Sex and passion make for good box office. But when true romance unfolds on the big screen, it becomes a lasting affair.
Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” I’m still not sure about the gun. It may rule the box office (sometimes without the girl), but my passion for movies begins and ends with their depiction of love, sex and relationships.
Every May for the past two decades, I’ve been drawn to the Cannes Film Festival. Hosted by a country that treats film as a religion and love as a national sport, Cannes is world cinema’s rite of spring. Like pilgrims on a grail quest, we keep coming back, hoping to see the movie that will change the future of cinema. But what we’re really pursuing is a romance with the past—and with romance itself.
Cinema and romance are inseparable on so many levels. We look for romance in the movies and we have a romance with the movies. What a curious and complicated affair it has been, taking us From Here to Eternity and Back to the Future, from Casablanca to Philadelphia, over a cliff with Thelma & Louise and into a tent on Brokeback Mountain. It’s had us Singin’ in the Rain and Dirty Dancing through the Last Tango in Paris. It left us Moonstruck in Manhattan, Sleepless in Seattle, Breathless, Swept Away, Knocked Up…and always In the Mood for Love. It’s The Way We Were.
Before real girls entered the picture, my first crushes existed on screen, as I graduated from Haley Mills when I was 12 (The Parent Trap) to Julie Christie at 16 (Darling) to Tuesday Weld at 18 (Pretty Poison). The movies I remember from childhood are spectacles I saw with my family—Ben Hur, Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, West Side Story.
But by 1966 I was beginning to see films you wouldn’t want to see with your parents. The first was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes the year after A Man and a Woman, not that Cannes meant any thing to me back then. But Blow-Up was the first movie that blew my mind—an existential riddle about a famous fashion photographer who cruises around London in his Rolls convertible and inadvertently photographs a crime scene while snapping pictures in a park.
Between the Yardbirds smashing guitars and mimes playing tennis with an imaginary ball, Blow-Up now serves as an incomparable time capsule of London in the Swinging Sixties. But what got my attention at the time was the threesome in the clothing racks of the photo studio, where our louche hero ravishes a pair of giddy fashion models.
For a 17-year-old boy still wondering what sex might be like, a threesome was an odd initiation. Though its full frontal nudity wasn’t as erotically charged as the scene of a defiant Vanessa Redgrave stripped to the waist with her sublime back to the camera. Years later, I came to realize that the über-cool photographer, 24-year-old David Hemmings in tight white jeans, was a misogynist dolt—and the future inspiration for Austin Powers, complete with a parody of Hemmings (“Give it to me, give it to me”) straddling the 6 foot 3 supermodel Veruschka while madly clicking photos.
A certain niche of European auteurs would keep pushing film’s erotic envelope, most notoriously Bernardo Bertolucci in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, where Marlon Brando’s “go get the butter” scene made jokes about anal sex permissible in polite conversation. Something was in the air. The next year, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland were rumoured to be actually “doing it” in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Well, I was convinced. But in mainstream North America, the Zeitgeist moment came in 1967 with Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967).
Boomers would never find a better poster boy for their aimless desire and disillusionment than Dustin Hoffman—adrift in the family pool, sailing into the jaws of the generation gap as he’s seduced by an older woman while falling for her daughter. Propelled by an entire album of Simon & Garfunkel songs, from “Mrs. Robinson” to “The Sound of Silence,” The Graduate was a perfect storm of eros and angst. Technically, it’s a romantic comedy.
But with that last lingering shot of the victorious young lovers side by side, stone-faced at the back of the bus, you know anything could happen. They could very well end up like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the excoriating first feature that Nichols had directed a year earlier. Throw in the compulsive duplicity of Carnal Knowledge, which came a decade later, and Nichols gave us three of the most savagely eloquent movies ever made about modern love and betrayal.
Then along came Judd Apatow and his clubhouse of profane stoners. Setting up a dorky Canadian unknown named Seth Rogen opposite Katherine Heigl seemed like a stretch in Knocked Up. But finally, here was a romcom that broke formula while dragging its male protagonist kicking and screaming to the alien planet of pregnancy and childbirth.
Even with Jay Baruchel running scared from the delivery room, it achieves a backhanded feminism. And Apatow, king of the penis joke, would go on to produce Bridesmaids—the breakthrough for female comedy that made movie stars of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig—and he would help create Lena Dunham’s Girls, a series that has allowed women to be as vulgar and self-involved as men. Also as producer and director of Trainwreck, he sent the incendiary Amy Schumer into Hollywood orbit, with a script and performance that turned the romcom paradigm of male-female roles on its head.
The last good date movie I remember is Wedding Crashers. (I’m still waiting for someone to reunite Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson. Why couldn’t they have been the next Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?) In our house, these days our date movies consist of binge-watching Netflix. Forget Blow-Up. Is there any more exhaustive portrait of reckless promiscuity, framed by emerging female empowerment, than Mad Men? We once looked to films by Bergman and Cassavetes for scenes of a tortured marriage. But domestic hell doesn’t get any deeper than the marital meltdowns in Breaking Bad or House of Cards. The dark narrative of sexual intimacy has wormed its way back into the home, where the stories begin.
But movies still get us out of the house. And you can’t get much further out than Cannes. There, as Woody Allen held court at a press conference for Café Society, with Kristen Stewart by his side, a female journalist had the nerve to ask him why he has never made a movie about romance between an older woman and a younger man. Allen replied, almost too honestly, that he had nothing in his experience to draw on.