2015: The Year ’50s Romances Were Liberating and Contemporary Romances Were Horrifying


Is there a way to craft a cinematic romance out of a narrative where two people meet through a series of synchronized swipes after having seen a single photo of one another, then share emoji-peppered small talk while simultaneously engaging in practically the same small talk with ten other people, then go on a date to a bar – all the while being exhaustedly aware that a week full of similar dates awaits them?

You could easily make a cynical portrait of app-based dating’s banality, its redundancy, the way it creates a culture of expendability. You could even make an honest, straightforward, and nonjudgmental film about it. But romanticizing it with the aesthetic polish and splendor of this year’s most sweeping cinematic love stories, Todd Haynes’ Carol and John Crowley’s Brooklyn, might leave you with a film that feels a bit ridiculous.

[Spoiler alert: this piece contains discussions of the endings of Carol, Ex Machina, Anomalisa, and Brooklyn. But they won’t really “spoil” anything.]

Both Carol and Brooklyn are set in the past, albeit with refreshingly current social politics. These films seem to have revisited the 1950s to give agency and centrality to women characters — at a time and in a genre when women were often depicted as being at the mercy of men’s agency. Meanwhile, romances set in surreal, symbolic presents this year have envisioned love as devoid of agency and subjectivity altogether — for both parties on both ends of the gendered spectrum. As we accept that dating as a pastime is becoming mechanized, gamified, algorithmic, and branded, films’ approach to contemporary love seems to be one of sharp skepticism, riffing on themes opened up at the end of 2013 by Her even in films that aren’t expressly about technology.

Looking back fondly and looking forward with trepidation is obviously nothing new, but Carol and Brooklyn manage to avoid reductive nostalgia by acknowledging (but not giving too much centrality to) the pressures working against their female protagonists. And films like Ex Machina, Anomalisa, and The Lobster all posit skeptical ideas about (or even attacks on) contemporary love, but their skepticism seems firmly grounded in the changing landscape of courtship and the questions that opens up. All of these movies are nuanced, but they’re split along the lines of framing the past as an incubator of love vs. framing the present as an incubator for its destruction.

Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa follows Michael — a Zolofted-up, married motivational speaker (who is also, like the other characters in the film, a puppet) — to the upscale but generic Hotel Fregoli in Cincinnati, where he meets a woman he immediately falls for. Interestingly, the word “Fregoli” also defines the premise of the film; it is a rare paranoiac syndrome where one thinks various people are actually one person, potentially conspiring against them.

Every puppet character in the film is voiced by Tom Noonan, except Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa — the woman to whom Michael’s magnetically drawn, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Charlie Kaufman uses this effect as a metaphor for the initial feelings one experiences at the beginning of a romance — how suddenly one person emerges as an anomaly from a sea of blended others. But as certain objects become recurring symbols — notably, an antique geisha sex doll with lips wide open, as well as the seams in Michael’s own artificial puppet face — we get a sense that the film is hinting at an incoming shift towards solipsism, or even the total objectification of both self and others. Kaufman’s film ultimately gives in to its bleak undertones and suggests the fleetingness of true intimacy, of our willingness to see others as more than a familiar shell.

The ’50s-set Carol, incidentally, sees Cate Blanchett’s titular character describing her lover-to-be (Therese, played by Rooney Mara) as “flung from space.” Like Michael, she uses an overwrought, romantic vocabulary to describe the object of her affection as anomalous, her sudden presence life altering. The difference is that in the film set today, what was anomalous and crucial one night can instantaneously become disposable.

Disenchantment is a process that’s certainly accelerated by the current formats of love/partner/fuck buddy-finding apps, which prize newness and bounty over all else. In the past, there was never a guarantee that you could start dating again immediately following a breakup (and thus start the forgetting process). Now, all you need is a smartphone. Anomalisa, which was originally written in 2005 as a sound play, envisions a mentality that would soon be marketed by the dating app. The fear of failure, or of loneliness, is greatly diminished because you can swipe endlessly. Olga Kazan, writing for The Atlantic, argues that the “more superficial breed of dating sites is capitalizing on a clear trend” of a decline in the value placed on marriage. “Rather than attempting to hitch people for life based on a complex array of intrinsic qualities, why not just offer daters a gaggle of visually appealing admirers?”

