Snuggling up with your loved one and a movie is a perfect Valentine’s Day activity. Cinema and the holiday d’amour make a perfect match. Romance and love have driven the arts for time eternal, and cinema is no exception. Beginning with the first on-screen kiss depicted by Edison in 1896 up to any romantic comedy premiering this weekend at the local multiplex, film has used amorous adventures of all divergences — from the intimate and touching to the intense and sexual to the unrequited and broken — to drive its narratives and characters.
Even movie-going itself is hardwired into our collective romantic psyches, as all teens groping in the darkened back row of a movie theater can attest. The darkness and close proximities set the stage for intimacy. Whether or not sparks fly is dependent upon the film being watched.
Classics Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, screwballs Bringing up Baby and It Happened One Night and contemporary saccharine comedies When Harry Met Sally and Love Actually are time-tested (if cliché and obvious). Horror is another avenue — the onscreen terror is an excuse to find comfort in each other’s arms.
So what films should you watch? The answer depends on a wild variety of variables, personal preferences, time allotment and more. One thing is certain, however — if the wrong ones are chosen, your romantic evening will nosedive.
Avoid films dealing with downer subjects or situations that might make you and your partner uncomfortable — strained relationships, infidelity. Take a pass on the new breed of hardcore torture porn horror as well. You don’t want to spend the evening cleaning the undigested remnants of your romantic dinner off of the floor.
The culprit list is large, but there are prime offenders.
Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004)
At first glance, Nichols’ screen adaptation of Patrick Marber’s stageplay seems like a good bet with its star-studded eye-candy cast of Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen and beautiful London backdrops. Wrong. Far from a light affair, the film is a wrenching witness to the tangled web of relationships, infidelities and dissatisfactions that the quartet weaves amongst themselves. The emotions run high, but happiness and love are not among them. And you can guarantee their absence on Valentine’s Day if close to Closer.
Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen, 1992)
Allen’s films are a slippery slope. The self-loathing, neuroses, existentialisms and monogamy-crushing bedroom jumping can make for uneasy viewing in intimate company. On the flip side, the superior acting, writing and humor can hold audiences of any make. Husbands and Wives is a perfect example. The film begins with the dinner party announcement of a marital dissolution. Though amicable, it causes another couple to question their own marriage. Allen shoots humor through the arguments, jealousies, pain, bargaining and reconciliations that follow, but the events are still emotionally raw. Handheld camera-work magnifies them further, adding voyeuristic intensity and realism the immediacy of which may dredge up memories (individual or shared) best left forgotten on Valentine’s Day.
Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1974)
The grandfather of Husbands and Wives, the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s masterwork also follows a marital disintegration. However, it stretches almost three hours in length, allowing the infidelities, feuds and insecurities and their resulting impacts even more time to sink your romantic evening.
Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1974)
Bertolucci’s legendary, groundbreaking slab of sweaty eroticism might seem an adventurous choice with its hazy Parisian views and story of two broken souls (an older Marlon Brando and young, luscious Maria Schneider) who shut out the world for a sexualized internal existence. Watch out — its frankness works in reverse. Any titillation between you and your love will fall to a quiet unease watching Schneider’s coital tears after Brando matter-of-factly uses a stick of butter to lube her up.
Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
What could be better than a musical? Especially one starring Icelandic popster Bjork? Think again. Danish iconoclast Lars von Trier turns the genre upside down to tell the story of a poor, near-blind immigrant factory worker named Selma (Bjork) who recesses from her grinding reality and into a bright world modeled after her beloved Hollywood musicals. Shot with more than 100 handheld digital cameras, the film is a wonder, shifting from documentary-like realism to brilliant musical numbers. But its arc negates it as Valentine’s Day fare, as Selma’s cruel fate reduces most audiences to tears.
Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)
Japanese director Takashi Miike’s Audition might entice those choosing the horror route, but beware — it is one of cinema’s most manipulative and deceiving productions. The story begins with sincerity, following a lonely widowed television producer who sets up a series of faux TV show auditions to find a new love. The plan works when a shy, soft-spoken, strikingly beautiful woman shows up. A courtship blanketed in soft-focus cinematography and light tones begins, giving the film the air of a romantic drama. Creepiness lingers, though — especially on the woman’s end. When her true self becomes shockingly clear, a dark, sinister air blankets the film, culminating in a third act of inquisition-like brutality. If you and your Valentine were holding hands at Audition’s outset, you will be wringing them in cringe-worthy pain when the credits roll.
Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)
What more can be said about Waters’ notorious exercise in bad taste? If watching a morbidly obese transvestite eat shit fresh from a dog’s ass turns you on, go for it.