VALENTINES TO MARLENE The seven artificial masterpieces of exotica in which Josef von Sternberg directed (and fetishized) Marlene Dietrich are unequaled in their sardonic celebration of desire, against which mere romance doesn’t stand a chance. Take a day to watch them back to back: “The Blue Angel” (1930), “Morocco” (1930), “Dishonored” (1931), “Shanghai Express” (1932), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), and “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935).
UNTOUCHABLE In 1962 Hong Kong, neighbors Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) discover that their spouses are having an affair. As they investigate their plight, they fall in love themselves, but the unrelenting social codes and their mutual diffidence blocks their passion. Wong Kar-wai’s drama is a tantalizing paean to idealized forbidden love. The exquisite cheongsams worn by Cheung suggest Wong knows his von Sternberg. In “2046,” the lustrous sequel, Chow is now a ladykiller who visits his frustration on Zhang Ziyi’s lovelorn good-time girl and others.
A THING OF BEAUTY Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009), which depicts the unconsummated love of John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish), was criticized by some for its visual literalizing of Keats’s poetry. Yet the movie’s rapturous evocation of the young couple’s dawning feelings – complicated by his ambiguous relationship with Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) and the knowledge that time is running out for the tubercular Romantic – make it one of cinema’s most irresistible love stories.
LOVE ON THE SEINE “L’Atalante” (1934) was Jean Vigo’s valentine to callow married love, to the rigors and joys of barge life, and to Surrealism (which, in his hands, ushered in poetic realism). The ordeal of making it in extreme cold ended his life at age 29 (as with Keats, the cause was tuberculosis). As the canal-going newlyweds, Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) make love, fall out, and part, but discover that their destinies are entwined. Père Jules (Michel Simon) – the barge’s spectacularly tattooed and ambisexual old salt – plays his part in restoring love’s young dream.
LOVE BY THE SEINE Partially a tribute to “L”Atalante,” “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” (1991) demonstrated the reckless genius of director Leos Carax as it depicted the romantic vicissitudes of down-and-out street performer Alex (Denis Lavant) and runaway middle-class painter Michèle (Juliette Binoche) as they set up home on the eponymous Parisian bridge. Carax had previously poeticized his feelings for Binoche in “Mauvais Sang” (1986), which features some of the velvetiest black-and-white close-ups ever filmed.
SIMPLY LOUISE G.W. Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” (1929) has a vicious and prophetic subtext: Lulu, the capricious femme fatale and lethal scourge of the German bourgeoisie, is the film’s object of anti-Semitic, misogynistic loathing, who must be expunged by no less a bogeyman than Jack the Ripper. Because the movie is in thrall for most of its running time to Louise Brooks, whose untrammeled sexual energy and dancer’s movements defy the fixity of the male gaze, it doesn’t work as propaganda – Pabst and his camera are too much in love with her and she has them at her mercy.
BOGART IN LOVE Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca” may be the ne plus ultra of Hollywood romance films, but it’s also a bittersweet film noir. Devotees who took it at face value may still be unwilling to accept that Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) have sex off-screen when she visits him to get the letters of transit and that “the beautiful friendship” Rick and Louis (Claude Rains) are to embark on will likely be physical. The ugliness of Rick’s self-pity was nothing compared to the violent rages let loose by Bogart’s Dixon Steele in “In a Lonely Place” (1951). Masquerading as a murder mystery, Nicholas Ray’s noir is a great tragic love story and a haunting commentary on the director’s ailing marriage to Gloria Grahame, mercurially brilliant as the woman Dix adores – and nearly throttles.
LOVE IS HELL The misery that’s turned Rick into a cynic has its counterpart in the self-lacerating anguish suffered by the women played by Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960), Margit Carstensen in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972), and Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’s “The Deep Blue Sea” (2o11; US 2012). MacLaine and Weisz’s characters, unrequitedly in love with worthless men, attempt suicide; Petra falls masochistically in love with a married trollop (Hanna Schygulla) while tormenting her live-in girlfriend. Though each film is timeless, each is a mirror of the time in which it is set – “The Apartment” being a catalyst for “Mad Men.”
GRAND ILLUSION “One From the Heart” (1982), Francis Ford Coppola’s neon-lit musical fiesta, is about a lower-middle class Vegas couple, Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr), whose five-year relationship has reached breaking point because of their emotional laziness and her desire for adventure. So, on July 4, he runs off with a circus girl (Nastassja Kinski) and she with a dancing waiter (Raúl Julia). Though the movie’s failure bankrupted Coppola, it remains a glorious homage to Hollywood studio razzle-dazzle. It’s also wise in its recognition that romance is illusory and love has to be worked at.
KEEP FLOWING ON Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” (1960) isn’t a conventional love story but an eco-drama. It focuses on the resistance of a rural matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) to selling her property to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which will deploy a dam to flood the land, providing electricity for agriculture but displacing thousands. Montgomery Clift plays the idealistic TVA administrator whose attempts to persuade the old woman to move are complicated by his falling mutually in love with her yearning widowed granddaughter (Lee Remick). “Progress” triumphs, leading to a bitter conclusion, but Kazan doesn’t betray the power of love, underscored here by Kenyon Hopkins’s sensuously languid trumpet score.