Strangely Sweet: Ten Unusual Romance in Film

Happy Valentine's Day, kids. Hope you've all got loved ones to squeeze today, and have better things planned than to see schmaltzy, unchallenging romance flicks like, er, Valentine's Day. Submitted for your approval is a list of movies in the spirit of love that aren't your typical rom-coms or melodramas—the unusual suspects with something a little strange accompanying the couplings.

Rather than just list movies with romance between quirky characters, though, since many people would be quick to name unconventional couples like Harold and Maude or Bonnie and Clyde, how about we seek the more trying scenarios? Here are some movies that attain sweet, robust romance even in situations that are normally hard to swallow. But you don't need to make sense of love to get it.

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Oasis (2002)
Why it's weird? It begins with rape.

In most relationships, when the man rapes the woman, what follows is usually the end. In Oasis, it's the not-so-cute meet. This South Korean film is a difficult and emotionally persistent romance drama involving two mentally disabled misfits.

After serving a stint in prison for involuntary manslaughter that his brother actually committed, the slightly retarded Jong-du seeks the family member of the deceased and finds the man's daughter Gong-ju, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy, abandoned by a brother who cashes her disability checks. Jong-du ends up forcing himself on a frightened Gong-ju, but leaves behind a phone number. Never having anyone express interest in her before, Gong-ju calls him up and they begin an incredibly sweet love affair that attracts turbulence from the people around them.

Oasis has a lot to say about the overlooked gap between the disabled and the rest of society, but wisely stays on point with the romance first. The two lead performances in this are phenomenal; Moon So-ri in particular is startlingly convincing as Gong-ju, making a dream sequence where she imagines herself to be normal heartbreakingly sad. It's romance against all odds—the two characters don't understand the world around them, but they understand each other better than anyone could.

 

The Apartment (1960)
Why it's weird? The guy provides the girl a place to sleep with another man.

Billy Wilder's masterpiece is rightfully considered one of the best romantic comedies of all time, but if you stop to wonder about its premise, it really is downright sleazy. An ambitious company man's place is to make the boss happy, but what if the boss stands directly in the way of his own happiness?

Jack Lemmon plays Baxter, an office drone whose bachelorhood is taken advantage of by his adulterous managers, using his apartment as a place of trysts. One day the company director exchange a promotion for the use of Baxter's pad, which he happily obliges until he realizes that the office girl he fancies, played by a radiant Shirley MacLaine, is the boss' mistress. After finding her passed out on his bed, Baxter nurses her back to health while having to deal with the chaotic fallout of this realization. Should he protect his job by letting this go on, especially since she may not latch onto him the same way she does to his boss?

The Apartment makes the excellent case that love isn't a status, a declaration or a promise. As the great final line of the movie says, it's actions that show the most. "Shut up and deal."

 

Failan (2001)
Why it's weird? They never meet.

Featuring a very misleading poster, Failan is an odd duck with an intriguing premise. How do you craft a tearjerking love story around two complete strangers?

Two years before he reaped international stardom with Oldboy, Choi Min-sik delivers this terrific hangdog performance as Kang-jae, a low-rent gangster unwanted by his own peers. Failan begins as a downward gangster pic, with Kang-jae urged to take on the gang leader's murder rap for some reward. Before he can agree, the police knocks on his door to inform him that the wife he's never heard of has passed away, and that as her only relative, he must travel to a country village to register her death certificate. From there, the movie intercuts between Kang-jae's journey and flashbacks of Failan, played by beautiful Cecilia Cheung, a sickly Chinese orphan who hired an agency to file her marriage to a random local to stay in Korea, which happened to be Kang-jae picking up extra money that day. Dying alone while working in a laundromat, Failan cheers herself up with a single photo of Kang-jae, in her mind a kind gentleman who helped her out of goodwill and will someday come get her.

This movie emanates true love even though the characters aren't lovers (since they never got to meet). Failan's love for her husband was unconditional because she never knew who he truly is. Kang-jae, who's never known such sincerity, goes through a devastating realization of what his life has become, sparked by a tender letter Failan left him.

