Every rose has its thorn, and no rose is as thorny as romance. And whether or not one considers oneself a romantic, this is a perfect time of year to take in some romance on screen.
Now, I know for some of us that means going the easy way and streaming some celebrity vehicle romcom. It may be a cultural default to zone out and watch a woman inexplicably endure a man-child’s bad behavior for two hours (or vice versa, more rarely). It certainly might compel one to hit mute and get to the “chill” part of Netflix and chill.
But let’s aspire for something a little better for the moment. There are innumerable great romantic films, but I narrowed my list to one service: Kanopy. While we await the launch of The Criterion Channel in spring, we classic film fans still have options, with Kanopy being among the best. (And with a Seattle Public Library account, you can stream five movies free each month.)
Here are five complex, acclaimed, international films on Kanopy with a love story at their center. (Most of them aren’t happy endings, but ’tis better to have loved and lost, right?)
Black Orpheus (1959)
It’s film award season, so why not start with one of the most honored films on this list? Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and Golden Globes in 1960, and at the BAFTAs in 1961. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is also one of the most old and profound love stories in the world. Hell, it was part of the basis for an entire mystery religion. Naturally, it has been an inspiration for countless artists over time, and French director Marcel Camus brought it to new life by staging the story in a Cariocan Favela during Carnaval.
True to the myth, it ends in tragedy, and true to Carnaval, Black Orpheus is a constant blast to the senses. Camus received some criticism in his time (and presently) for sensationalizing the poverty and people. But I think of it like Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the favola in musica (not favela), which not only paid proper tribute to the myth (a happier version of it) but helped establish opera as a genre. Camus was working from myth with a culture he adored. His exuberance stems from this, not mere poverty porn, nor superficiality.
Camus was bringing everyone he could into this foundational myth, including his cast Brazilians, most of whom were not professional actors. Orpheus, for example, was played by Breno Mello, a professional soccer player. Marpessa Dawn was the one American exception (a dancer from Pittsburgh) in the role of Eurydice.
Like many of the films on this list, it is not just recognized as a great romantic film. It remains a cinematic masterpiece.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Speaking of musicals, the next on my list is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Told in three acts over 91 minutes, the film is through-composed, like an operetta, but it isn’t really a musical. (The dialogue is sung, with no discernible song-breaks, no choreographed dance numbers, no extravagant sets, etc.) Umbrellas felt like both a classical throwback and something totally contemporary at its time.
It was a critical success, winning the Prix Louis-Delluc in 1963, the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and the critics’ prize for Best Film from by the French Syndicate of Film Critics in 1965. Beyond all that, it was the film that launched Catherine Deneuve to stardom.
Deneuve plays Geneviève, the daughter of an umbrella shop owner. Dear old mom doesn’t approve of her boyfriend, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), but they’re in love! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the Algerian War, for one. The separation takes their lives in two different directions, and the choices they make…well, they survive. But by the end, it is clear that they haven’t both entirely moved on. C’est l’amour.
A Slave of Love (1976)
A Slave of Love is fascinating for many reasons. It’s a film within a film, of sorts. It was made in Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War, following the end of the Vietnam War. And it’s about the dark days at the outset of the Russian Civil War and the end of the First World War. War saturates its making, and the making of the film, but you wouldn’t know it at first. The great silent film starlet Olga Voznesenskaya (played by Elena Solevey) just can’t be bothered. That’s why, to some degree, it is also considered comedic.
It’s not that the diva Voznesenskaya is indifferent to others’ suffering. She just seems to know these wars are man’s cruelty to man, and it’s going to play out whether she likes it or not. She’s on earth to love and be loved, and the boys’ insistence on making the streets run red is more nuisance than horror. At least at first. Then things get personal.
Ultimately, one can take A Slave of Love as mere propaganda, in which the carnal Voznesenskaya is seduced into political action. For director Nikita Mikhalkov, this was undoubtedly part of the intent, and not just to ensure the film’s release under Soviet censorship. (Mikhalkov is a red-blooded nationalist and ally of Putin.)
While seeing the propaganda of it, one can still have a different experience with the film, and the inner life of Voznesenskaya. (The character is based on Vera Kholodnaya, the proto-starlet of Russian cinema and rumored Bolshevic spy.) At the very least, the film is beautifully shot, and offers some slapstick, silliness and satire between murderous plots. C’est la guerre.
Chico & Rita (2010)
This one has some semblance of a happy ending, though it is bittersweet. The story of Chico & Rita is driven in part by war and revolution, like A Slave of Love, and it is musical, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But all the resemblance stops there, and not just because it is an animated film. The titular characters may be the center of attention, but the story swarms with minor players, keeping things boisterous, lighthearted, even a bit childish.
This is not a criticism. This jazz-age love story should keep us a little young at heart, because it spans a lifetime. And it is a cartoon, so it has license to be playful with its world, and it does so without stretching believability too thin.
If you want something more colorful and less depressing, this is the obvious choice from this list. It’s delightful and well crafted. (It won Best Animated Film at The Goya Awards and European Film Awards in 2011.) It has some mature themes (it is jazz and romance, after all) but a progressive household with young adults can definitely enjoy it as a family, too.
This list is chronological, but it’s also ending with the biggest downer. Tanna is a sucker punch. We’re in a terrestrial paradise of Tanna in the Vanuatu archipelago. (This was the first film entirely shot in the republic, in fact.) It’s anything but heavenly, though.
Two tribes seek to arrange peace through an arranged marriage. Wawa (Marie Wawa) is to be offered as a bride to the violent and aggressive Imedin tribe, which has a habit of murdering Wawa’s people. As irresistibly fun as that sounds for Wawa, she has other plans; she’s already in love with Dain.
What follows is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable. The lovers recognize on the one hand that Kastom (a Melanesian pidgin word for “custom”) demands her sacrifice. But who is finally served by Kastom if true love is ignored. By the end, the elders are forced to reckon with that question themselves.
The film’s dialogue is shot in the Nauvhal and Nafe languages, the native language of the actors. In fact, the production of the film brings us full circle back to Black Orpheus. The cast were tribespeople, and essentially playing themselves in their regular daily lives. Dain (Mungau Dain) was cast as the romantic lead because he was considered the village’s most handsome man.
Sadly, Dain (aged 24) just died last month, on January 5, from septic shock after getting a cut on his leg as a fruit picker away from Tanna. He had traveled internationally with director Martin Butler and co-star Marie Wawa promoting Tanna, including Hollywood, when it was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards in 2017. While traveling, Dain remarked in interviews that the places he visited were marvelous, but there was no place like home. His widow and three children probably agree. Heartbreaker, indeed.
Want more? Browse the whole Kanopy catalog of Romance.