Traditionally, Valentine’s Day divides people in the United States into two camps: the coupled and the date-free. The hype begins shortly after Christmas, until even the most stable person can feel assaulted by heart-pocked boxer shorts and stuffed bears wearing pink dresses. The solution to the hype? Rent a video and stay home. Since Blockbuster has forsaken a romance section for action/adventure, comedy, and horror, where does a person begin to look for appropriate Valentine’s Day fare? Following is a list of suggestions, for singles and for couples.
Until now, there hasn’t been much comfort for the embittered on V-Day, beyond a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and selected rants by Alanis Morissette. With the following titles, it’s finally possible to enjoy the evening alone or with similarly cynical companions with a suitably minimal nod to the holiday.
The War of the Roses (1989): This definitive black comedy about divorce in the Me Decade starts ugly and just keeps getting uglier. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner are relentless as Oliver and Barbara Rose, bitterly feuding over their mutual possessions, including their beloved pets. Guess what Barbara’s really serving up on crackers as an appetizer? Directed with outrageous humor by Danny DeVito.
Out of the Past (1947): “Two things I can smell inside a hundred feet: burning hamburger and a romance.” Jacques Tourneur’s film noir classic crackles with witticisms like this, as it tracks a couple’s ill-fated reunion through to their love’s inevitable demise. Filmed in gorgeous high contrast shadows and light, Out of the Past is a surprisingly modern thriller which (like Fatal Attraction 40 years later) explores a man’s dilemma, as he’s torn between a dangerous temptress and a nurturing mother-wife figure. Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer star.
Bitter Moon (1992): Roman Polanski directs yet another lurid melodrama. On an ocean liner, a paralyzed man (Peter Coyote) corners a repressed husband and tells him the story of how he met his wife Mimi… and how he ended up in a wheelchair. As he tells it, they shared an initially conventional romance, which soon cooled, until they entered into a dangerous game of sexual one-upmanship. The obsessive details disgust the husband, but like the audience, he can’t bear to turn away. Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner plays the voracious Mimi as if she’s always simmering, and Grant is his usual uptight Englishman self, as he develops an unfortunate crush on her. The film is typical of Polanski’s work: over the top, and proud of it.
Rear Window (1954): While spying on a nearby apartment, a photographer temporarily confined to a wheelchair witnesses a murder… or did he? Helpless and intrigued, the photographer Jeff (James Stewart) sends his fiancee (Grace Kelly) out to investigate for him. On the surface, this Alfred Hitchcock classic is a murder mystery, but reveals some of the director’s longstanding interests in pop-Freudian cultural undercurrents as well, which makes it much darker. In every apartment, Jeff sees different doomed scenarios for romance a woman he dubs “Miss Lonelyhearts,” waiting for a date that never arrives; an increasingly bored pair of newlyweds; a vivacious dancer with poor taste in partners. Given the possibilities emerging from these roiling scenarios (narrated and projected by Jeff), the film’s “happy ending” seems downright eerie. (This film is currently being re-released in theaters.)
Modern Romance (1981): Albert Brooks directs and stars as a hapless schmuck who’s just dumped his perfect girlfriend for the umpteenth time. Initially triumphant, soon he degenerates into a pathetic drunken mess, asking out random women in his Rolodex and muttering to his pet parakeet. One of Brooks’ finest films, Modern Romance depicts love as an absurd comedy. It’s the ideal post-break-up movie.
