The shape of love and romance seems to be an ever-evolving facet of the human experience, but somehow the marketer’s dream of Valentine’s Day never seems to move beyond cliché. However the nature of love and the portrayal of different kinds of relationships have always been explored on film, right from the early days of “talkies”.
So if we must indulge in Valentine’s Day, let’s do it with ten very different romantic films that examine the variety of configurations of this most human of conditions. From throuples, to “just friends”, to the unforgettable blush of first love and the one that got away, there’s something here for everyone.
1. The Definitive Romantic Comedy: When Harry Met Sally … (1989)
Written by the late great Nora Ephron, who made her name writing and later directing iconic romantic comedies such as Sleepless in Seattle, this film shows something that many romantic comedies often don’t: time. Taking place over 12 years, the film asks the question “Can men and women ever just be friends?” At first glance, the film’s ending might seem to say “no.” But another, perhaps more positive way of interpreting the ending is that true friendship is the bedrock for lasting romance.
2. Longing for Longing: Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Luca Guadagnino’s queer masterpiece captures the delicate feelings of love as it begins. The film is intimate and well-observed, capturing the difficulties and discoveries of young love, particularly how emotionally overwhelming it can be. The affection between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) often goes unspoken, but is communicated in other ways. In one crucial scene, dancing expresses what is hard to say aloud, making the film an iconic modern tale of queer romance.
3. For the Poly-Curious: Design For Living (1933)
It’s the classic love story: boys meet girl, girl cannot decide between them, boys and girl agree to live together. Polyamory – forms of non-monogomous relationships – may feel like a modern phenomenon given its recent media attention, but Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 classic romantic comedy demonstrates that relationships outside of monogamous marriage have always been on our radar. The film was released during the “pre-code Hollywood era” (1929-1934) and skirts around the principles of the Hays code, a list of censorship guidelines that would be soon be introduced, but which were not yet rigorously enforced. Design For Living still surprises to this day with its subtly risqué and humorous examination of diverse forms of romantic relationships.
4. For the Anxiously Analytical: Modern Romance (1981)
Albert Brooks is one of the great all-time analysts of the modern condition, and this film is no different. Co-written, directed and starring Brooks, Modern Romance explores the agonising question: “is this truly the one?” Caught between his anxious tendencies and a sense of self-importance, Bob (Brooks) has an on-again, off-again relationship with Mary (Kathryn Harrold), in which his insecure but controlling nature escalates, making for a hilarious film.
5. The Soundtrack to Great Love and Grand Gestures: Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann’s jukebox musical gives us two kinds of romance. The romance between Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) is a classic love story, but this tale also captures romance in another sense, that of Romanticism, an art movement emerging in Europe that prioritised emotional truth. Like Luhrmann’s other works, Moulin Rouge! is the story of an artist coming into their craft through life experience, in this case, romantic love.
6. Love from a Political Angle: Tongues Untied (1989)
“Brother to brother, brother to brother.” Rapid-fire dialogue begins and ends this poetic documentary by black gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs. As the film’s poster declares, this film is about black men loving black men. The film analyses how overlapping systems of privilege and oppression affect marginalised groups. It examines how black gay men are often excluded from gay communities, which have historically been white-centered, while also being excluded from heterosexual society. In its poetic merging of documentary footage, poetry, dance and autobiography, Tongues Untied illustrates that black men loving black men is in itself an act of defiance and resilience.
7. The Charm of First Love: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2021)
Working at an elderly care centre over the summer, two teens forge a bond that blooms into first love. But both also have anxieties that stand in the way: Cherry around speaking in public, Smile around her buck teeth. Kyohei Ishiguro’s Anime romance warms the heart and make you yearn for the warmth of both summer and that blush of first love.
8. Love in a Relatable Mid-Life Crisis: Crossing Delancey (1988)
Isabelle (Amy Irving) is a bookstore clerk who admires the world of literary elites in New York. While she has eyes for the new big-name author in town, her grandmother has other plans, working to set Isabelle up with a local pickle salesman. Joan Micklin Silver’s film perfectly captures the aspirational feelings of anyone in their twenties or thirties, while also examining distinct New York groups that Isabelle is torn between: the elite WASP-y literary circles and the Orthodox Jewish community.
9. The Throwback Romantic Comedy: Down With Love (2003)
Taking inspiration from classic 1950s and 1960s romantic comedies of Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall, Down with Love is about two writers whose pride and ambitions clash in classic romantic comedy fashion. Featuring sizzling performances by Rene Zellweger and Ewan McGregor – with hilarious turns by David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson and Tony Randall himself – director Peyton Reed twists the romantic comedy formula to great effect, making for a colourful, fun and feisty film.
10. The Bittersweet Romance: Past Lives (2023)
Nominated for best picture and best original screenplay at the 2024 Academy Awards, Past Lives rounds out this list as a bittersweet triumph. Celine Song’s gentle film charts the relationship of two people as they meet throughout their lives. Full of tender romance, bring some tissues for this affecting film.
Jacqueline Ristola, Lecturer in Digital Animation, Department of Film & Television, University of Bristol.
This article was first published on The Conversation, a global media resource that provides cutting edge ideas and people who know what they are talking about.