NYFF51: It’s A Love Thing

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.

[NYFF Critics Academy member Mark E Lukenbill looks back at the 51st festival and explores the "aching highs" and "melancholic lows" of love in three of the festival's films, Her, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Only Lovers Left Alive.]

There were plenty of "big ideas" on display at this year’s New York Film Festival, from the searing pains of isolation and abuse present in Stray Dogs and 12 Years a Slave to the political upheaval of Burning Bush, but amidst the violence, disaffection, and revolution, a surprisingly simple and insular theme emerged from the main slate: love.

Mawkish and obvious though it may sound, a notably large number of the films on the festival slate this year are love stories, especially within the English language films, where at least one entry qualifies as a traditional romantic comedy (Richard Curtis’ About Time). At their most interesting, however, the films at the festival that fall under the “love story” moniker manage to explore the purest, truest of love in the face of relationships that seem objectionably inappropriate to the world around the two lovers. These exclusively daring, symbiotic relationships elevate the two characters within them to a plane the seems out of reach to everyone else; a transcendental experience that in some cases lasts forever, and in others crashes spectacularly.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color.

The most affecting and closest to real-world actuality of these films is Abdellatif Kechiche’s enrapturing, hormonally explosive depiction of first love and coming of age, Blue is the Warmest Color, now in theatrical release. While first love of this nature has certainly been depicted on screen before, especially in French cinema recently with Mia Hansen-Love’s equally affecting and beautiful Un amour de jeunesse, Blue is especially noteworthy in – with considerable affection and finely tuned realism – doubling as a coming out story for young student Adéle (Adéle Exarchopoulos), who begins the film’s “first chapter” as a fifteen year old in a school and circle of friends which, the audience later discovers, are not necessarily the most progressive or accepting. Adéle catches eyes with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a much older art student, and when they finally meet they enter a sanctuaried world that seems far removed from Adéle’s typically isolated and posturing high school existence. They engage in endless chats about philosophy and literature, Emma sketches and paints Adéle, and, eventually, they have sex.

The sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color have already drawn a great deal of response and criticism, most notably for their intensely erotic stylization and incredibly long runtimes, but the reasoning behind these choices is nevertheless very clear. Keninche’s intention in the first half of the film is to demonstrate the passionate fervor that begins a relationship. Adéle has been waiting literally the entirety of her life to make this connection with another woman. Watching her finally fall hard for the reciprocal Emma is kind of magical. The film explodes with the happiness and desire that Adéle feels when she’s with Emma, though the audience can probably guess that this early high won’t be able to sustain itself.

"That’s what happens in a relationship," Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) says to his automated operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), in Spike Jonze’s sci-fi satire Her, which closed out NYFF and will be in limited release beginning in December. "In the beginning it’s the honeymoon phase."

Spike Jonze's Her.

The rapidly evolving Samantha is concerned that they no longer have "sex." Twombly, after a fateful encounter with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) is finally having it dawn on him that he’s helplessly in love with a disembodied voice; even one as brilliant, evocative, and organic as Samantha. But until this point, Theodore and Samantha were unequivocally in love, and the usually depressed and disengaged Theodore was all the better for it. As Samantha grows and begins to experience new emotions for the first time, Theodore re-experiences them with her. "It’s just nice to be with someone who is excited by life," Theodore tells his co-worker and later, his ex. The manic strangeness of their affair; which as depicted by Jonze actually manages to be successfully and beautifully romantic through a quirky and imaginative screenplay and director of photography Hoyt van Hoytema’s colorful, sexy lensing; re-energizes Theodore and makes them perfectly suited for each other.

In spite of the obvious forbidden connotations in everyday society of Her’s unnatural technological fetishism, Jonze avoids the usual coldness of satire by never passing moral judgment on their relationship. The film never enters the preachy area of scathing critique, instead posing the question of why not? Her poses the fascinating question of what human beings need from a loving relationship, and whether a disembodied consciousness, an “iCloud” with a (not beating) heart, could ever successfully take the place of a human connection. Of course, the questions aren’t explored in the film so much as that they simply provide the film’s fascinating set up before the inevitable plot kicks in and Theodore and Samantha’s relationship falls into turmoil, but the emotional highs that Theodore experiences in the film’s first two acts are enough to call into question the validity of an Asimovian human-and-machine love affair.

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps the best example of literally undying romantic love in all of its unnatural and bizarre glory. Lovers most closely resembles Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy if it kept chronicling its two lovers’ lives for another thousand years. The titular lovers, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), are immortal vampires, and at this stage in their lives they’re both "so over it" about everything but each other. When reunited, the two exist in a sphere gilded by such awe-inspiring coolness that Adam’s young human (or “zombie,” as Adam calls them) friend (Anton Yelchin) tries his hardest to mimic their stoic chill by aping their dark sunglasses inside a Detroit rock club.

Adam and Eve dance to old records, wax poetic about the days gone by, and drive around aimlessly late at night; seemingly only kept alive and eternally youthful by each other’s presence. While the spark of this exclusive connection manages to stay alive for much longer than in the other two films, it shares the feeling of high stakes passion, removed from the world of mere mortal humans. The three filmmakers all manage to capture the aching highs and melancholic lows of true love in the most unnatural of circumstances, making for a NYFF brimming with romanticism against all odds.

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