 

Crash (1996)
Why it's weird? Its love grows around misery and death.

Romance comes in many form and it's not always flowery with teddy bears made of rainbows. Sometimes it's dirty, kinky, perverse—the kind of love they don't teach you about in Hallmark cards, but surely exists in real couples. Crash explores the lustful desire in that kind of love to an extreme, which earned the film its controversial repute.

Crash is of course famous for what turns its characters on: automobile collisions. It's impossible to forget Rosanna Arquette's vagina-substituting leg wound or Holly Hunter's flashing of her breast whilst pinned inside a wrecked car, but the central romance that motivates this debauchery is just as fascinating. James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger play a married couple with a dissipating sexual connection; but they find a way to reignite it by telling each other lurid stories of their separate infidelities, which escalates as Spader falls in with a group of car fetish enthusiasts. Suddenly, in the bask of perversion, they rekindle and they love.

Cronenberg takes it to a place that's grim to follow, but this is essentially a vision of the modern couple, seeking a break from the monotony of a conventional relationship. To call this film pornography is a mistake, as pornography is often sex without the heart. Crash, on the other hand, has immense heart. It's about a husband and wife so committed to one another that they respect and indulge in each other's innermost mania, no matter how dangerous. That's not so easy to approve for the more boring of us.

 

Millennium Actress (2001)
Why it's weird? She's in love with being in love.

There are plenty of animated films that sing the praises of love, but Satoshi Kon's sophomore film is unique for depicting a coupling that takes place entirely in a woman's head, with a blurred comprehension of what's memory and what's fiction—just the kind of mind trip we've come to love from Kon's films.

At the center of this epic tale is Chiyoko, a famous actress who has withdrawn from the public eye in her twilight years. A documentary crew arrives at her doorsteps to interview her about her life, which she interprets as one long chase to be reunited with a man she met in the early 1930's and quickly lost. Kon shows Chiyoko's story as a fusing of her memories and scenes from her movies, spanning decades of both Japanese and cinematic history. This is all very mythological, star-crossed stuff; which Kon brilliantly upturns by having Chiyoko's relationship with this soulmate practically non-existent, and even his face clouded in mystery in her recollections. And yet she pines after him still.

This is not a love story about lovers. It's a love story about love. The man is almost not a man but a stand-in. Chiyoko romanticizes romance itself to the point where she keeps chasing for a true love that never realistically existed for her. It's the thrill of being in love itself that motivates her, and on her death bed, she's happy and fulfilled by the memory of a lifelong romantic chase, even if it never came to fruition. Is that not love?

 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Why it's weird? They're already former lovers when they first meet.

And speaking of memories... Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's brain-bending romance is a now a mainstay on college audience's romantic shortlist. Best remembered for the masterful visual tricks, bizarre sci-fi plot and indie-cred performers, sometimes it's easy to forget that in the middle of it all is something akin to a Greek tragedy.

Jim Carrey's Joel and Kate Winslet's Clementine were lovers, but they don't remember anymore. That's because they both obtained the services of a memory-erasing company after their painful breakup. The film depicts the wiping of Joel's memory of Clementine as a series of eroding sets. As he navigates through them, he regrets ordering the procedure and tries his best to hold on to the memories.

There's something cautiously cynical about Eternal Sunshine because it's about the dismantling of a relationship rather than its build, but it's ultimately endearing in its optimism, affirming the belief that bouts of love, no matter how painful they prove to be, is better remembered than annulled.

 

Vertigo (1958)
Why it's weird? It's kind of like necrophilia-by-proxy.

While Vertigo is indeed a dark mystery unfolding into a crime thriller, its genesis lies in a very peculiar love story. Flirting around topics of suicide, murder and deception, they revolve around a love story so obsessive that it gradually goes from sweet to disturbing.

