While a good old-fashioned romantic comedy certainly has its place in film, audiences have grown accustomed to the conventions of a typical “boy meets girl” movie. At this point there is very little the standard romantic comedy film can do to be truly subversive anymore.
Even the posters for these types of movies tend to look the same; they’re sold as lighthearted films that never get too dark. The relationship depicted onscreen may have a rough patch, but there seems to be an implicit understanding that a happy ending is in store.
Fortunately, for fans of quality cinema there’s another type of romance film. This is a film that isn’t afraid to explore desire in all its complexity. It may include the excitement that comes with falling in love, but it also exposes the dark side of desire.
Let’s take a look at a few films that were brave enough to treat audiences like adults.
1. Carnal Knowledge (1971)
This is a great look at the sometimes flawed adolescent male psyche. Although it can be loosely classified as a romantic comedy, Mike Nichols does an excellent job of breaking through that box by giving us two protagonists that struggle to mature over a lifetime. They obsess over women despite lacking the maturity to maintain relationships.
The fact that they have sexual encounters with women throughout the film is almost meaningless, because they almost never quite reach the level of happiness or growth they think they will.
2. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
Buñuel’s last film is arguably just as experimental as his earlier work. This time, we see how the surreal translates to love.
What really makes this film work is the fact that a lot of it is told in flashbacks, yet it’s still mysterious. It’s not as linear as one would think a flashback might entail. That Obscure Object of Desire is a fantastic film that really captures the sometimes inexplicable madness of love, and obsession.
3. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This film gets mentioned quite often when discussing “dark sexual films,” but it’s unavoidable. The way Kubrick balances the dream world with the waking life is so seamless it gives the film a horrifying edge.
Eyes Wide Shut is one of the few films that is not officially a “horror” film, but it will make you feel like you’re in genuine danger. You get the sense that anything could potentially happen in this film due to Tom Cruise’s character going down a path he cannot handle. The fact that this was Kubrick’s final film adds an extra layer of mystery; we will never have all the answers regarding what he was trying to say to us.
4. Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
This is another film where the lead character’s curiosity spells trouble. In an attempt to escape the boredom of her existence, a teacher (played by Diane Keaton) searches for companionship and finds more than she expected.
Although the film may seem dated by today’s standards, it’s still worth watching for Diane Keaton’s Oscar-nominated performance (the cinematography was also nominated).
5. In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
If you’ve never seen it; you may have heard this film is notorious for being graphic. It has a reputation for bordering on pornography.
Looking past its sexually explicit content, it is a powerful portrait of two people trapped in a chaotic relationship. It just might be the most effective film at depicting a doomed relationship. In the Realm of the Senses shows us that when it comes to matters of the heart, logic goes out the window.