Non-Smarmy Romances for Valentine's Day

I have a very low sentimentality threshold. While many others—especially other women, I feel compelled to admit—are cooing over Pretty Woman and its more recent counterparts (Music and Lyrics, for example), I am overdosing on what I consider gag-producing romantic twaddle.

Don’t get me wrong; I love sentiment, as long as it’s not obscured by sentimentality. Here are some of the rare love stories that provide one without the other. Enjoy one this Valentine’s Day.

Love, Actually (2003)—Excellent ensemble acting and a sharp script turn what sounds like sentimental slop into a romantic romp both uproarious and soul-satisfying. The best among the ten love stories interwoven here: Emma Thompson wondering if her grumpy husband (Alan Rickman) is straying; and Liam Neeson, grieving after his wife’s death, taking his very young son seriously when the kid says he’s fallen in love with a classmate. Even the usually cloying Hugh Grant has some sexy-funny moments as the British Prime minister with a crush on one of his civil servants.

(1995)—Forget Felix Unger and Oscar Madison … Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce play the oddest couple you’re likely ever to see on film. Eccentric artist Dora Carrington loves celebrated author Lytton Strachey, and he loves her, but he’s gay. But despite their inability to enjoy what they call “the physical” with one another, they live together in something like bliss, along with their various lovers. Pryce has by far the showier role, but it’s Thompson who does the tough job of making us see the distinctly unattractive, maddening, and self-centered Strachey through the eyes of her steadfast love.

erable Cruelty (2003)—The Coen brothers work their magic on a hoary film genre, the screwball comedy. As a gold-digger and can’t-lose divorce lawyer, respectively, Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney use their luminous glamour to good effect and handle both physical and verbal comedy nimbly. These stars do the time-honored dance of camouflaging an undeniable attraction better than anyone since Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

Truly, Ma
dly, Deeply (1991)—Anthony Minghella went on to fame as director of The English Patient, Cold Mountain, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but his less-known debut is the gold-standard by which I judge all romances. Juliet Stevenson stars as Nina, in deep mourning after the unexpected loss of her beloved partner, Jamie (Alan Rickman). The supernatural plotline—Jamie returns as a ghost to help Nina cope—plays believably thanks to Minghella’s touching and grounded-in-reality script. Somehow he manages to include heart-wrenching sadness, trenchant political commentary, gorgeous cello music, unselfconscious silliness, Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and a getting-to-know-you scene done while hopping (yes, hopping) along the Thames. To call this “the thinking-person’s Ghost” is to damn this gem with far-too-faint praise.

Amelie (2001) [in French, with subtitles] Audrey Tautou brings her gamine charms to this thoroughly original story of how a kind but shy Parisian waitress finds her true love. Like all of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films, this one is highly colored and visually stunning. The story is both unusually sunny in tone and typically bizarre—a ceramic garden gnome, workers in a porno shop, and an automatic photo machine all figure significantly in the plot. Soaring above the quirky and delightful story is the life-affirming power of Tautou’s perky Amelie, righting past wrongs and bringing joy to her neighbors…and perhaps finding some herself.

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