The idea of an app that would lead a person to avoid emotional intimacy — or to hastily become emotionally intimate so as to accelerate the process of disenchantment and thereby move on to the next brief emotional connection — seems particularly profitable, in that for an app, it almost guarantees user dependence.

As the co-founder of OkCupid and CEO of Match.com told Wired, “We don’t see any data that suggests people skew toward shorter relationships ex ante, but that people are more willing to leave unsatisfying relationships because there’s less friction to finding a new person to date. So, average relationship length comes down, but not because people seek that.” Note that this statement doesn’t suggest that people are leaving relationships solely because they’re unsatisfying — they’re also leaving because there are more potential partners out there, a factor that could easily lead any tiny thing to seem unsatisfying enough to classify as breakup-worthy. This is, of course, not to suggest any intrinsic moral issue with casual sex, but rather to question the odd psychological sway that a profit-motivated platform might have on something as intimate as, well, intimacy.

Similarly, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster could be interpreted as a partial allegory for the current dating/mating obsession certain apps have engendered. The rules of The Lobster world, another alternate-universe vision of the present, dictate that people are brought to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate — and if they don’t, they are turned into an animal of their choosing. The film’s world is split into three symbolic environments: the City (where people in couples roam freely— so long as they’re in a couple), the Hotel (where single people immediately go to find another mate following a breakup), and the Woods (where single people go if they’re trying to avoid being turned into an animal for failing at monogamy). As TimeOut said, the film shows “how we shape ourselves and others just to banish the fear of being alone, unloved, and friendless.”

The alternate world’s hastened dating timeline is reflective of the aforementioned trappings of dating-app culture, with the film’s structured love-dystopia reflecting the cyclical mentality current dating culture can create. The Lobster sees prospective lovers placing disproportionate emphasis on concrete traits — shortsightedness, frequent nosebleeds, a limp. The characters believe they’d be incompatible if they don’t share such things with their mates. This motif hints at the ridiculousness of the weight given to superficial commonalities listed on dating profiles. As Vanity Fair said in their Cannes review, the film satirizes the way these platforms “reduce the complexity of a person, all the weird and wonderful shading and contradiction of humanity, to quick bullet points.”

What Anomalisa does with puppets and The Lobster does with fantastical societal strictures, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina does with algorithms and robots. The premise is that Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a coder, is hand-selected by the CEO of his massive tech company (Oscar Isaac) for a clandestine Turing test. He goes to a mountainside lair to, it turns out, see if he can be convinced of the emotional authenticity of a hot robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He begins to fall in love with her, she begins to fall in love with him, and together the two formulate a plan to help her escape the manacles of her tyrannical creator – who, it also turns out, has created and destroyed many models before her. But said creator later informs Caleb that Ava was actually made with Caleb’s preferences in mind, her appearance and personality based on his search, and predominantly his porn, history. Luckily, her main aim is to escape this patriarchal Creator narrative altogether — and she has no concern whatsoever for the wellbeing of the man whose preferences she was crafted from, no interest in being the prisoner of his projected desires.

Ava’s is a narrative of escape from the confines of being a projected ideal. There are noted parallels to Carol in this sense — but while that film is an escape towards love, Ava’s journey to liberation is through denying love and, seemingly, human empathy altogether. Meanwhile, Caleb’s attraction to pre-programmed aspects of Ava serves to question the nature of what we’ve always seen as love. Like Anomalisa, it is a cynical portrait of the ephemeral illusions of newness and exceptionalism that falling in love conjures. A “deus ex machina” provides, per the definition, “a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” In this case, that insoluble difficulty can be seen as patriarchy and, specifically, love as it’s been defined by that institution.

