The great screen romances have seldom, if ever, been straightforward affairs. But it’s not often that they truly push the envelope in what’s acceptable or indeed possible. Here, the basic question of compatibility between partners becomes a super-sized hurdle to overcome. Whether subverting societal, biological, technological or even corporeal norms, these outlandish passions have a tendency to be short-lived and unsustainable – although there are a handful of happy exceptions.
An early example is the French science-fiction short The Future Eve (1896). In both the film and the symbolist novel it’s based on, a man driven to despair by his unfeeling spouse has a fictionalised Thomas Edison create Hadaly, a lifelike android, in her image. The husband falls in love with the replica – whose personality provides all that his human wife could not.
There are faint echoes of Hadaly in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). In Jonze’s near-future scenario, lonely, newly separated Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is beguiled by the disembodied voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an operating system with advanced artificial intelligence. Samantha may be a surrogate on some level, but then so is Theodore: he makes a living penning heartfelt letters for other people. What’s striking – and sobering – about Her is how plausible their burgeoning relationship feels, particularly with regard to our present, where personal gadgetry and simulacra seem ubiquitous.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Loneliness, curiosity, inexplicable attraction or plain boredom: the characters in the following selection may have their reasons or be completely blindsided by their emotions. Either way, a unique connection is made.
King Kong (1933)
Director Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsck
In her autobiography On the Other Hand, Fay Wray recalls King Kong’s co-director Merian C. Cooper promising her that she would soon be sharing the screen with the “tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”. Surmising this meant Clark Gable, Wray instead ended up co-starring with one of cinema’s most iconic lovestruck monsters: a beast that, in the movie’s famous climax, literally shouts his love for Wray’s beauty from the rooftops. Inevitably, the infatuation of Skull Island’s lonely alpha male proves fatal.
In the 23 years following its momentous Radio City Music Hall premiere in 1933, King Kong was rereleased no fewer than five times, in each instance with cuts applied by the Hays Code censors (most notably, a scene in which Kong removes Wray’s clothes at his jungle lair). Later restored completely, it remains thrilling for the verve of Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s direction and Willis O’Brien’s ingenious stop-motion effects.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz
A young widow is at the centre of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s whimsical, plangent adaptation of the 1945 novel by Josephine Leslie (written under her pseudonym R.A. Dick). Gene Tierney stars as the self-possessed Lucy Muir who, along with daughter Natalie Wood, moves into an English seaside cottage that happens to be benignly haunted by debonair seadog Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). Romance blooms between the pair after Lucy agrees to ghostwrite the spectre’s boisterous memoirs. However, the captain soon finds he has a rival suitor in the form of Lucy’s prospective publisher, the very much alive George Sanders.
Tierney, who had herself been something of a haunting presence for all in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), is superb opposite Harrison’s cantankerous revenant. Equally effective is Charles Lang’s atmospheric, Oscar-winning photography of the Big Sur locations and Bernard Herrmann’s lush, yearning score. The story was briefly revived as a sitcom from 1968-70.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Director Hal Ashby
Hal Ashby’s second feature is a distinctive, endearing oddity – a droll comedy that frequently teeters on the edge of tragedy. Alienated rich kid Harold (Bud Cort) spends most of his time attending strangers’ funerals and staging elaborate mock suicides that fail to shock his indifferent mother – until he meets septuagenarian Maude (Ruth Gordon), a nutty free spirit and fellow funeral buff. As this unlikely pair develops an increasingly close bond, Colin Higgins’ deliciously off-kilter script juggles sardonic wit with genuine pathos.
Featuring note-perfect performances from Cort and Gordon and peppered with outrageous visual gags – Harold’s disastrous dates, punctuated by bogus acts of seppuku and self-immolation, are a highlight – Ashby’s film is a smart, idiosyncratic portrait of May-December soulmates, memorably soundtracked by Cat Stevens. Cort later supplied the voice for Edgar, the lovelorn, Cyrano-like home computer with designs on his owner’s neighbour, from Electric Dreams (1984).
Blade Runner (1982)
Director Ridley Scott
In Ridley Scott’s influential Philip K. Dick adaptation, the chaotic, polluted sprawl of 2019 Los Angeles seems to hold precious little room for matters of the heart. Even so, charged with tracking down and eliminating a fugitive group of “more human than human” replicants, emotionally reticent bounty hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) fudges his assignment by falling for his quarry – the elegant and inscrutable cyborg Rachael (Sean Young).
In the film’s original (now unfavoured) hard-boiled voiceover, it’s revealed that Deckard’s ex-wife had deserted him for being a “cold fish”. Fittingly, it takes a synthetic being to unearth his buried reserves of humanity. Deckard might fit the mould of the archetypal dour, solitary gumshoe of classic noir, but Rachael is no ordinary femme fatale – implanted with false memories, she’s initially unaware of her artificial nature. Next to their uneasy affair, the relationship between hunted replicants Roy and Pris is pointedly tender and uncompromised.
