What’s in a Title, When That Title Is “Love”?


Love. It’s a huge monosyllabic word, a signifier so swollen with the weight of representing all the specific experiences of one of the highest human pursuits that it’s also completely general. Because it’s an abstract concept that’s at once so hallowed and so difficult to define, when the word appears as the title of a TV show or film, it brings with it an implicit notion that the work is, itself, an interpretive, long-form attempt at a definition.

As Flavorwire’s Alison Herman pointed out, Judd Apatow’s recently released Netflix story Love is loose, meandering, and non-prescriptive — in a way that’s almost antithetical to its title. But the very fact that this loaded word was laid atop the show skews interpretation, especially in conjunction with two other works from the past few years that have been bold enough to call themselves Love. The title has worked to the great advantage of one already spectacular film, to the detriment of another far less excellent one, and for Apatow’s show — which refuses to see itself symbolically — it does something a little different. Titles don’t usually have that much importance in determining the meaning and overall quality of a film or TV show, but one like Love really seems to.

It’s best to start with the earliest recent example, Michael Haneke’s 2012 film Amour. Prior to this, the Austrian director had released a series of films with cruel titular ironies embedded in them. The evocations of innocence in The White Ribbon gave way to a story about the rise of pre-Nazi sentiment; Funny Games was about the slow, systemic terrorizing and murder of a vacationing family. A Haneke movie called Amour couldn’t, many first assumed, possibly be romantic.

And yet it was: its unremitting brutality certainly matched some of his earlier works, but it came in the form of an acute study of mental and corporeal deterioration. The eponymous act of “love” was manifested in the act of being present for someone as they go through that dissolution of self… and then euthanizing them with a pillow. Giving the movie any other name would have made it a singular story, but the generalized title made it a statement — and an almost unbearably potent one. Love stories usually focus on the beginnings of love; the end, especially when it’s an end that’s the result of old age, is scarcely represented in art, just as Western society so often turns away from the elderly themselves for fear of confronting the human symbol of mortality. Haneke showed “love” on the opposite end of the spectrum, as an inevitable and un-sentimentalized tragedy in itself, but still an enduring presence. Rather than seeing love dissolve — as most films set later in the life of a relationship do — Amour sees love persevere while the body dissolves, and it’s a harrowing depiction of what that perseverance looks like.

Meanwhile, last year saw the release of Gaspar Noé’s pornographic snooze Love. But without offering an interesting redefinition, the title made the film all the more futile. Judy Berman’s review of the film for Flavorwire, for example, hinged on its presumption of definitiveness, and was one of the key reasons she took issue with the movie. She called Love “an attempt to capture — or maybe even define — ‘love’ through a case study of one heterosexual romance, rendered in all its uncensored, three-dimensional glory.”

Because “love” sounds so grand but is so meaningless without context, the contents of these movies pour into the word and fill it up, becoming its definition. In Noé’s film, that isolated word underscores its narrative problem: characters so flat and boring that you wouldn’t want to see their picture, as the saying goes, if you looked up “love” in the dictionary.

Less than a year after the release of Noé’s distended work, replete with 3D dicks and 2D characters, comes the aforementioned Aparow TV series that scarcely resembles a Gaspar Noé movie beyond its potentially burdensome name. Like Love the film, Love the TV show is about youngish, straight, white people: the man is a tutor for children on a TV show about witches (Witchita!), the woman the assistant to a radio therapist. They meet and eventually have sex and, of course, it’ll eventually get serious. But thankfully, unlike the Noé Love, the Netflix show is not self-serious enough to seem like it wants to epitomize anything through some idea that these are universal or fundamental types.

On the contrary, it’s so specific, its characters fleshed out with such a carefree, unhurried attitude (these episodes are long for what they are) that one might at first wonder what, exactly, the show is doing and why, exactly, it exists. That is, until you realize that it’s kind of refreshing to have a narrative that doesn’t exist for any reason that can be summed up in or related back to one word — including “love.” Characters that might, if given less time, seem archetypal become hard to pin down. They resist being exemplary.

Love episodes never appear to set out with a particular point in mind. The series tangentially ambles towards a relationship, and that slowly budding attachment between the Gillian Jacobs’ and Paul Rust’s characters will perhaps turn into love, but for a great deal of the first season, the show doesn’t really depict love at all. Even the friendships — which are lovely — aren’t the types of ferociously close bonds one might associate with sitcoms about friendship. The title thus creates a tension and gives a show that’s structurally tensionless — to the point of potentially seeming purposeless — a sense of purpose: the embrace of casual storytelling.

The way this show relates to its title is in its unruly, meandering, and even resistant route towards it, much in the same way young adults in America may treat falling in love. Set in LA, the series itself is a suburban sprawl of comedy and emotions. It’s leading somewhere, but it’s in no rush, and while the promise of the Big Word hovers above it, the show imitates a millennial tendency to seek and likely (eventually) give in to love casually, as opposed to being dictated by its definitive pull.

Various studies have suggested that “a rose by any other name” might not smell as sweet, and anyone who believes in the sometimes scary authority of language would agree. Similarly, a TV show or movie by any other name than “love” would likely result in entirely different interpretations. These Love-titled works either announce themselves as important theses or, in the case of Apatow’s series, make subverting that standard their thesis. The word “love’s” ridiculously varied expressions lead works that use it as a title to seem like they may be trying to lasso, essentialize, and define it. The title turns Love-the-TV-series into a definition of the casualness of modern love through its casual resistance to definition, makes Love-the-movie seem like a failed universal definition bedecked in incidental cumshots, and enables Amour to create a bold definition that asserts that the types of love we’re used to looking at is inchoate compared to the versions we’re trained to look away from.