A teacher of mine once spent an entire class explaining why movies had such an incredible hold on him as a young adult. “I learned everything I know about love from the movies,” he told us. As a seventeen-year-old with almost no life experience, this idea held a certain romance. Movies were more than just an escape, they were a facilitator of life experience and a guide to the possibilities of love. Cinema was everything to me at the time, I wanted to believe it could teach me about love. Nearly a decade later, I realize that fantasy was misguided at best, but I am still (quite obviously) fascinated by how love is portrayed on screen. It’s got me thinking about what cinematic relationships are as romantic ideals.
When you force yourself to think of the best screen relationships, you start to realize there aren’t that many. Maybe this is tied to the medium’s short-form; we are often focused on a particular moment in time — great love, at least as we understand it culturally, always seems to have longevity. Maybe this is unfair, but it’s inescapable when measuring a romantic partnership.
I’d argue the closest we get to an ideal is The Thin Man, as Nick and Nora’s relationship is romantic, sexy and exciting. It doesn’t hurt that their love is not strictly monogamous either, as we feel that there is some openness and perhaps even a sense of competition. They stand out as ideals because they respect each other and enjoy each other’s company, and sex is a part of it too — you feel the lust they have for each other. It’s rich and palpable. The magic of Myrna Loy and William Powell is that they make the relationship feel lived in, these are people who know each other’s habits and that comfort translates so powerfully, in part because it is so rare.
On the other hand, there are films like Make Way for Tomorrow and its sister films Tokyo Story and Love is Strange that seem emotionally true to what it might mean to have love later in life. These films offer a particular set of obstacles that come with getting older, and while they are far from my personal experience of the world, I relate to them deeply. The love in these films feels settled, but it transcends beyond habit as the characters are forced to navigate a new and difficult situation that keeps them from their spouse. While I struggle to call any of these situations “ideal,” ultimately, they kind of are. If love is wonderful and beautiful and joyous, it is also about helping someone through the hard times, and there is nothing quite so difficult as death. I can never fully wrap my head around these movies, I feel like I’m being bludgeoned by an eventual fate of my mortality, as well as those I love most, but all I could ever wish for is that I would have someone I love dearly to help me through it.
Cinema is particularly good at capturing young love or brief affairs, but where are the long-term relationships? What screen relationships do you think are worth aspiring to?
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the former film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.