Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw
Best quote: 'In what stumbling ways a new soul is begun.'
Defining moment: The unpromising first meeting between Fanny Brawne (Cornish) and John Keats (Whishaw) is so spiky and sweet it’s like a screwball comedy in period dress.
A wild surmise
Sometimes the line between disaster and perfection is alarmingly fine. By all rights, ‘Bright Star’ should’ve been awful: a simpering love story between a fey poet and a bolshy society girl, all bulging bodices and whispered nothings. But then Jane Campion grabbed the reins as director, and produced perhaps the most intense and mesmerising romantic film of the century so far, a gorgeous, gossamer-light look at love as living poetry.
The Georgian trappings are beautifully designed, but they’re never allowed to overwhelm the story: this could’ve been shot in sackcloth on a sound stage and it would still have been deeply moving. The two leads are wonderful, but the real acting honours are unexpectedly stolen by Paul Schneider as Keats’ colleague Charles Brown, whose snappy Scots irascibility somehow allows the central romance to shine out all the brighter. THRead more
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen
Best quote: 'Here's one thing I learned from the movies!'
Defining moment: When Kathy (Reynolds) jumps out of a cake in front of Don (Kelly) at a party.
The story of the transition from silent movies to the 'talkies' has created a sub-genre all of its own, including movies from 'Sunset Blvd' (1950) to 'The Artist' (2011). Here, it's a light-hearted affair set in the late 1920s as silent star Don Lockwood (Kelly) bumps into Kathy Selden (Reynolds), a chorus girl, when he leaps into her car and she pretends to be a serious actress.
It's a classic case of chilly antagonism thawing into true love as Don and Kathy finally fall for each other and become colleagues when his studio wants to make a talking picture and she has to step in to replace the unappealing voice of movie star Lina Lamont (Hagen). But more famous than any romance, surely, is the opening-credits song-and-dance sequence of Kelly and co performing the title tune? DCRead more
Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin
Best quote: 'That's what makes me clumsy. The absence of pleasure. Desire for love.'
Defining moment: She flies through the air with the greatest of ease, that lonely young woman on the flying trapeze.
From her to eternity
Long before his face became part of a thousand ‘Downfall’ memes on Youtube, Bruno Ganz played an angel in love with a mortal trapeze artist in West Berlin, in Wim Wenders’s romantic metaphysical fantasy. Employing a similar coded combination of colour and black and white to Powell and Pressburger's ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, the celestial perspective is purer but more remote, asking us to consider the appeal of everyday humanity from the outsiders' point of view.
Check out the loose Nicolas Cage remake ‘City of Angels’ if you'd like to see a Hollywood spin on the same big questions (‘Never date a man who knows more about your vagina than you do.’). CBRead more
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor
Best quote: 'Come what may, I will love you until my dying day.'
Defining moment: David Bowie, Elton John, The Beatles and more are pressed into service in one mega-mixed Elephant Love Medley.
Nothing left toulouse
Baz Luhrmann takes the lavish staging of Bollywood, mashes up elements of the Greek myth of Orpheus together with Giuseppe Verdi's opera La Traviata, and throws it all into a kaleidoscopic blender along with some of the catchiest Western pop songs of the 20th century.
As with Luhrmann's inspirations, events are entirely passion-powered, as Ewan McGregor's ‘oh-so-talented, charmingly bohemian, tragically impoverished’ writer Christian conceives an amour fou for Nicole Kidman's courtesan Satine, serenading her with lines like ‘the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return’. Of course, given the consumptive Satine is carrying more tuberculosis bacteria than your average badger colony, the greatest thing she's likely to have passed on to poor old Christian is a highly infectious lethal disease. CBRead more
Director: Jean-Jacques Beneix
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Gérard Darmon
Best quote: 'There comes a moment when the silence between two people can have the purity of a diamond.'
Defining moment: The single-take opening, a full-on naked shagfest, sets the tone of uninhibited passion.
Vive la difference!
Amour fou: the French invented the term and this shows you why. In her very first movie, the 21-year-old Béatrice Dalle delivered a career-defining performance which transcends mere pouting petulance to embody a wide-eyed, crockery-smashing, blade-wielding, bush-flashing rage to live. Struggling writer Anglade does his best to provide the unconditional affection she craves, but will anything be enough to quieten Betty’s inner torment?
Quintessentially French, quintessentially ’80s, as ‘Diva’ auteur Beneix revels in an eye-popping palette of electric blues, neon yellows and lipstick crimson. Tellingly, it’s best experienced in the deliriously grandiloquent 186-minute director’s cut rather than the more familiar but deeply compromised two-hour release version, which struggles to make sense of Betty’s extreme psychology. TJRead more
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
Best quote: 'Would you like me to seduce you?'