The Stepfather (1987): Any slasher film might satisfy the indiscriminately bitter viewer, with familiar images of couples hacked to bits shortly after fornicating. But what’s better than a romance-as-horror film? Cleverly directed by Joseph Ruben, this movie follows the awful adventures of the title character (Terry O’Quinn), who at first seems like a domestic wonder, swooping into picket-fenced neighborhoods and caring for grieving widows and their children. But he’s obsessed with his vision of the perfect nuclear family, and when each unit inevitably disappoints him, he moves on to find another. After hacking the previous family to bits, of course.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988): By now, everyone has seen at least one version of the scandalous 18th-century novel by Choderlos de Laclos, which include the New York stage hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses; the fine 1988 film, Valmont; and the tart teen remake, Cruel Intentions. But choose Dangerous Liaisons over these for several reasons: Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. Mannered on the outside and smutty on the inside, the film dramatizes what happens when two people (here John Malkovich and Glenn Close) would rather destroy others than admit that they love each other. As one might imagine, it doesn’t end well.
Birdy (1984): Far from a traditional love story, Birdy‘s most romantic moment takes place after the prom is over. Told mainly in flashbacks set during the Vietnam War, Alan Parker’s film dares to suggest that there are countless things more important to a teenage boy than romance; Birdy (Matthew Modine) values his best friend Al (Nicolas Cage), a collection of stolen baseballs, and his canary Perta above all else. After passing up his opportunity to score, Birdy returns home, strips off his clothes, and spends the night in Perta’s aviary cage. Strange, yes, but also spellbinding, nostalgic, erotic.
Husbands and Wives (1992): This is no “comic valentine,” as the video box’s cheery summary claims. A married couple (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) is devastated by their friends’ casual announcement that they’re divorcing. Examining men’s appetites for flings with younger women and the relatively staid comforts of marriage, the film suggests that stable couplings are doomed, and that frivolous attachments are more likely to succeed. Released during Allen’s own scandal, concerning his relationship with sort-of stepdaughter Soon-Yi Farrow, Husbands and Wives is (not surprisingly) one of Woody Allen’s most cynical and complex films.
Happiness (1998): Don’t let the title fool you. One of the most demented black comedies of all time, Todd Solondz’s Happiness tells the story of three sisters, in various stages of emotional upheaval: Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a self-obsessed poet looking for someone to abuse her in the name of art; Joy (the amazing Jane Adams) is an ESL teacher who has a desperate affair with a student; and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) looks to be the stereotypical sunny-kitchen housewife, but is married to a therapist (Dylan Baker), who molests one of his own son’s young friends. Some might find this cult hit unbearable, but for incisive satire, this disturbing film is the ideal Valentine treat.
Sure, there’s always Casablanca, but why not venture into unfamiliar territory? And Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride aren’t the only “contemporary” love stories around. So expand your horizons: choose from a wide variety of black-and-whites, neo-romantic classics, and foreign gems.
Untamed Heart (1993): An old-fashioned melodrama, in the best sense of the word. Part working-class romance (like the equally wonderful Frankie and Johnny) and part fairy tale, Tony Bill’s movie is set in a diner where Caroline (Marisa Tomei) works as a waitress and Adam (Christian Slater) as a withdrawn busboy who claims he has a “baboon’s heart.” Tomei gives a sweet, believable performance as the perpetually unlucky-in-love Caroline, shaking her head and sighing sadly to Adam, “I’m going to fall in love with you. You don’t have to love me back.” Bring plenty of Kleenex.
Now, Voyager (1942): Even those who have never seen Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager have heard the famous final line, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon we have the stars.” This classic “weepie” (as such films were called during the 1930s and ‘40s) is based on a best-selling Olive Higgins Prouty novel and stars a glamorous and morally upright Bette Davis and Paul Henreid yearning for each other despite all kinds of social prohibitions. An “ugly duckling” who, after some effective therapy, becomes a glamorous but shy beauty, Charlotte Vale (Davis), who falls for a married man (Henreid) she meets on a cruise and in the process finally breaks from her dominating mother (Gladys Cooper). With Claude Rains as Charlotte’s wise and patient psychiatrist, this is soap opera at its finest.