But Ex Machina, like the robot it focuses on, remains ambiguous, its meanings multiplying beyond a single, straightforwardly feminist interpretation. It may be a horror story as far as its own internal love narrative is concerned and a story of patriarchy-quashing hope as far as society is concerned. Ava could be seen as a feeling-less, amoral being with a false human emotional spectrum and a knack for destruction that denotes another solipsistic cinematic approach to love, but she could also be a savior – and the film passes the Turing test: we cannot tell which one she is. If Ava is the monster in a horror story, she undoubtedly represents an apprehension towards algorithmic encounters, a fear of how the mechanized, commodified (in that potential lovers often appear as though in a catalog), and thereby objectified ways we see future partners can create confining ideals that will quickly prove to be unrealistic.

It isn’t until we go back to the film romances set in the ’50s that we see love that isn’t undermined by some form of insidiousness or horror at its core. Normally, a return to the ’50s would sound synonymous with a romantic return to a time of prudishness and the perfidious coupling of capitalism and gendered rigidity, but that hasn’t at all been the case this year. Not so long ago, most dramatic films that looked back at the decade — Revolutionary Road, Pleasantville, Far From Heaven, The Hours, and even the saddest part of The Imitation Game — did so in order to depict a time when love and sex were stifled by a commercialized exaltation of the gender binary. But this year, it seems cinema has at least saved a critique of commercialized love for depictions of the present.

We all know, because it’s become a cultural cliché, what was up in the ’50s in terms of myriad forms of repression and male dominance. Perhaps knowing that it doesn’t need to be said, both Carol and Brooklyn go back in time to inject the era, as it’s seen in cinema, with stories about women having the agency in their relationships. In Carol, this is necessitated by the fact that the film depicts a relationship between two women. Though the patriarchy and the notion of a homophobic (or completely homo-unaware) era provide roadblocks along the way, those roadblocks never distract too much from the developing romance between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s characters. The film puts a great deal of weight on the fact that these women are together through a series of concerted and considered choices, and through their ownership of those choices.

And Brooklyn — the story of an Irish immigrant, Eilis Lacey (played by Saoirse Ronan), who you might expect to be beaten down in all sorts of ways before and after she arrives in the States — similarly becomes a narrative about romantic choice. Eilis has the dilemma of returning to her husband, who she impulsively married before going home to Ireland, or staying with a man she just met in the eponymous borough. Either choice is indicative of a sense of autonomy we wouldn’t assume to see in a narrative about a young female immigrant in the ‘50s. One decision would see her leaving a new marriage, the other would see her permanently leaving her family behind. Thankfully, the film handles both choices with cultural nonchalance: it is the emotional weight of the decision that’s a burden, not what people might think about it.

Both films end on a happy note that doesn’t seem schmaltzy or predictable, but rather profoundly satisfying. This is an almost unheard-of phenomenon in dramas that want to be, and actually should be, taken seriously. The rom-com — a genre that hinges on binaries and unrealistically satisfying conclusions — is dead. (So dead that it actually received a lovingly nostalgic homage this year in the form of Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck.) And with the rom-com’s all-too-clean gender lines and plot lines no longer looming over our perceptions of onscreen romance, filmmakers like Todd Haynes and John Crowley are exploring how something as emotionally gratifying as burgeoning love is in no way simple or mindless.

Both films conclude with the type of ending one might think of when they think of rom-coms — a reunion scene. Yet Carol’s is so powerful it might have you fleeing to a locked bathroom stall to gather your bearings. (Brooklyn takes a slight qualitative dip by freeze-framing a last shot.) Both are self-assured enough in their gravity and complexity not to veer from an ending that, only in description, could be perceived as sappy or pandering by its affiliation with the sappier, more pandering rom-com love stories of the last couple of decades.

