Entertainment

The 'Deeper Into Movies' Guide to Love and Loneliness in Cinema

Recommended viewing for Valentine's Day in the hellscape.
February 9, 2021, 9:00am
Love Streams (1984) movie still
Photo: Love Streams (1984) still
All the good shit you should be watching, as curated by the East London film club Deeper Into Movies.

“Love is a stream, it's continuous, it doesn't stop.”
– Love Streams (1984)

“Love is dead. Love is a fantasy little girls have.”
– Love Streams (1984)

For this socially distanced Valentine's Day, we’re exploring romance, love and loneliness. We’ve compiled 13 movies to get you through February, featuring: high school romance, failed relationships, lovers on the run, threesomes, isolation, sadness, depression, 18-year-old Nicholas Cage and even your first love's frozen corpse.

‘Valley Girl (1983)’, Dir. Martha Collidge

You can toss the trash remake where it belongs, Martha Coolidge’s 1983 Valley Girl is where it’s at. It’s a rare thing, but when true love pulses on screen, that’s it. That’s the end of everything else, and the beginning of a dream – rose-tinted or not – to live vicariously through the lives of two beautiful human beings. 

What plays out as a micro West Side Story amidst LA’s sprawling San Fernando Valley (also the stomping grounds of an at-the-time very young Paul Thomas Anderson), is also a time capsule gushing with West Coast nostalgia. From Santa Monica Beach to the sleepy mazes of West Hills and Sherman Oaks, it’s the teenage playground of a faded yesterday. 

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An 18-year-old Nicolas Cage is Randy, a punk doofus from Hollywood whose world collides with Julie, a Valley square with all the class played by Deborah Foreman. In the turbulence of their respective lives, they find each other in a lock that lights their hearts on fire. “In real life I had a massive crush on her. I’d write her poems,” Cage later said, and you can see it in every look, in every fighting gesture, in every animal impulse. Show this to a kid and teach them how to fight for what they love. Or rewatch it as a stupid adult and remember that you’ve been doing it all wrong. Valley Girl is a pure romantic gesture.

Notes: Imagine seeing a teenager Nicholas Cage in full swing for the first time, high-strung and heartbroken as he takes to the streets and screams “I'M IN LOVE!!! JUST PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY!!!!” The power of love lives in this movie.

‘Uzak (2002)’, Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

This intimate masterpiece directed by Turkish master filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan reflects on the loneliness and neuroses of modern urban life. Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) is a middle-aged photographer living and working in Istanbul, whose tidy habits and exacting ways are tested when his young cousin Yusuf Yusuf (Emin Toprak) comes to stay while he looks for a job as a sailor. The two clash in their difference of personalities, but also their uncomfortable similarities. 

With both characters isolated and unable to communicate, so much emotion is expressed in Uzak’s silent scenes.

‘45 Years (2015)’, Dir. Andrew Haigh

On the eve of your Sapphire wedding anniversary, you get the news that your long-lost first love is found “perfectly preserved” in a Swiss Glacier – and you’re her next of kin. From this outrageous premise comes one of the most analytical and hard-hitting films about love and denial. 

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling both give the performance of a lifetime as a husband and wife reckoning with this information. Truly haunting and bearing some actually painful silent sequences, this film is as raw and intimate as any Bergman chamber piece, with meticulous framing, a couple of devastating zooms and an unforgettable slow dance set to The Platters’ classic “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. Curiously, 45 Years was cited by Ari Aster as a major influence on the disintegrating, traumatised relationship in Midsommar.

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Notes: Andrew Haigh’s prior film Weekend would also be a very fine pick for Valentines’, being one of the most beautiful romances on film of the last decade: a queer Before Sunrise/Sunset set in Nottingham.

‘Show Me Love (1998)’, Dir. Lukas Moodysson

Lukas Moodysson, most known for his heartbreaking indictment of sex-trafficking in Lilya 4-Ever (2002), debuted as a writer and director while still in his 20s with Show Me Love (original title: Fucking Åmål). A coming-of-age and coming-out film about two young women in a small Swedish town.

Teens Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) and Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) are schoolmates. Elin is social and popular and hangs with the cool kids, while Agnes is angsty and isolated. There’s also a rumour circulating that Agnes is gay and, as part of a cruel dare, Elin kisses Agnes, igniting a connection between the two. 

