Stephen Arnell

Valentine’s films: from the romantic to the surreal

Valentine's films: from the romantic to the surreal
Before Midnight (Image: Shutterstock)
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The first Valentine’s Day under lockdown looks set to prove the truth of Shakespeare’s oft quoted proverb: 'the course of true love never did run smooth'.

New love is nigh on impossible when couples are forbidden to meet, making technology the next best thing – in terms of communication, that is.

An unusual Valentine's Day surely calls for an offbeat film choice. The oddball romance is an established staple in film. Here are some worth relishing on the 14th February:

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017) - Amazon Prime & Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell shine in this semi-fictionalised take on the fading years of idiosyncratic Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, The Bad & The Beautiful) who met the much younger wannabe actor Peter Turner when she's reduced to living in a down-at-heel boarding house whilst performing on the London stage. 

The couple formed a loving and mutually supportive bond until Grahame's sad death from breast cancer in 1981. Grahame was 55 years old when she met Turner in 1978, who was then 28. So not quite in the realms of cradle-snatching, especially if genders of the pair were reversed.

Grahame's life prior to meeting Turner was chaotic - multiple failed marriages (one scandalously to a former stepson), a nervous breakdown, electroshock therapy, a public custody battle and an obsession with plastic surgery obscured her genuine talent.

The Before Trilogy: Sunrise (1995)/Sunset (2004)/Midnight (2013) - Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Richard Linklater's romantic triptych sees the relationship develop between American Jesse (then indie darling Ethan Hawke) and French Céline (Julie Delpy) from their chance meeting in as students in Vienna (Sunrise) to another in Paris nine years later (Sunset) and from then on as a couple (eventually with two daughters) in Greece, where they are confronted by life-changing decisions (Midnight).

Hawke appears to draw on his own (occasionally) complex private life for the role of Jesse, whilst Delpy went on to direct, co-write and star in the romantic comedies Two Days in Paris (2007) and Two Days in New York (2012), which probably owe some inspiration to Linklater's trilogy.

The three movies are a bittersweet pleasure, (especially if you are roughly the same age as the leads), but retain a sense of hope, authenticity and humanity.

The Shape of Water (2017) Amazon Rent/Buy

The taboo subject of inter-species sex rears its head in Guillermo del Toro’s Academy Award winning picture, where lowly mute Baltimore secret laboratory cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) finds love with the latest inmate/specimen, an unnamed Amphibian/Merman (Doug Jones).

Many obstacles confront the unlikely couple on the romantic path to their very own ‘Happy Ever After’.

The movie bears more than a slight resemblance to De Toro’s own Hellboy films, where Ron Perlman’s good guy demon ‘Red’ conducts an affair with pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), whilst both are semi-confined to a US govt psychic research facility.

The two pictures also feature an amphibian, the gentlemanly Abe Sapien (voiced by Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce in the first movie and by Doug Jones in the second, who also physically played the character in both).

The Shape of Water also has a vague echo of The Wachowskis’ bonkers space fantasy Jupiter Ascending (2015), where Chicago-based cleaner Mila Kunis falls in love with genetically engineered extra-terrestrial (half human/half canine) Channing Tatum.

Sylvie's Love (2020), Amazon Prime 

The Spectator's Deborah Ross described this old school Hollywood romance as 'like La La Land but with something to say' and it doesn't disappoint. 

Gorgeous cinematography provides a backdrop for sizzling chemistry between the two stars (Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha) who, after a chance meeting in a record store, fall in love through music. 

After a burgeoning jazz career thwarts their romance they find themselves reconnecting years later. It's a nostalgic glance back at the heady thrill of chance meetings - sorely needed in these strange times.

The Lobster (2015) Amazon Rent/Buy

This surreal black comedy from The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos is something of an acquired taste.

When his wife leaves him, cuckolded David (Colin Farrell) is taken to a hotel where the manager (The Favourite’s Olivia Colman) explains single ‘guests’ have 45 days to find a soul partner. If they’re unable to, the unfortunates are transformed into an animal of their own choosing.

Farrell’s character elects to become a lobster if he fails to gain a suitable mate. Things get (even) more bizarre as the movie progresses. Definitely an experience - if you’re in the mood for it.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) MUBI & Amazon Rent/Buy

Jim Jarmusch directs this vampire black comedy at his usual glacial pace, but don’t let that put you off, as in this instance the longueurs add to the appeal of the movie, the antithesis of the Twilight franchise.

Jaded vampire couple Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) while away the centuries with their varying pursuits (music and literature respectively) but are increasingly struck by ennui.

The arrival of Mia Wasikowska as Eve’s sister Ava stirs things up enough for the pair to resolve to continue their undead existence.

John Hurt also stars as a vampiric Christopher Marlowe, revealed as the secret writer of many of Shakespeare’s plays.

Wonderfully shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (Little Women), Only Lovers Left Alive is an ideal movie to revisit in the wee small hours of a lockdown morning.

Lars & The Real Girl (2007) Amazon Rent/Buy

If you ever wanted to see a movie about a mentally ill young chap (Ryan Gosling) who enters into a romantic (but platonic) relationship with a sex doll, then Lars & The Real Girl is just the ticket.

Lars is such a kindly soul that his family, friends and townsfolk play along with the fiction that the doll (Bianca) is real (a missionary of Brazilian and Danish descent, if you please), which may or may not say something about small town Wisconsin.

Despite the off-putting premise, Craig Gillespie’s (I, Tonya) picture is actually very charming – and Lars ends up (spoiler alert) with a real-life human companion.

Charlie Bartlett (2007) Amazon Rent/Buy

A movie about a gifted high school student (the late Anton Yelchin) who sells prescription drugs and psychiatric advice (a la Lucy from Peanuts) to his schoolmates may not appear at first glance to be the ideal Valentine’s Day watch.

But in fact, Charlie Bartlett is something of hidden gem, with Yelchin essaying a more likeable twist on Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Kat Dennings (Thor, Two Broke Girls) is affecting as his love interest Susan and a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jnr convincingly plays her alcoholic father, the school’s head teacher Nathan Gardner.

There’s an especially endearing sequence at the school play, which references Hal Ashby’s quirky romance Harold & Maude (1971).

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) Amazon Prime /Rent/Buy

Another eve-of-Marvel comeback role for Robert Downey Jnr, playing loveable loser Harry Lockhart in screenwriter Shane Black’s enjoyable Noir comedy.

Lockhart stumbles into an actors’ audition in New York when fleeing from a burglary and his manic behaviour convinces the movie people to give him a screen test in Los Angeles. There he meets school sweetheart Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), sarcastic PI "Gay" Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) and a whole heap of bad guys intent on doing them all harm.

Downey went onto work with Black again in Iron Man III (2013); the director made a sequel-of-sorts to KKBB with The Nice Guys (2016), which unfortunately failed to capture lightning in a bottle a second time.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Francis Ford Coppola’s extravagantly baroque take on the Count boasts both deliberately OTT (Antony Hopkins) and inadvertently wooden (Keanu Reeves) acting, but it’s still a very entertaining movie. This is mainly due to Gary Oldman’s terrific performance as Dracula, coupled with an evocative score from Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, imaginative set design and striking imagery. At the heart of the picture is the intense love between the Count and Winona Ryder’s Mina Harker, the reincarnation of Dracula’s long deceased wife Elisabeta. This makes the vampire a much more sympathetic character than in other celluloid depictions of the legendary bloodsucker - and just about amenable to Valentine's Day.