The optimism about past love and pessimism about contemporary love is also on full display in the contrasting visual worlds these film’s directors and cinematographers have created. Carol’s aesthetic is noteworthy for its Super 16 mm-shot, dancing glances through rain-dappled, streetlight-refracting car windows and its ability to even give beguiling beauty to shots that linger on gutter grates; Brooklyn, similarly, is (especially once its protagonist gets across the Atlantic) all softness and pastels, and it somehow embodies the color palette of fond recollection. With their varnished looks that attempt to visualize amorous sensations — especially the sudden ability to find beauty and emotion in the banal — these films couldn’t look more different from, say, the pallor of The Lobster, the sleek alienness of Ex Machina, or the sprawling beige of Anomalisa.

On aesthetic, narrative, and emotional levels, neither Carol nor Brooklyn engages with the type of existential fear-mongering the present-day film romances do. The fact that we’re seeing functional, lasting love in prestigious dramas as strictly retrospective provokes a simple question: what the hell is going on today? These questions are reflected in a bounty of trend pieces that reveal, if little else, that Western society is frantically trying to keep up with love’s changing structures, and how the most personal aspect of life continues to be imperceptibly controlled by external and often commercial forces.

Blanket statements like “Romanticism is dead, except in retail,” (which appears in the Guardian, in an op-ed about online dating) have always been issued, but they finally carry some real weight. Courtship rituals among younger generations now often necessitate a sense of anti-romance, a game-playing mentality suggestive of an “I’m just feeling out my options” aloofness (that is, when such rituals aren’t rapidly hastening intimacy/romance in order to break it off to continue “feeling out options.”)

While that Guardian piece refers to the merchandise sold for Valentine’s Day and to mark engagements, the same statement could be applied to the metamorphosis of dating into something that emulates the retail setting. The other “options” one might explore appear in a swipe-able catalogue or a grid full of torsos and selfies. Selfies, interestingly, are more and more (and often, validly) described as statements of self-love and individualism — but it’s hard to see them as such when they appear in a branded network of tiny squares revealing fragmentary images of thousands of people decrying their personal agency.

Ultimately, this year’s cinematic split between romantic visions of the past and anti-romantic visions of the present seems predicated on the theme of choice. The movies that take place in the ’50s explore an era when choice wasn’t in abundance, and its characters’ journeys and romances are inherently compelling because they create choices where there are assumed to be none. Fifties American consumer culture was notorious for commodifying heteronormative monogamy through “keeping up with the Joneses”-style consumerist baiting. The more domestic goods you bought, the firmer your bond and family life would be. It’s no coincidence that both Rooney Mara’s character in Carol and Ronan’s character in Brooklyn work in department stores, a quintessential locale for the post-war economic boom, selling an infinite number of gendered gifts with which heterosexual couples could keep each other happily confined. But while the commodities that adorned romance were in abundance, the options for what that romance might look like were severely limited.

Meanwhile, what the films depicting romance today — or a surrealistically hyperbolized version of today — are attempting to grasp is what becomes of intimacy when the world is teeming with choices. (And specifically, choices are rendered through platforms that reduce love to a technology-enabled commodity.) Essentially, insomuch as romance and consumerism are intertwined, this era and the ’50s aren’t so different. The ’50s just happened to be selling one very stringent version of lifelong monogamy, while the 2010s are selling serial monogamy and casual bounty.

In Anomalisa, the deluded protagonist has a sense that everyone is the same person, and that they all love and want him. They all intone as Tom Noonan-voiced Others (perhaps lacking any interiority), and Michael has the sense that he could be with any single one of them. In The Lobster, characters can choose whomever they want, but all under the rigid oversight of a larger institution. Ex Machina (much like Her) predicts a world where your search history can create a whole being, the way answers to questions you click on OkCupid might conjure up a compatible mate.

The platforms on which we find partners are shifting more and more toward the virtual, and further past dating sites, toward the fast-paced, terse realm of apps. Movies about love in the present seem to be matching this shift by taking place in speculative parallel realities. The bizarre films of Kaufman, Garland, and Lanthimos mimic the effects of dating apps on romance through the provision of endless choice. These films unsettle through their excavation of the manipulative nature of these supposed freedoms. These “choices,” they imply, are curated and controlled by platforms meant to make us feel autonomous.

This piece is part of Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.