Defining moment: Dustin Hoffman, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, a red Alfa Romeo Spider and the Southern California highway system.
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself
How romantic is ‘The Graduate’, really? Are we talking about the affair between Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) and Mrs Robinson (Bancroft), in which he’s driven by adolescent lust and gnawing boredom, and she by a desperate desire to revisit her youth, to feel something, anything for a change? Or do we mean the engagement between Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Ross), in which both characters appear to be marching through some sort of societally mandated courtship routine, without ever really meeting in the middle?
And yet, despite the cynicism and the ironic distance, despite that frankly terrifying closing shot of Ben and Elaine on the bus, miles distant, there’s still something bracing and heartfelt about ‘The Graduate’. Perhaps in showing us all this tragic emptiness, Nichols is encouraging us to confront it. THRead more
Director: François Truffaut
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
Best quote: 'One is never completely in love for more than a moment.'
Defining moment: Catherine throws herself into the Seine.
Three’s a crowd
Truffaut’s freewheeling tale of a menage à trois burns as brightly today as it did in 1962, tripping along on playful New Wave energy. Moreau is unforgettable as force of nature Catherine, who steals the hearts of two young writers in 1910s Paris. Catherine is Jules’s girl. She’s not beautiful or intelligent, but she is a real woman, he says. The three skip around Paris together. Life’s a holiday.
One night, as the two men spout nonsense about a Strindberg play, Catherine hurls herself into the Seine. She’s unpredictable like that. Later, when she switches allegiances to Jim, Jules can’t bear to be apart from her. Let Jim have her, but let her stay in his life. The years can’t dim the warmth or humanity of Truffaut’s third (and best) film. CCRead more
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyôko Kagawa
Best quote: 'The heavens won’t punish me if, in the final moment of my life, I am unable to hold back these last words: I have always loved you with all of my being.'
Defining moment: In a rickety boat on a midnight lake, on the verge of suicide, two runaways realise they’re passionately in love.
Always look on the bright side of life
Adapted from an ancient Japanese fable, ‘Chikamatsu Monogotari’ sees master director Kenji Mizoguchi prove his worth alongside the likes of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy as an all-time master of the populist romantic tragedy. It’s the tale of a simple clerk, Mohei (Hasegawa), who does a slightly crooked but well-meant favour for the boss’s wife, Osan (Kagawa), and, in the ensuing fallout, is forced to go on the run with her, accused of adultery, for which the penalty in seventeenth-century Japan was public crucifixion.
So begins a thrilling, devastating journey through the hinterland, as the forces of propriety and tradition band together to frustrate the lovers’ happiness. Unabashedly sentimental but rich with meaning and subtle purpose, Mizoguchi’s film teaches us that one moment of reckless love is worth more than a lifetime of socially approved loneliness. THRead more
Director: Bill Forsyth
Cast: John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan
Best quote: 'Hard work being in love, eh?'
Defining moment: Gregory (Sinclair) realises that the women in his life have all ganged up to get him into the ‘wrong’ girl’s clutches.
The beautiful game
Figuring out who we’re in love with is, of course, a key part of the romantic process. Too many films feature lightning-bolt moments, where the rightness of a match is obvious and irrevocable – cue happy ending. So it’s nice that there are a few movies out there saying, well, hang on a minute. Love at first sight is all very well, but isn’t that a rather shallow and reckless way to select a mate?
‘Gregory’s Girl’ starts with the lightning bolt – gangly Glaswegian Gregory spots leggy keepy-uppy expert Dorothy (Hepburn) – then patiently explains why, for someone as irrational and irregular as Gregory, that kind of perfect love probably won’t work. So why not try someone a little closer to home? The result is pragmatic, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less romantic. THRead more
Director: Steven Shainberg
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader
Best quote: 'Who's to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?'
Defining moment: Lee reads back a mistyped letter and gets spanked for the first time.
Taking down the particulars
Before there was ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’, there was E Edward Grey (James Spader), a boss who exercises a penchant for strict discipline on new hire Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In contrast to ‘Fifty Shades…’, which metastasised out of ‘Twilight’ fan fiction, the literary origins of ‘Secretary’ are more respectable: a short story by Mary Gaitskill, whose writings about BDSM go a bit deeper than the recent bonkbusters.
The skewed romance at the heart of ‘Secretary’ is beautifully played; the characters never come off as dabblers trying to spice things up a bit with fluffy-cuffed role-play, but as submissive and dominant to the core of their sexual identities. CBRead more