As acrophobic ex-cop Scottie, James Stewart is the embodiment of love sick. A friend hires him to tail and observe the worrying activities of his wife Madeleine, played with the perfect measure of distraught by Kim Novak. They become intimate instead, but Scottie is devastated when Madeleine abruptly commits suicide. That is, until he meets a woman named Judy who looks like Madeleine. Scottie woos Judy, not for who she is but for the memory of a dead girl, made obvious when he begins to dress her up like Madeleine.

Without even the twisting mystery that lurks behind the whole business, watching Scottie fanatically insist for Judy to transform into Madeleine is uncomfortably freaky, not to mention sad, but the whole time we know that Scottie does it out of his uncontrollable love for Madeleine. There's also a bittersweetness in how Judy obliges his insensitive whims. Naturally, Hitchcock's chilled hands feel the need to interfere. Just as this romance reaches a point of relief, tragedy suddenly strikes again.

 

Birth (2004)
Why it's weird? Its fairy tale romance is really illegal.

The plot of Birth is one of those "eternal love" scenarios that transcend time. A husband dies but is reborn and returns to his wife in another life because he's not ready to let go of what they have. How timeless. But what if the wife hadn't died, effectively pairing an adult with a young kid? That's, y'know, very illegal—and Birth doesn't shy away from that issue.

Cameron Bright is the young Sean, who makes a claim to Nicole Kidman's widowed Anna that he is the reincarnation of the husband she lost 10 years prior. Anna's understandably dismissive at first, but Sean slowly convinces her with intimate knowledge of their marriage. He strings Anna along an uncertain path, much to the disdain of Anna's new fiance and the worried reactions of their families.

There's a brilliance in Birth's ending, in that it seemingly explains away the realistic possibility of Sean having reincarnated, but a close inspection reveals that it may not be the true answer. Either way, it offers highly intriguing conclusions: either Sean is a 10-year-old boy with a fully matured capability to love (which is a whole new can of worms), or he's a grown man sacrificing his own wants to make his wife happy. It's an ominous—if not creepy—film, but it's not without its sentimentality.

 

City Lights (1931)
Why it's weird? It's based on a lie.

There's an unwritten rule in typical romantic fiction that relationships have to come from a place of honesty to truly work. For this reason, there are countless movies about a happy coupling destroyed by a single lie which the guy then has to somehow redeem for. City Lights doesn't have that scenario.

Here we find Charlie Chaplin's famous Tramp character at his most emotional. The Tramp, after unwittingly brings on the friendship of a drunk millionaire, runs into a blind flower girl and falls head over heels. The problem is, she thinks he's a rich man (thanks to, in part, a Rolls Royce he's borrowed), and that forces the Tramp to maintain the charade as long as possible in order to be with her. This includes a variety of ill-thought schemes to raise money for the girl's rent and eye operation fees.

You know there's something wrong with the set-up of this courtship, but it's hard to be too critical of it. What happens after the brilliant final scene? Chaplin ends it there to toss it back on the audience. He's not who she expects, but he has given up everything for her. Chaplin's handling of the material elevates the movie from its slapstick comedy roots to a touching query of social rank.

 

3-Iron (2004)
Why it's weird? They never say a word to each other.

What's more is there to say? There's something elegant and enduring about a love story articulated only through expressions and actions. While 3-Iron is not a silent film, the two main characters don't communicate verbally, which makes their rendezvous appear predestined. They can just fit into the gaps.

The enigmatic Tae-suk is a lonely vagabond who makes a habit out of breaking into people's homes while they're away on vacation to stay for a few days, repaying the owners by doing laundry or repairing broken appliances before he leaves. One day, he breaks into a mansion not realizing that battered housewife Sun-hwa is still inside, silently watching him. They escape together and become partners in crime, eventually something more, filling their emotional void with nothing but each other's physical presence.

3-Iron is a hot visual accomplishment, not just for the way it portrays Tae-suk and Sun-hwa's budding relationship without words, but also in the clever framing of the third act of the film, where Tae-suk masters the art of apparent invisibility—and becomes a sprite-like embodiment of mutual longing.

Feb
14
2010
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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