Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Classics.
Listen, we love Titanic and The Notebook as much as the next girl, but they’re just so…expected. Boy and girl from different circumstances meet, feel the beautiful frisson of attraction, and manage to overcome the odds to be together. Yes, we’re oversimplifying (and discounting how it ends), but you know exactly what’s going to happen to the two lovers from the second they’re introduced. Blame it on formulaic storytelling that makes the American box office tick, but it’s been awhile since a story made us reconsider our definition of love and what you’re capable of when you’re in it.
While you could argue at a base level, all humans’ capacity for love starts out the same, other cultures have evolved with certain concepts of romantic feelings ours might not even have a word for — and they’re not afraid to portray them on film. We're not talking the usual will they/won't they story. We're talking will they...surely they MUST because we’ll die of grief just from watching if these completely fictional characters’ true love for one another goes unrealized.
It’s the epic kind of decade-spanning, soul-crushing, crazy-beautiful, I’ll-wait-for-you-‘til-the-end-of-time story that makes you feel more feelings than a tween reading Twilight for the first time. The ending has you choking on your own sobs as you sit there marveling at the wickedly complex depth of emotion of which humans are capable, and the next day colors just seem a little brighter. So, get out your best hankie (well, one you’re okay with snotting into) and be prepared to shout these movie titles from the rooftops — or take to your bed for an entire week. Feelings.
Cinema Paradiso (Italy)
What, exactly, makes Cinema Paradiso such a wildly romantic movie? It's likely not just the love story that blossoms in the post-war Sicilian air between young Salvatore Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio) and Elena Mendola (Agnese Nano), though it is a pretty darn sweeping love story. It's not the kisses in the rain, and the way young love acts as a vehicle for maturing. Cinema Paradiso is so romantic because it's set in a bygone, idyllic past, dreamt up from the narrator's imagination.
As an established and successful adult, Salvatore has the opportunity to revisit the Sicilian town he grew up in, and left as a young man. While there, he looks back on his childhood with he wistful eyes of a grown-up, who wishes he could capture a moment of that old life. This is a love story to so many things, including youth, and cinema, and kissing in downpours.
Love Me If You Dare (France)
The French have a concept, l’amour fou, which literally translates to “crazy love,” and most rational people don’t seem susceptible to it. This film will take you on a journey with two of the most irrational, foolish, crazy, lovestruck characters you’ll ever encounter, but you’ll be on their side the entire time. Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet (who would later get together in real life and create the world’s most angelic baby) star as Sophie and Julien, who help each other manage difficult childhoods — she’s bullied for being an immigrant; he loses his mother to cancer — through a series of escalating dares.
Once they’re teenagers, they of course realize they’re madly in love with one another. But by then, neither one can tell when the other is playing the game, and they’re both too proud to let their guard down and admit their feelings. As their lives diverge because neither one will cave, the years of separation become physically painful. You actually ache for them to be reunited — their respective spouses and children be damned!
And, when it finally happens, well, get ready to have the rug ripped out from underneath you when they complete the ultimate dare.
Like Water for Chocolate (Mexico)
It’s 1895, and familial tradition in Mexico mandates that Tita, the youngest daughter, must cook and care for her mother until she dies. She falls in love with Pedro at first site, but the tradition also states that she cannot marry until her duties to her mother have been completed. Sensing her daughter’s urge to stray, her mother gleefully agrees to Pedro’s offer to marry Tita’s sister, although he’s really doing it to live under the same roof as Tita.
Although they cannot be together physically, Pedro and Tita’s passion for one another manifests itself through various supernatural phenomena related to food. When her mother discovers that Tita’s love has somehow made her able to nurse her nephew, she sends Pedro and his wife to Texas. Through 22 painful years, Tita and Pedro pine for one another and curse the obligations that keep them apart. And, of course, when they’re finally eligible to marry, well, let’s just say the whole thing goes up in flames.
House of Flying Daggers (China)
This film feels as if it were shot through Instagram’s Lo-Fi filter, and the wonderfully saturated colors are only part of this Chinese movie’s lush, beautiful magic. At the core is your typical story of a daughter out to avenge her father’s death — only this time she’s not only beautiful, but blind.
Her quest soon leads her arrested, but she’s released under the watchful eye of a handsome soldier, who plans to follow her and infiltrate the House of Flying Daggers. After a few fights for their lives, they fall in love — except they’re both pretending to be someone else, so how could this possibly work out?
It cannot be, of course. They come from two opposing sides, and this is a culture fiercely bound by loyalty before love. When you fight it, you pay the ultimate price. But, if you're lucky, there might be some alfresco lovemaking in the world’s most sumptuous field before someone has to go.
Please note that in addition to making meadow sex look very appealing, this film will also have you rethinking your attraction to men in high ponytails. Watch it, and then try telling us Jared Leto shouldn’t wear one to the Oscars.