Director John Carpenter
Director John Carpenter’s previous film was the Stephen King adaptation Christine (1983), a warped love story between a teenager and his possessive – and possessed – Plymouth Fury. Added to that, his last film about an extra-terrestrial was the grisly, effects-laden The Thing (1982). So what’s immediately surprising about Starman is how gentle it is – a soulful story about the brief encounter between a bereft young widow (Karen Allen) and the beatific alien (an Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges) who not only crash lands in her backyard but assumes the physical form of her late husband.
Carpenter envisioned the film as a fantastical spin on Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), mostly eschewing spectacle in favour of a close focus on character interplay as the couple travel cross-country to a mysterious rendezvous. Here, Bridges’ interstellar doppelganger is a surrogate for an original that’s irretrievably lost but also a blank canvas, with no access to memories of a shared life.
Max mon amour (1986)
Director Nagisa Oshima
“It was like playing opposite Paul Newman. The chimpanzee reacted differently, that’s all,” said Charlotte Rampling of her hirsute co-star in Nagisa Oshima’s deadpan bourgeois satire. Reportedly cast by Oshima for a perceived resemblance to David Bowie, Rampling plays a bored diplomat’s wife whose husband and friends are shocked to learn of her illicit trysts with primate lover Max.
Woody Allen had broadly tackled zoophilia – Gene Wilder’s infatuation with a sheep called Daisy – in his 1972 anthology Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). But the strength of Max mon amour is Oshima and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière’s straight-faced, naturalistic treatment of absurd material. Reviews were mixed on the film’s release, but The Village Voice’s Amy Taubin held it in esteemed company, declaring it “as stunning an investigation of sexual love as, dare I say it, La Règle du jeu”.
Making Mr. Right (1987)
Director Susan Seidelman
John Malkovich had, in a way, already ‘been’ himself long before becoming the self-reflexive avatar of Spike Jonze’s audacious debut feature, Being John Malkovich (1999) – as can be seen in this underrated curio from Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) director Susan Seidelman. Malkovich stars as a brilliant but socially awkward scientist who designs an android clone of himself, primarily for the purpose of space exploration. However, he doesn’t bank on the project’s PR guru (Ann Magnuson) falling head over heels for ‘Ulysses’, who – in stark contrast to his creator – has developed a highly charismatic, emotionally forthright personality.
As Ulysses discovers romance and runs amok in high society, mistaken identity hi-jinks ensue, with both the robot and his maker being called upon to impersonate each other at key moments. A skewed comedy that’s wry about the pitfalls of utopian technology, it also mines a very contemporary worry: will the devices we create render our need for human companionship obsolete?
Wings of Desire (1987)
Director Wim Wenders
The shadow of the Berlin Wall looms heavily over Wim Wenders’ lyrical meditation on crossing apparently impossible divides. Drifting through the city unseen while listening in on the thoughts of its variously troubled inhabitants, Bruno Ganz’s immortal angel Damiel falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist (the late Solveig Dommartin) and has to make a fateful decision: remain forever a passive observer and recorder of life on Earth, or become an active participant in it?
Inspired by the metaphysical poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Wenders and co-writer Peter Handke forge a ruminative, melancholy depiction of the German capital. Yet it’s a portrait that celebrates the little earthly pleasures we take for granted – witness Damiel’s epiphanic introduction to coffee, as recommended by Peter Falk (playing himself). Shot in both lustrous monochrome and crisp colour by Henri Alékan, the veteran cinematographer of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946), it’s as striking a city symphony as it is a love story.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Director Craig Gillespie
At first glance it’s questionable whether Craig Gillespie’s comedy, about a withdrawn young man with intimacy issues who alarms his nearest and dearest by announcing his relationship with a lifelike doll, will be able to sustain its giddy concept over the course of a feature. But Six Feet Under writer Nancy Oliver’s intelligent script explores this potentially zany premise with wit and sensitivity.
With Lars (Ryan Gosling) insistent that the wheelchair-bound, silicone-skinned ‘Bianca’ is a missionary that he had met online, his family and small-town neighbours decide to humour him, a gambit that leads to unexpected outcomes for many involved. It’s a credit to the strong performances – from Gosling, Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider among others – that what follows manages to be credible without becoming mawkish.
A later film, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Air Doll (2009), takes a magic realist approach to superficially similar territory, with its titular creation becoming human and falling in love with another man.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Director Tomas Alfredson
Tomas Alfredson’s film is a striking, imaginative adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the title of which derived from a song by perennial romantic outsider Morrissey. Set in a snowy Stockholm suburb, the story chronicles the relationship between 12-year-old Oskar, a bullied outcast who fantasises about violent revenge on his tormentors, and Eli, the mysterious, apparently slightly older girl who moves into the adjoining apartment block. Eli becomes a source of comfort and inspires defiance in Oskar but also warns, cryptically, that she’s “not a girl”.
Let the Right One In revisits the tropes of vampire lore with originality and startling intensity, but it’s also an acute psychological character study and a perceptive coming-of-age drama. Her cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s widescreen compositions are gloriously rich and evocative, while the performances of Kare Hedebrant and, especially, Lina Leandersson are remarkable. A US remake followed in 2010, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield).