven are beautifully judged, but it is the manifestation of Peter and June’s love (which grows once Peter is granted the right to an appeal) on earth that carries the heart of the audience.
Powell and Pressburger’s work doesn’t often revel in fantasy, and there’s a hardness to the film, which belies what could otherwise have been all froth. For example, the characters surrounding Peter, on finding out what is happening to him, believe that this is a symptom of his crash-landing or an earlier injury – meaning that as an audience, we know, in the back of our minds, that we are watching a man fight for his life physically, rather than existentially. This is beautifully carried out by the cast – alongside Niven and Hunter, the inestimable Roger Livesey shines as June’s doctor friend, who becomes Peter’s greatest hope.
Even with the rug pulled out from under us, Powell and Pressburger want the audience to know that it is love that holds the key to Peter’s life. Without being able to see the love in his life, it wouldn’t be worth living, and in the end, it’s that love that saves his life, and that love that we are completely assured will be the anchor of his “very generous” new lifespan. Indeed, as Livesey says “Nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love”.
Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love does not posit a world where love conquers all. In fact, it’s a film where love pretty much equals pain. As Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s characters (Chow and Su) try and make sense of themselves, their relationship and their pain at the situation they find themselves in (attracted to each other, but drawn together by the realisation that their spouses are fucking), we can hope that love will set them free, or on a course to happiness.
By the end, it’s fair to say that that no longer seems like an option. It’s not that Wong is, entirely, cynical about love. This film is not the film of a man who sees nothing worth loving left, but one of a man who understands that being under love’s power is not necessarily a great thing. Most people are all too aware that love brings with it what seems like more than a fair share of pain, and few films showcase that pain in such a relentlessly beautiful, yet slowly oppressive way. It deals with abandonment, the shame and pain of being cuckolded and the frustrations of your feelings appearing unrequited, and finally with knowing that being in love with someone, who is in love with you isn’t enough for you to be together.
Wong is the director (along with perhaps Satyajit Ray) who finds the most beauty in urban life, and some of the more impoverished areas of it, and that beauty just shimmers from the screen, throughout. It’s there in every single shot, be that the two leads in the back of a car, a rain-sodden walk to a noodle bar, every single goddamn dress that Maggie Cheung is poured into or the space in every frame when either character is without the other.
What makes In the Mood for Love so extraordinary (and I think it’s the greatest film of the century so far), for me, is that while watching it I remember every sensation of being in love, and am completely seduced by and besotted with the film. The way it looks, moves, sounds and just hums with so much life is utterly intoxicating.