A Very Long Engagement (France)
This gorgeous film reunites director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou, who more than recapture the magic of Amélie in a touching— and unsettling — love story. Tautou and Gaspard Ulliel (he of the Scorsese Chanel ad) play Mathilde and Manech, two teenaged lovers who know they’ll be together forever. Unfortunately, World War I interferes with their plans, and Manech goes missing in the trenches after trying to lose a finger so he can go home to Mathilde.
The film overlays the tale of a devoted, hopeful woman who refuses to believe her true love is dead with an elaborate and well-constructed detective story. Jeunet uses the same quirky details, flashbacks, and clever visual storytelling that worked so well in Amélie. There’s even a surprise cameo by a very well-known American actress speaking French like a native in a small-but-pivotal role.
Kiss Me (Sweden)
Thirtysomethings Mia and Frida meet for the first time at their parents’ engagement party, which means they’re about to become stepsisters. Mia is engaged to Tim, but as the weekend passes, she and Frida start to feel an undeniable spark they can’t ignore. This film frankly and beautifully portrays what it’s like when two soul mates are brought together after they’re already settled into what they thought would be the daily realities and practicalities of their adult lives and identities.
Puzzled Love (Spain)
Sun, who hails from Chicago, and Lucas, who’s from Mallorca, end up as flatmates in Barcelona, where they’re studying abroad. What starts off as a rocky debate over rooms turns into head-over-heels, can’t-live-without-each-other-or-come-up-for-air love. The film is told as if it’s a ticking time bomb. This is, after all, just a foreign-exchange program, and as the months pass, you start feeling the same increasing, sickening dread as Sun and Lucas about what will happen when they have to go back to their lives 4,000 miles apart from one another.
Medianeras (Sidewalls) (Argentina)
Martin and Mariana are attractive, slightly damaged neighbors (although they don’t know one another) and soul mates (also not yet hip to that one) who both feel stifled by the imposing new walls — both literal and figurative — going up every day in Buenos Aires. They’re quirky in that Amélie way: Mariana is afraid of elevators and has an obsession with Where’s Waldo because she loves his ability to hide in plain sight. Martin strategically packs and weighs his backpack for the photography ventures his therapists swears will help with his anxiety about leaving his apartment.
Be sure to remember that Waldo factoid, because it will be on the quiz later. Just kidding! It will of course play a role in their ultimate meet-cute.
Lust, Caution (China)
“We’re like a threaded needle, never to be separated,” Wong Chia Chi (undercover as Mrs. Mai) sings to the man her resistance group has sent her to seduce with the end goal of his assassination. Their lovemaking is at times brutal, and Chia Chi is always filled with confusion and self-loathing for what she’s volunteered to do in hopes of overthrowing the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Yet her feelings for Mr. Yee turn from faked passion to something a lot like love (albeit the depraved variety), and they boil to the surface at the most catastrophic moment. Director Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, clearly excels at depicting this type of conflicted, forbidden lust.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (France)
This is the film that catapulted Catherine Deneuve to international stardom. Like A Very Long Engagement, it’s the story of two young lovers torn apart when the man is drafted. Unlike Engagement, it’s a musical. And, the heartbreak. Oh, le chagrin d’amour!
L’Ultimo Bacio (The Last Kiss) (Italy)
Yes, this is the source material for the 2006 American movie of the same name (which was actually directed by none other than Scandal’s President Fitz). Whereas Zach Braff turned the adaptation into a maudlin, Garden State-esque affair, the Italian original crackles with sun-drenched passion. You even feel for the Peter Pan-syndrome-afflicted protagonist who cheats on his pregnant girlfriend before realizing the error of his ways and how good he truly has it (well, almost) . Somehow, it’s easier to forgive a gregarious Italian man than his American counterpart.
Yup, you know the one we’re talking about: The brutal, Oscar-winning Michael Haneke movie about what happens when an octogenarian couple reaches ‘til death do us part.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China)
Lovers are ultimately kept apart because of class differences, honor, obligation, and revenge in this fanciful tale of a mystical jade sword, warriors who float on air and run on water, and a not-so-innocent governor’s daughter who sets off the chase for an assassin that spans from Peking to the remote desert flats of Western China.
Chico & Rita (Spain)
Chico is a jazz pianist in need of a singer. Rita is not only the singer Chico’s been searching for, but the true love of his life. Timing and fame are rarely on their side, though. This animated love story, which takes viewers on a trip through Havana, New York, Paris, and Las Vegas, celebrates Cuban music against the backdrop of Castro’s tumultuous revolution. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2011 Academy Awards, which was the first time a Spanish-language film received the honor.
Les Chansons D’Amour (Love Songs) (France)
We’re really just putting this one on here because it’s completely ludicrous, and you could probably use an emotional palate cleanser after watching all the others. Picture your typical French romance, with attractive, brooding, pansexual characters. Then, picture said characters bursting into song. Yes, we should’ve been ready for this, seeing as the word is in the title, but can anything really prepare you for super-chouette, blasé Parisians mumble-singing their inner monologues with weird metaphorical lyrics? Non.