Show Me Love manages to evolve the well worn John Hughes formula of ‘the geeks and popular kids’ into something new and tender. With honesty and charm, it takes us back inside the awkward, hellish and exhilarating experience of being a teenager and experiencing first love. 

‘Y Tu Mamá También (2001)’, Dir. Alfonso Cuaron

Years before Alfonso Curan delivered Roma, his stunning love letter to Mexico City, he made this beautiful road movie starring Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as a pair of horny weed-smoking teenagers from Mexico City. 

After their girlfriends jet off to Italy for the summer, they meet a hot and mysterious older Spanish woman at a family wedding and she suddenly agrees to accompany them on a trip to a faraway beach. Completely avoiding all American teenage sex comedy cliches, Y Tu Mamá También is raw, funny and moving – filled with tactile and sensual imagery (all shot handheld by the legendary Emmanuel Lubezki) and ending on an immensely moving note.

‘Blue Valentine (2010)’, Dir Derek Cianfrance

There’s a whole sub-genre I like to call “Anti-Valentines Day Movies”. One comes to mind from when I was 12. My cousin was getting married and she told me to go see this film Blue Valentine that’d just come out. At this tender age, it broke me. It took me through a convection-current, headfirst into the highs and lows of a love so mad it’ll just about kill you inside. 

Derek Cianfrance, one of our great realists, put everything on the table for his first foray into the mainstream – a turbulent romance starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The story jumps back and forth between their vibrant beginnings and into the dark damp corners of a marriage on the cold verge of collapse. It’s one of cinema’s most intrusive looks into the decline of a once boundless relationship. We go from Dean and Cindy 4-Ever to a jaded beaten-down future portrait of the pair now raising a daughter. Williams is astray and works long hospital hours, and Gosling, a drunk, hides his receding soul behind dark glasses.

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Cianfrance keeps us on our toes by presenting a film with absolutely no tricks: fly-on-the wall filmmaking that lets the acting do all the work, the dialogue rolling off like cupid arrows turned machine gun fire. His naturalism sets him apart from the rest, and the love on screen speaks volumes. Can true love ever be found? Or is it just a dopamine-fuelled high destined for crash landing? Is this the dream, or is it all just a lie? 

Notes: See also: Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and Allan King’s A Married Couple (1969) for more domestic deterioration.

‘They Live By Night (1948)’, Dir. Nicholas Ray

Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger’s Keechie and Bowie are one of the great screen couples – as genuine, sweet and tragic as they come. They Live By Night is the cinematic blueprint for dozens of American lovers-on-the-lam classics like Badlands, Gun Crazy and Wild At Heart. Despite being Nick Ray’s debut feature, it throws so many audacious filmmaking moves into 90 minutes that every rewatch is jaw-dropping. The first two shots alone give you a flash-forward that still feels radical today, plus the first use of a helicopter in narrative cinema.

One of Old Hollywood’s boldest visual stylists, Ray went on to simultaneously define and subvert Middle America’s relationship with adolescence – in glorious Technicolour! – with the operatic Rebel Without A Cause. However, this film, made years before the word ‘teenager’ was in any dictionary, can’t be beaten for sheer pummelling emotion.

‘Buffalo ‘66 (1998)’ Dir.  Vincent Gallo

Gallo’s debut is a strange and sweet love story of ex-con Billy (Gallo), who is released after five years in prison. In the next moment he kidnaps teenage student Layla (Christina Ricci) and visits his parents with her, pretending she is his girlfriend and they will soon marry.

A love story about two lonely people, there isn’t another movie that looks quite like this. The colour palette and aesthetics are a world unto themselves. Everything is obsessively curated by Gallo, down to his red boots, and the film was made using a now defunct Kodak reversal film stock (Kodak agreed to make rolls especially for the shoot, as Gallo humbly reflects, “The result is the best colour saturation, the best contrast of any film I’ve ever seen in my life”).

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There are so many unforgettable scenes – tap dancing in the bowling alley, the Lynchian weirdness of the climactic strip club scene, and all those cold and raw painful moments in lonely diners, motels, pay-phones, gas stations and bathrooms. I really want more movies from Gallo; there’s rumours that he makes movies all the time just for himself but doesn’t bother releasing them, which is the most Vincent Gallo thing to do.

