Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. Are you disappointed by some of the recent attempts at romantic cinema? It’s not that romance is dead in cinema, far from it. But somehow the cinema of love these days seems less satisfying; perhaps we can blame the recent decline of the romantic comedy. Well, here’s a recommendation, appropriate for the day. Why not take an excursion into one of my favorite genres, the land of gorgeous dresses made of curtains and heart-breaking balalaika leitmotifs? Why spend your money on the weekend’s most recent variation on the Jennifer Aniston theme, when you can curl up in front of the TV to spend a few hours with Jack and Louise, Yuri and Lara, or Scarlett and Rhett?
The epic romance is perhaps the most universally loved of the sub-genres of “epic” (I also have a soft spot for the under-appreciated epic comedy). “Gone with the Wind”, of course, is the highest-grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation), and a very worthy archetypal example. But beyond that, I would argue that there are a very small number of films that can actually be considered the genuine article, maybe even fewer than 20. Later on I’ll get to why that isn’t a big deal, but first I’ll lay out what exactly I think a film needs to be an epic romance.
An epic romance is not an epic movie that has a driving romance at the center. It is a film in which the romance itself is an epic on its own. Primarily, that means that it has to take place over a number of years. “Dr. Zhivago”, for example, is framed by events of the 1950s, and the major events of the love story run about a decade, from 1912 to 1923. Most of these films, “Gone with the Wind” and “Reds” included, occupy roughly ten years of time, though there are plenty of exceptions. The point is that an epic romance is not a film about two people falling in love, but rather the exploration of a complete relationship. (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons that “Titanic” is an “epic with a romance” and not an epic romance. Meeting on a ship and then sinking a week later just isn’t enough time; that’s a story about a falling in love, not a narrative about two complete individuals tied together across time.)
And that includes the points of separation between the lovers, interrupted not only by distance and history but also the various interloping lovers. Eugene O’Neill in “Reds” (played by an exceptional Jack Nicholson), Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett’s other husbands in “Gone with the Wind” and Karen Blixen’s husband in “Out of Africa” all serve as distractions for the film’s hero and heroine, while at the same time helping them develop and grow as individuals, strengthening the larger narrative of the film. Moreover, the passing affairs and marriages with others, the long absences and the tearing apart of the lovers by the arbitrary consequences of history serve the epic romance by showing how little the details can seem to matter when compared to the single larger story of love.
In a way, this superior importance given to the primary romantic narrative and the triumph over the details shows the love stories themselves in parallel to the vast historical backdrop of the films. The story of Rhett and Scarlett rises above the comparative minutia of the affairs, the tragedies, the deaths and births that populate the film beyond its core narrative. This central romantic narrative gains the same weight as the enormous historical events surrounding the characters and tossing them back and forth across the landscape of the Civil War. The epic romance takes a love story, a connection between two individuals, and brings it up to the heights of history; yet at the same moment it brings wars and revolutions into an intimate relationship with accessible characters.
An epic romance, therefore, seems to be among the most novelistic of movie genres. These movies are about great love stories, but they are also about a whole number of other things. “Reds” is about love, and all of the themes therein: betrayal, absence and longing, attachment from beginning to end. But it is also about revolution, journalism, Communism, politics, literature, friendship, and any number of other ideas. It’s no accident that a lot of these films are based on novels, though that’s certainly not a pre-requisite. “Reds” and “Indochine” both had original screenplays.
Anyway, as a result of all of this categorization, and my possibly indulgent belief that these movies are not only generally fantastic films but also an ultimate humanization of the more overwhelming aspects of History, the list isn’t too long. I’m excluding “Titanic” for reasons pointed out above, and I think one can write off “Avatar” with a similar rationale. “Farewell, My Concubine” counts, as does “The English Patient”. Films like “Atonement” float along the edge, though it should probably be included. I won’t try putting together an exhaustive list here, but the point is that there aren’t too many.
But why should that matter? How much time do we have in our lives to really sit down and absorb a really long, demanding piece of cinema? The best of these movies should be watched a number of times, to be loved as well as appreciated fully. It’s also not the easiest endeavor in the world to make one of these things, and with the price tag attached no one wants to make just a decent epic romance. It seems that we really only need a few, and at this point one or two great ones made per decade seems like more than enough.
What’s your favorite? Which epic romance would you most like to sit down and watch on a perfect Valentine’s Day? I’ve included “Indochine” and “Farewell, My Concubine” but I’m not too familiar with other international contributions to the genre, any suggestions? It can be hard to compare such immense works of film, but hey, that’s what the internet is for. Sound off in the comments.