After the huge cinematographic success of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean set this more intimate 1965 tale of long-lost family and illicit love in a Bolshevik Russian winter wonderland. The motherland itself was not a viable set, as the book version of the film had already been banned by the Soviet government. So Lean took to Spain, and for certain shots, Finland and Canada, to recreate a snowy expanse complete with an ice palace and ushanka-clad horsemen.
Nicole Kidman travels from England to Australia to persuade her unfaithful husband to sell his cattle station there. But by the time she arrives in Baz Luhrmann’s earthy, romantic utopia, he is conveniently killed off. She travels across the countryside with cattle driver Hugh Jackman to sell her stock to a group of aboriginals in Darwin and, in the meantime, falls in love with Jackman and, more so, with the land she traverses. As you may have heard, the movie itself is not phenomenal — but the setting is absolutely gorgeous.
Out of Africa
Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa creates a breathtaking panorama of colonial Kenya — then British East Africa — through the eyes of Meryl Streep’s Karen Blixen, a writer who goes to Africa to marry her lover’s brother after he suddenly rejects her. Out of Africa follows the maturation of Blixen’s attitude toward romance and her understanding of her relationship with, rather than ownership over, the land. The intertwined trajectories add up to something of a bildungsroman whose protagonist is the country it’s shot in as much as it is the woman we follow there.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s tale of an eccentric Parisian waitress zooms in on the beautifully bizarre details that make Paris, Paris. Like a retreating telescope, he focuses in on his protagonist, her Montmartre home, and the city that contains them to reveal a concentric web of stark color contrast and idiosyncrasy that, somehow, add up to a coherent and breathtaking escape from the world.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro takes us out of post-Civil War Spain and into the dark fantasy world of a young girl, Ofelia, with a terminally ill mother. As Ofelia escapes to the baleful but beautiful underworld of her mind, filled with fairy tale creatures that help and hurt her, we’re taken — by way of Franco’s Spain — into an alternate reality, in which our fears and uncertainties are merely extensions of our physical surroundings, and everything is tinted with the blue, overcast shadows of our terror.
Disney Pixar’s Up is itself the story of a man whose dormant wanderlust awakens to push him out of the door and onto a journey he planned but never pursued. His momentous takeoff and transport remove him from the humdrum of daily city life, but his fantasy of his final destination, and the actualization of his arrival at Paradise Falls, is a more elating aesthetic experience than any realistic landscape could achieve.
Sideways follows failed writer Paul Giamatti and soon-to-be-wed Thomas Haden Church, two college friends, on a ride of drunkenness, despair, impulse, and confrontation through the picturesque vineyards of California’s Wine Country. The two men make messes of their lives as they down expensive wine and pair off with women, but even they realize that it’s impossible to sink into ennui against the backdrop the countryside’s sweeping grandeur.
The Fall is the story of a conversation between a little girl named Alexandria and a severely injured stuntman, Roy, in a 1920s hospital in Los Angeles — but the two spend most of their time elsewhere, in the tale that Roy tells Alexandria about five mythical heroes trying to kill off an evil governor. As the two distract themselves from their bleak medical predicaments, and Roy slips in and out of a morphine-induced haze, the story loses its rigid margins, blurring reality with fiction and Roy’s narration with Alexandia’s. While the locations within Roy’s story are fantastical, they’re made up of images shot on location in over a dozen real, worldwide places, including India, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Argentina, China, Italy, Cambodia, and Spain. The film creates a vibrant and exciting world of pretend, but one that’s more a collage of reality than a counterfeit fairytale.
Under the Tuscan Sun
Dianne Lane, a divorcée who travels to Tuscany looking to be distracted, falls in love with the region and, on impulse, buys a villa there. After the initial infatuation, though, she falls out of love, annoyed by the physical obstacles of renovating an old house and the emotional ones of dealing with her trauma. But after playing hard to get, Lane gives herself fully to her new home and grows to appreciate the place that pushes her to pick up and move on. The plot is corny, no question, but it matches the sunny, rolling landscape and Tuscan vegetation in a way that makes it hard to look away.
Love in the Time of Cholera
The 2007 adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel centers on the love story between Javier Bardem and Giovanna Mezzogiorno, the relative importances of security and lust, and the healing powers of sex. The film follows their story over half a century, beginning in the late 19th century and ending in 1930, through a small, walled Columbian city near the striking Magdalena River.