Forbidden love is a tantalizing topic for cineastes, offering compelling melodrama, and escapist diversion with aplomb. Who doesn’t like to get swept up in passion’s throes, often while defying convention and shattering taboos?
The following list looks at the best examples of proscribed affection and clandestine love, where the stakes are high and a box of tissues are requisite.
Please note, with the exception of West Side Story on this list, the various Romeo and Juliet adaptations –– many of which are wonderful, don’t get us wrong –– and other Shakespearean works (including 1998’s Shakespeare in Love), have been deliberately omitted.
The Bard was no doubt a master, revisiting forbidden love repeatedly in his work, and here we’ve chosen to pass him over on purpose, to allow room for other ill-starred loves.
25. Little Children (2006)
Director Todd Field takes a positively fearless approach to his examination of human desire and vexation with Little Children, which is based off of Tom Perrotta’s 2004 novel. A torrid affair erupts between Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), both stay-at-home parents who are married to other people.
Periphery characters include Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a sex offender pedophile, and obsessed ex-cop Larry (Noah Emmerich) in what the LA Times called “one of the few films …that examines the baffling combination of smugness, self-abnegation, ceremonial deference and status anxiety that characterizes middle-class Gen X parenting, and finds sheer, white-knuckled terror at its core.”
24. Heading South (2005)
With a late 1970s setting, Québécois director Laurent Cantet tells the sordid story of three middle-aged white women played by Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, and Louise Portal, who have sexual tourism in mind as they travel to Haiti for kinky encounters with young men.
Equal parts touching and troublesome, Heading South doesn’t shy away at all from its taboo premise, and with a deft skill akin to Rainer Werner Fassbinder it unravels a political inequality with poise and grace.
23. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson offers a sugary coming-of-age tale of forbidden love circa 1965 on the fictional isle of New Penzance, New England. Two 12 year-olds, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) are on the lam.
Having fled Camp Ivanhoe in order to be together against the wishes of virtually every adult in their sheltered lives. Introverted, intelligent, and terribly without guile –– ad hoc survivalist skills notwithstanding –– the pair haven’t a chance of outsmarting their various pursuers, or have they?
A surprisingly light-hearted fable from Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom is quirky almost to a fault, joyously off-center, and idiosyncratic in the best possible way. Young love on the run is rarely this sunny and carefree, even when doomed from the start. A joy.
22. Out of Sight (1998)
Based off the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, Steven Soderbergh’s late 1990s witty criminal comedy doubles as a sexy romance in what would be the first of many movies between director and leading man George Clooney.
Clooney is career bank robber Jack Foley, who, after an equal parts daring and dumb escape is forced to share a car trunk with U.S. marshal/kidnapped hostage Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) and a romantic interlude later finds the pair smitten.
Soderbergh’s stylish direction, full to brim with enjoyable gimmicks –– flashbacks, flash forwards, freeze frames, etc.,. –– and the undeniable chemistry between the likeable leads and supporting cast, make Out of Sight an unmissable movie that’s also effortlessly cool.
21. Tess (1979)
Using Thomas Hardy’s classic 1892 novel of doomed love, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, director Roman Polanski offers up a precise and perceptive adaptation.
Nasstassja Kinski is Tess, an ill-fated country girl born of nobility who lost her baby, the product of rape, and later meets and falls in love with Angel (Peter Firth). On their wedding night Tess comes clean with Angel about her tragic past only to be rejected by him.
From here the plot thickens and Kinski’s starpower is almost blinding. She carries the movie so well and is so utterly compelling, no matter how much pessimistic fatalism befalls her and the narrative, Tess is never less than illustrious.
In his glowing review Roger Ebert wrote: “It is a beautifully visualized period piece that surrounds Tess with the attitudes of her time – attitudes that explain how restricted her behavior must be, and how society views her genuine human emotions as inappropriate. This is a wonderful film.”
20. The Name of the Rose (1986)
From the debut novel by Umberto Eco comes French director Jean-Jacque Annaud’s moving medieval mystery set in a puritanical Benedictine abbey. Ostensibly a detective tale, The Name of the Rose stars Sean Connery as Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and Christian Slater as his pupil, Adso of Melk.
While there’s an enjoyable mystery to be undermined and resolved much of the real heft of the film comes from Adso’s love affair with a peasant girl played by Valentina Vargas. Their consummation challenges Adso’s faith, the sins of the flesh made manifest, there is a deep and resonating tragedy in their forbidden tryst, and his heartache and hunger is both palpable, pitiable, and ultimately quite crushing.
Unfairly overlooked upon its initial release The Name of the Rose is sweet-smelling and ready for reappraisal.
19. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Screenwriter Nancy Oliver was nominated for an Academy Award for this subversive comedic drama about titular social outcast Lars (Ryan Gosling) and his platonic yet deeply romantic relationship with Bianca.
Bianca, by the way, is an anatomically correct sex doll, and while the premise is a lurid one, Lars and the Real Girl is astonishing in its affable approach. Director Craig Gillespie is much more gentle considering the John Waters-like apriorism, when really what the audience gets is graceful instead of grotesque.
Fable-like, Gosling’s man-child, though delusional, is inherently good, and his family and community are caring and accepting, overall. It’s odd, also, that Gillespie somehow channels the elation and augury we’d expect of Frank Capra, and given the scenario and the supposition, that really says something.
18. The English Patient (1996)
Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Can-Lit classic The English Patient makes for an epic, Academy Award-sweeping adaptation courtesy of director/screenwriter Anthony Minghella. The English Patient has, at its core, a poetic and painful tragic love story starring the eponymous patient, a disfigured World War II pilot named Lazlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes).
An amnesiac pulled from a biplane wreckage in North Africa, his days are dwindling. Under the care of a Québécois nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), Lazlo recounts his past, and more specifically, his love affair with a married woman, Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Not only does the film recall the grandiose epic cinema of David Lean it also translates the poetry of Ondaatje’s writing, cloaking the production in mystery, eroticism, and artistic allure.