Love is the one of the more recurrent themes in art. It is thus more prone to cliches in storytelling. As ironic as it is, the fact that this is a feeling everyone can relate to is actually the reason why the cultural industry has taken advantage of it so much that it got to the point of, to a certain extent, distorting it in our collective perception.
Cinema as played its part in feeding us a plastic idea of what romance is, and why we came to idolize it all out of proportion. This has made some of us develop a kind of allergic reaction to love stories as we fear facing yet another lame romance. Well, sometimes that may prove to be a mistake as there are films that successfully manage to catch a glimpse of the complexity of human emotion, without falling in the more formulaic way of touching the audience’s heart.
One way to achieve this is to tell a love story against an unfamiliar background. It is not by chance, but even against it, that Franz Kafka became one of the most influential writers of all time. Placing the action of a story in a surreal ambiance is often a great way to make us think deep about the mundane parts of our lives that we don’t question.
In no specific order, these 10 very different films from the 21st century deal with the idiosyncrasies of the feeling in an honest manner that is often times shadowed in the more stereotypical examples. Their weird characters, full of flaws, are more relatable than the heroes of the cliched formula.
1. Equals (Drake Doremus, 2015)
Widely reminiscent from George Orwell’s masterpiece “1984”, “Equals” sets its action in a dystopian society where citizens have been deprived from all emotions, and those who begin to experience feelings are considered sick. That’s what happens to Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart), who eventually fall in love for each other. That feeling dooms their lives in the Collective, so they try to resist it at first, until they eventually understand they never felt alive before and become clandestine facing a life of danger running away from the Collective.
It is a romantic drama flooded with tension and fear that will keep the audience immersed in its nightmarish world of surveillance. Our own world has had, and still has, its share of totalitarian regimes, so to many viewers this may not come off as so strange. It is, regardless, a great reflection on how we weigh love in the scale of our lives.
2. Wristcutters: A Love Story (Goran Dukic, 2006)
A romantic road movie that takes place in a dimension populated by people who committed suicide, and where it is impossible to smile. Weird enough?
Based on Etgar Keret’s short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers”, the film follows Zia (Patrick Fugit) as he travels through the sad afterlife wasteland along with Eugene (Shea Whigham). That’s how he meets Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who claims to be there by mistake and is obsessed with finding the people in charge.
The viewer is taken on a surrealist trip that’s dark and funny at the same time. Deeply original and with a truly genius ending, this is a movie that you won’t forget.
3. Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007)
First, the protagonist Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a weird(her)o. His family becomes aware that his antisocial behavior has reached the point of mental illness when he buys a human doll and acts as though she is his girlfriend. The most ingenious thing about the story is that the whole town likes Lars and is willing to go along with his delusion in order to help him.
This movie is powerfully awkward, often funny in its absurdity, sometimes touching, although never demanding the viewer pity the character despite all of his handicaps. That’s the core of the movie because we all feel at least a tiny bit like Lars at times.
Human interaction is a very demanding thing, as the late writer David Foster Wallace puts it in his E Unibus Pluram Television and U.S. Fiction: “Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans.” In Lars, this is taken to the extreme; he doesn’t even bear being touched, and intimacy seems impossible for him. Yet he craves love and has so much of it to give that he finds in the human doll a receptacle for the feeling that has grown inside of him.
The human world depicted is an optimistic one; in the fast-paced everyone-for-himself society that we see today it seems unrealistic that Lars would be treated with anything else than despise or pity, but that’s probably the positive message the story aims to communicate. A weird funny movie that takes a look at love as a pure feeling that grows inside the individual and should be shared.
4. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
Another love story that features a non-human loved one, but this time the feeling is mutual. Set in 2025, the film revolves around Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who earns a living writing romantic postcards for other people. Following his divorce, Theodore buys something of a super improved version of Siri, a talking artificial intelligence operating system to which Scarlett Johansson gives voice.
Many interpretations link the story with Spike Jonze’s failed marriage with Sofia Coppola. Being it as it is the director’s cinematographic work is impressive both visually as in terms of score. Together with Phoenix and Johansson delivering great performances, the plot is fresh, clever and weirdly convincing.
A reflection on the limits of love, and its relationship with the body and with humanity. This one will leave the viewer with many questions – will we fall in love with AIs in the near future? Are they capable of loving us back? Will that be a new form of love or of loneliness? How can Scarlett Johansson be so sexy without even physically appearing on screen?
5. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
After directing “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream”, director Darren Aronofsky kept his eerie tone but gave it a romantic flavor. The narrative device is one of a kind; it alternates between three different story lines played by the same actors with recurring themes and images holding the plot together while keeping the audience guessing.
Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play the main roles in a plot that links the Spanish conquistador Tomás in search for the tree of life to save his dying Queen Isabella; Doctor Tom conducting experiments in hope of finding a cure for his wife Izzy dying of cancer; and finally, space traveler Tommy traveling through the universe inside a bubble with the Tree of Life languishing, he aims to reach the Mayan star of Xibalba in order to bring his wife back to life.
A box office flop, generally not praised by critics, and cult film for many, “The Fountain” is a visually stunning movie whose leitmotif is obviously mortality. In that sense, it confronts love with its ultimate boundary – death.