Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Multiple Splendours of Love

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Multiple Splendours of Love

Article excerpt

Valentine's Day romcoms don't own the patent on celluloid romance, says Davina Quinlivan, pointing to tales of robots, dolls, dogs and offbeat folk who discover their own kinds of amour.

In Mike Mills' 2010 film Beginners, a retired and recently widowed art historian and museum curator, Hal (Christopher Plummer), decides to come out as a gay man months before his death. Later, in the wake of his loss, the curator's son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is forced to reckon with his father's self-denial of love and, especially, how it might have had an impact on his own life. Struggling to articulate his thoughts and make sense of his father's final few months learning about love, we hear the young protagonist of Mills' film proclaim flatly: "This is what love looks like."

These words are strikingly accompanied by a series of collage shots, a multiplicity of photographs and generic images representing romance as a commodity - sunny, saccharine and inauthentic. Mills' protagonist is searching for an understanding of love, but the stock imagery with which he associates it is starkly irreconcilable with what his father has taught him: love, more often than not, is the strangest and most indefinable emotion of all.

While the cosy, familiar imagery of love can be found throughout Western culture, it has been greatly perpetuated by Hollywood, particularly in the avalanche of romcoms that tend to be released around Valentine's Day. But these predictable and inauthentic representations have their antidotes, arguably, in interesting examples of what we might call "alternative romcoms"; films that go against the grain and offer very different reflections on romance and its more unconventional guises.

Like Mills' offbeat and bittersweet drama, Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Chan-wook Park's I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK (2006) and Paul Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip (2009) give us unconventional but thoroughly persuasive tales of love. All use humour in subtle ways that defy our expectations, shattering our ideas of romance through laughter, surrealism and visual innovation.

What is striking about all these films is that they provide skewed representations of romantic couplings, and explore highly unusual forms of relationships, yet still seem far more authentic than all the generic join-the-dots narratives associated with Valentine's Day, thereby leading viewers to rethink their own conception of love. As Beginners suggests, any attempt at representing love is a misguided gesture, destined to fail. Since the real issue of love is an existential one, the best films on the subject also call into question what it means to be human.

Although they both deal in heterosexual relationships, albeit of a bizarre and extreme kind, Lars and the Real Girl and I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK offer truly original depictions of romance held together by humour and quirky, unconventional narratives - alternative romcoms that are revelatory in their conception of love owing precisely to their perverse reconfiguration of it.

Set in a Scandinavian-inflected Minnesota that reflects the immigrant origins of its community, Lars and the Real Girl tells the story of an introverted young man (Ryan Gosling) whose romantic attachment to "Bianca", a life-sized doll (originally a sex toy), is reluctantly accepted, and eventually encouraged, by all around him. Bianca is more of a therapeutic aid than a sexual one and her incongruous presence enables Lars to learn to love.

While the premise of Gillespie's film sounds farcical, it moves in much more subtle and cerebral directions, putting to good use the humour of the absurd situation without ever undermining the severity of Lars' emotional pain (coming to terms with the death of the mother he lost in childbirth), his loneliness and inability to make meaningful contact with less artificially fabricated beings. …

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