‘Love Streams (1984)’, Dir. John Cassavettes

The godparents of indie cinema, John Cassavetes and his genius collaborator / wife Gena Rowlands, give deep and fragile performances as Robert and Sarah – a middle-aged brother and sister who can’t get romance right, and find themselves caring for one another after the loves in their lives have abandoned them. It’s fearless, uncomfortable and beautiful. Shot inside Cassavetes’ real life home, this was to be his last truly personal work.

‘Vive L’amour (1994)’, Dir. Tsai Ming-liang

No feature on love and loneliness would be complete without at least one mention of Tsai Ming-liang, a director whose work has consistently explored the lives of alienated, yearning city-dwellers. In his 1994 film Vive L’amour, three people wind up accidentally sharing the same flat in a Taipei apartment block. Two of them – Ah-Jung, a handsome street vendor, and May Lin, a lonely estate-agent managing the flat – are involved in a casual sexual relationship. The third wheel is a shy salesman (played by Tsai’s onscreen alter ego Lee Kang Sheng) with an unrequited longing for Ah-Jung. Lee’s signature onscreen vulnerability brings a potent melancholy to the film; his expressive, delicate features signal endless depths of silent anguish.

Tragic it may be, but Vive L’amour includes elements of bedroom farce, camp melodrama and deadpan comedy. Tsai’s mastery of these disparate tones makes Vive L’amour’s bleak depiction of urban anonymity a bittersweet pill to swallow.

‘Two Lovers (2008)’, Dir. James Gray

Years before he launched Brad Pitt into space, James Gray gave us a poignant relationship drama featuring Joaquin Phoenix’s most underrated performance. After a failed suicide attempt, Phoenix’s character resumes his state of suspended adolescence; living with his parents and working at his father’s business. Eager to secure a stable future for their son, his parents push him towards a relationship with the beautiful, down-to-earth Sandra, but instead finds himself fixated on a glamorous neighbour played by Gwyneth Paltrow. 

The specificity of the milieu is a huge part of what makes Two Lovers memorable, and Gray vividly captures the predominantly Russian Jewish area of New York’s Brighton Beach, where most of the film takes place. Against this backdrop, Gray expertly commands the theatrics and every actor puts in some of their best work. Two Lovers’ release was a little overshadowed by Phoenix’s notorious sojourn into performance art, but it’s worth seeking out this heartfelt and intelligent love story.

‘Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)’, Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In Fassbinder’s stunning homage to Douglas Sirk, a 60-year old white German widow falls for a Moroccan immigrant 25 years her junior. Despite their differences and the disapproval of those around them, the two form a close romantic relationship.

The film’s colour-saturated visual approach transforms 1970s Berlin into a 50s, technicolour melodrama, but Ali is more than just pastiche. Instead, the aesthetic of an older style of filmmaking is repurposed into an updated critique of prejudice. It’s heartfelt and incisive in a way that only Fassbinder’s mad genius could accomplish.

‘Something Wild (1986)’, Dir. Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme’s heart-shaped, slap-shot Something Wild is probably better, crazier and downright more genuine than anything you have ever seen.

The film bounces around like a cartoon, fuelled by a love so out there it could only stand by what it’s title suggests: it’s Something Wild. It’s Lulu (Melanie Griffiths), the con-woman of your dreams in full Downtown Cleopatra Bombshell getup, sweeping up 9-5 “closet rebel” Driggs (Jeff Daniels) for a road trip across the East Coast in a cherry red convertible bound for glory (sold to them by slippery John Waters in one of the many underground cameos scattered throughout the film). But, like all good things, love too runs out of gas, and with a villainous ex-boyfriend (Ray Liotta in his first big picture role, which scored him the lead in Goodfellas) on their tail, everything points towards a world of trouble. 

Something Wild lovingly embraces the freewheeling zaniness of 80s counterculture, set against the romance of its own punk underbelly. It’s a collage of colours and people of all walks, and a versatile tracklist with needle drops of manic energy that would put even Scorsese to shame. Like LuLu’s own meandering mind, the story has no problem moving through genres either – going from road movie romance to thriller to a full-blown horror with grace and ease. Demme later recalled: “I never really had a plan with what I was doing.. I sorta just winged it and had fun.”

PLAY IT BIG!!! PLAY IT LOUD!!!

@deeperintomovies