Well, here we go again.
After a year of relative safety, we have arrived once more at Valentine's Day, that most awkward of holidays, straddling the line twixt Twitterpation and Crass Consumerism. The day crabby old-timers love to hate; the day unromantic types hate because they are expected to love it so much; and the one shining day to which true romantics look forward for most of the other 364.
A quick look at multiplexes 'round the country reveals an obvious candidate for the Valentine's Day Crowd: Nicholas Sparks' latest "Romancetrophe," The Vow. Far be it from me to begrudge it the smitten crowds to which it is so clearly targeted; I remember those days of young love well, and cherished every moment of them. Yet, six sons into the adventure, I find such fare a great deal less appealing—not because they deal with something untrue or even unimportant—but because they deal with it on such a superficial level; it's the stuff of beginners. (Besides, schmaltzfests like The Vow have always failed to live up to my inflexible ideals.)
Instead, I offer this list of cinematic alternatives to the formulaic set-pieces this day offers, for those who no longer count ourselves among the Implacably Twitterpated -- while first mentioning that my all-time favorite romantic film is Ushpizin, but since I have already written about its genre-busting awesomeness elsewhere, I will simply urge everyone to see it and move along:
Random Harvest: That this film features an almost-impossibly charming Ronald Coleman and a luminous Greer Garson would be reason enough to recommend it. And good thing, too, because that's about as much as I can say about the film, lest I spoil its effect on the first-time viewer. One of Hollywood's truest classics, it tells the story of Smithy (Coleman), a happily married World War I vet whose mysterious past comes rushing darkly back to threaten his happiness. A fantastic performance from Garson (playing Smithy's beloved wife, Paula) anchors the film, and its unexpected twists and turns will leave many a hardened cynic with a serious case of the warm-fuzzies. I cannot recommend it highly enough; I only wish I could be watching it for the first time—again.
Away from Her: "All good things must come to an end," and marriage is no exception to that heartless rule. But what happens when that dissolution is not precipitated by Death? Such is the situation in Sarah Polley's sweetly melancholic directorial debut, where a couple struggles with the onset of Alzheimer's and the unavoidable damage the disease is inflicting on their marriage. Grant (Gordon Pinsent) struggles to confront the fact that his wife, Fiona (Julie Christie)—moved to a medical facility in their fight to contain the debilitating effects of her disease—grows more and more distant, even to the point of forgetting her relationship with her husband altogether. Grant's struggles grow more pointed as Fiona, believing herself husband-less, is attracted to another of the nursing home's attendees. Eventually, Grant must confront for the last time the struggle that faces every married couple: the submission of one's own wants and desires for the good of one's spouse.
Brief Encounter: Hollywood legend David Lean is rightfully revered for the epic films he produced in the '50s and '60s, but in the early '40s he collaborated with playwright Noel Coward on three play adaptations. And it is one of those, Brief Encounter, which may well be his finest all-around work. A British housewife and a married doctor meet by chance in a train station, accidentally fall in love, and spend the next several weeks pitting their desires against the tangible needs of their respective families. A fascinating examination of the role of the will in married love, it deals with themes and issues that have been addressed by any number of other directors, but the finale of Lean's film is so unexpected and so subtly rewarding that it deserves pride of place.
Unbreakable: M. Night Shyamalan's "realistic superhero" film is about the never-ending conflict between good and evil, the importance of the relationship between father and son, and the way in which all of us must come to terms with the fact that we have been created for a higher purpose. But perhaps most importantly, it is a film about the damaging pressures placed upon a marriage when we allow it to stagnate. It chronicles one man's realization that marriage is not "unbreakable" by its nature, and that one must work (and work hard) to assure that it is preserved unbroken. There are many reasons to watch the film, but its defense of (and fundamentally optimistic view of) the vital nature of marriage is at the top of the list.
In America: Many of the most interesting films about marriage deal with infidelity; there is no more profound threat to an individual marriage than unfaithfulness, and the dramatic impact of such an attack has been used to excellent effect by countless filmmakers. Nearly as common a theme, however, is that of fertility. The fundamental role that procreation plays in the institution of marriage makes it (or its lack) a fertile playground for dramatic conflict. In Jim Sheridan's fantastic film about a young Irish immigrant family struggling to make it in New York City, the unexpected, unwanted pregnancy of wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) is the catalyst that finally brings husband Johnny (Paddy Considine) to terms with the event that caused them to flee Ireland in the first place, and which has been eating away at their family. As pro-life and pro-family a film as has been made in some time, it is filled to bursting with small, insightful moments about the way spouses relate to each other and to the most tangible signs of their love: their children.
NOTE: Both In America and Away from Her contain some adult material, of a nature that might be expected from films dealing with marriage.