An early influence on the French New Nave and Italian Neorealism genres, director Jean Vigo created just one feature film during his lifetime and died months after its premiere at the age of 29. New York Times critic Andrew Johnston stated: “The ranks of the great film directors are short on Keatses and Shelleys, young artists cut off in their prime, leaving behind a handful of great works that suggest what might have been. But one who qualifies is Jean Vigo… ” L’Atalante’s blend of naturalism and poeticism is enchanting. Vigo tells the rocky story of a newly married couple, Jean and Juliette: a hard-nosed barge captain and a gregarious, impulsive village girl. Circumstances in Paris separate them. Vigo shows us the hopelessness, passion, and longing of romantic love through lyrical imagery — such as the unforgettable scene where Jean leaps into the river pining for his abandoned Juliette, and she appears before him like a siren from the depths.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Calling Jacques Demy’s 1964 film a musical seems so dull. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a vivid pop art opera that details the romance and tragedy between a young French mechanic called to war (Nino Castelnuovo) and his umbrella shopgirl (Catherine Deneuve) sweetheart. If you’re not a fan of films with song, remind yourself this is French and utterly charming. The star-crossed lovers wind up pregnant, and Geneviève must choose between enduring the agonizing separation and accepting a proposal from a Parisian jeweler (Marc Michel) to help her raise the child. Legendary composer Michel Legrand adds a sentimental score to the strikingly captured, bittersweet story.
Director Frank Borzage is known for his exploration of lush, mystical romanticism throughout the 1920s and 1930s. “Make the audience sentimental instead of the player. Make the audience act,” he once said. Borzage drew moviegoers to the emotional center of his films, and Marlene Dietrich leads the way in his 1936 continental delight (shot on location in France and Spain), Desire. The starlet is transformed into a seductive jewel thief that accidentally ensnares a vacationing American (Gary Cooper) in her evolving scheme. Snappy comedy, chemistry for miles, and sophisticated sets and costuming make Desire supremely enjoyable.
Life imitates art in this film from commercial director Pierre Grimblat. Slogan is a 1960’s absurdist comedy drama shot like a French advert or music video. It’s essential viewing to watch the real-life on-screen romance that developed between controversial crooner Serge Gainsbourg and model-turned-actress and singer Jane Birkin. She was half Gainsbourg’s age when they met on the set of Slogan and fell madly in love. The couple’s chemistry and the film’s stylish nostalgia is captivating. Slogan marks the beginning of a pop culture romance people haven’t stopped talking about almost fifty years later.
Map of the Human Heart
New Zealand director Vincent Ward told a beautiful and heartbreaking love story that spanned a lifetime with his 1993 film Map of the Human Heart. A Canadian Inuit boy and a Métis girl share a tender bond that evolves into a passionate, but ill-fated romance — set against the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. If you’re looking for a deeply emotional story that will crush your soul, this is it.
The Strange Case of Angelica
Give us some of whatever Manoel de Oliveira is having. The Portuguese director is still making movies at the age of 104, which is astonishing when you consider the filmmaker spent a large part of his career creatively oppressed by the fascist regime of his home country. He’s one of the only auteurs who can successfully contest Peter Greenaway’s depressing future plans. (The British director claimed no one over the age of 80 has done anything remotely useful.) De Oliveira’s fantastical 2010 film The Strange Case of Angelica is the thinking man and woman’s Ghost. It’s really a love letter to cinema, marked by a minimalism reminiscent of a different era of filmmaking. The narrative focuses on a union of souls — one living, the other dead. Angelica is expressionistic and whimsical, yet still restrained as it ponders the love and madness a photographer experiences for his deceased subject. She seems to come to life in the lens of his camera, and an infatuation develops. The film’s highlight is a gorgeous and ghostly flight across a starry sky that recalls the dreamiest moments in silent cinema.
A classic lesbian romantic movie that is far too underrated with most other audiences, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts was groundbreaking when it arrived in theaters during the late 1980s. It was a rare love story for the time that didn’t involve a bisexual love triangle, kinky vampires, or the death of a gay protagonist. Instead, Deitch presents us with likable characters, the sweetness and tension of a burgeoning relationship, and a positive endnote. The drama is set in Nevada during the 1950s where a free-spirited artist and casino worker (Patricia Charbonneau) develops a romance with a conservative English professor from New York City (Helen Shaver). Love blooms and repression unravels as Deitch reveals a beautiful intimacy between women — friends and lovers alike.
Singer-songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová were creative collaborators prior to starring in John Carney’s Once. They fell in love while filming the romantic “musical” about a street performer and a Czech flower seller in Dublin. Their melodic rapport opens their hearts, and their love story becomes the soundtrack for the film. If you appreciate the naturalism and honesty of Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, then Once is essential viewing.
Asian cinema is ripe with tragic melodrama, but the time travel element in Il Mare adds another layer to what could have easily been a sappy story. There is a melancholy about the Korean magical realism tale, but the love that two residents of a seaside house (living there simultaneously, but two years apart) share is filled with beautiful, subtle nuances. The romantic strangers communicate through a mysterious mailbox that allows them to trade messages across time. Il Mare delivers a missive about the isolation of modern times, but can easily be enjoyed as a surreal, engaging romantic drama.
Patrick Hughes’ 2008 Australian short Signs has shades of 500 Days of Summer’s office romance. A lonely corporate drone sparks a playful relationship with a woman in the building across from his by communicating through scribbled messages on scrap Xerox copies. It’s adorable, silly, and just the thing you need to bring a smile to your face.