Enchanted April (1991): A love story for adults, directed by Mike Newell, this film concerns two women (Josie Lawrence and Miranda Richardson) who arrange for a holiday in Italy, away from their husbands and gloomy London. They share the villa with unlikely companions Lady Caroline Desta (Polly Walker), a beautiful but exhausted socialite, and Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), an uppity widow who spends more time with books than with people. Soon Italy rejuvenates all of the guests, as they find friendship with each other and romance with unexpected visitors. It’s magical and, like the similar Shirley Valentine, the next best thing to couples therapy.
Cinema Paradiso (1988): At the local cinema in Sicily, a priest censors each week’s film, snipping away anything remotely offensive including innocent kisses. Winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso follows a young boy named Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio as a child and Marco Leonardi as an adolescent) as he escapes from his aloof and difficult family to discover passion at the movies every day; eventually, he’s taken in by the generous projectionist (Enzo Cannavale). The scene where Salvatore, now grown (Jacques Perrin), finds a reel of famous movie kisses is moving and bittersweet. Essential viewing for anyone in love with the movies.
The Horseman on the Roof (1995): Directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and based on the French novel by Jean Giono, this swashbuckling adventure is full of swordplay, heaving bosoms, and damsels in peril. Juliette Binoche stars as Pauline de Theus, who is searching for her lost husband during an 1832 cholera epidemic. Along the way, she meets a dashing officer (Oliver Martinez), and things get complicated. Grand and self-delusional in the tradition of Gone with the Wind, The Horseman on the Roof is an overlooked romantic epic.
Before Sunrise (1995): Richard Linklater’s surprising follow-up to Slackers and Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise again demonstrates the director’s uncanny ear for honest dialogue. The story concerns two strangers a heartbroken American (Ethan Hawke) and an intellectual French woman (Julie Delpy) who meet while traveling Europe. Soon they’re having lunch together in the train’s dining car, when Jesse makes a bold move: he asks Celine to spend the next 24 hours with him in Vienna before he has to head home. A rare film which actually takes the time to show the process of falling in love, not just the result.
Woman in the Dunes (1964): This one’s worth searching out. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s haunting story of a Japanese entomologist named Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) who stays the night in an nnamed woman’s (Kyoko Kishida) home at the bottom of a sand pit, only to discover that he’s being held captive the next morning. Initially Niki tries to escape, but it’s no use: the sand walls are impossible to scale, and the woman needs his help to survive. Eventually, he succumbs to the sandpit’s seductiveness, and takes the woman as his lover. Mysterious and lyrical, Woman in the Dunes is beautifully photographed as well.
Ladyhawke (1985): Medieval fantasy starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer as cursed lovers Princess Isabeau and Navarre. They’re doomed to spend eternity apart, since a sorcerer turns Isabeau into a hawk at dawn, while Navarre becomes a wolf at sundown. They live for the brief second at dusk when time overlaps, and they can glimpse each other, almost touching, in a flash of golden light. Contains an amusing sub-plot, with Matthew Broderick as a boy thief who fights to reunite the couple.
Il Postino (1995): Sweet-natured and funny, Michael Radford’s Il Postino (and not to be confused with Kevin Costner’s bloated post-apocalyptic self-love-fest, The Postman) is the Oscar-nominated story of a shy mailman (Massimo Troisi) who tries to woo the most beautiful woman in his village (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). He discovers that he needs world-renowned writer Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) to teach him the art of poetry and love. More thoughtful than Shakespeare in Love, Il Postino is about revolution, friendship, and a love of words.
Ball of Fire (1941): Just as fresh as it was nearly 60 years ago, Howard Hawks’ wacky slapstick comedy is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The “dwarves” in this case are a group of stodgy professors (headed up by Gary Cooper) working on a dictionary of slang, so they enlist the help of brassy showgirl Sugarpuss (Barbara Stanwyck). Sugarpuss delivers one of love’s greatest testaments: “Yes, I love him. I love the hick shirts he wears and the boiled cuffs and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. I love him because he’s the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss the jerk! I love him, Joe. That’s what I’m trying to tell ya.”
And who could argue with that?