Valentine’s Day is for lovers and romantics; Anna Howard Shaw Day is for cynics, grumps, and night-cheese-in-Slankets aficionados. I’m caught at the intersection, so my conception of what qualifies as “romantic” is occasionally warped, but unconventionally defined romance, especially in film, allows viewers to challenge their notions of love, romance, sex and sexuality.
You have your Antichrist fans and your loyal viewers of In the Realm of the Senses and Possession, but weird romantic films come in many forms—just like love. The most singular representations stand out from the pack with their observations on what makes us human. Here are seven unconventional Valentine’s Day-ish movies to watch with your bae (and by bae, I mean pint of ice cream).
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Director: Mike Nichols
When David Suchet took on the role of George in a 1996 UK production of Edward Albee’s incendiary play, the playwright took the actor, best known as Hercule Poirot on TV, and asked him about how he was approaching the lacerating male lead. Suchet responded, “I believe you’ve written a love story. However cruel George is being, he’s trying to save his marriage.” Albee retorted, “That’s what I wrote.” The acidic surface of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which an older couple battle with barbed words between themselves and a younger, ostensibly more naive pairing, is an easy distraction: Martha, George’s wife, spits at him, “Oh, I like your anger. I think that’s what I like about you most. Your anger.” This verbal boxing match Mike Nichols, as director of the film adaptation, astoundingly realizes through Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as Martha and George, respectively, whose tempestuous personal life adds a meta-textual quality to the film. As the two continue to batter at one another, breaking into the tenderest of wounds and most vulnerable of emotional places, George and Martha’s battle over “truth and illusion” evolves into a sublime meditation on cruelty becoming intimacy. Not only can George and Martha hurt each other like no one else, but they can care for one another like no one else too.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The austerity of German New Wave’s enfant terrible and ridiculously prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s emotionally sadomasochistic romance/character study is a bit of a joke. In the tormented relationship between Petra (Margit Carstensen), her muse Karin (Hanna Schygulla) and Petra’s silent and subservient assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann) is an air of deadpan terror and eroticism. Fassbinder distributes power unequally amongst the trio: Karin has her way with Petra, going hot to cold from one line to the next, while Petra regularly dismisses and disregards Marlene. The women around Petra von Kant—her mother, her friend, her daughter—all look back with varying amounts of awe and disgust as they recount their own interpersonal relationships and how those relationships are connected to Petra’s sense of self. For a fashion designer as haute as Petra, the archness of her affairs contrasts with her carefully designed looks, as each of Fassbinder’s characters bounces between the humanity of vulnerability and the artificiality of their cruelty.
The Piano Teacher
Director: Michael Haneke
Nothing says Valentine’s Day quite like repression and sadomasochism, the latter of which can be traced through most of the films listed here. Isabelle Huppert’s earth-shattering performance—as a piano teacher who thinks she finds, in one of her students, Walter (Benoît Magimel), the person with whom she can enact her masochistic fantasies—pulsates on screen to the degree that the bleeding heart of ,i>The Piano Teacher, austere Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s sincerest work, is palpable. Huppert’s presence is enough to transform Haneke’s didactic questions about sex, pleasure and power into an atmosphere lived-in and haunted. As Erika must conceptualize what pleasure is for herself, her games with her handsome student become more vicious: For some people, love hurts—and that makes for a fine romance.
Director: Todd Haynes
There are mother/daughter movies, and there is Mildred Pierce, and then there is Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Mildred Pierce. Michael Curtiz’s 1945 swing at James M Cain’s domestic melodrama is serviceable, with a memorable turn from Joan Crawford, but the complexity of its central relationship—between ambitious mother/divorcee Mildred (Kate Winslet in Haynes’ adaptation) and her ambitious/spoiled daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood)—is squashed in Curtiz’s less than two-hour running time, looking reductive within the director’s invented noir framing. It takes Todd Haynes, previously prone to quasi-essay/academically bent filmmaking, to not only give that difficult relationship room to breathe and to grow into its nuance, but to deconstruct mother/daughter love on screen in general. Rather than approach it through his usual academic lens, Haynes makes Mildred Pierce (produced for HBO) his first film with emotions as lush as its ideas: a flesh-and-blood gorgeous film about a flesh-and-blood toxic love.
Director: David Fincher
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” as the saying goes. (Ryan O’Neal even recognizes what a dumb line that is in What’s Up Doc?). So does Gone Girl, a film in which the monsters people become as a relationship continues to atrophy are nothing if not self-fulfilling prophecies. When “Amazing” Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike, iconic) goes missing, her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) becomes a person of interest. Fincher cuts between Nick’s search for his wife and their marriage as narrated by Amy in her diary. Gone Girl is, perhaps with an ironic wink, radically honest with regards to the lies we tell in relationships in order to keep them alive.
The Heart Machine
Director: Zachary Wigon
The quaintness of a long-distance relationship, catalyzed and sustained by the internet, has lost its sheen as such a situation has become more frequent an occurrence, both in film and on television—and more so in the real world—but Zachary Wigon’s The Heart Machine, released in 2014 and a year after Spike Jonze’s Her, hasn’t lost its resonance. Tracking the realities and fictions of a long-distance relationship between two young, hip people, Cody (John Gallagher Jr) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), The Heart Machine turns to millennial noir as Cody begins to suspect something is amiss in their Skype-predicated romance. It would have been too easy for The Heart Machine, and Wigon by proxy, to suggest that the Internet has made creating false identities easier; instead the film asks how we create identities and then how we delineate our authentic selves with significant others, casual hookups and friends alike. The internet hasn’t necessarily changed who we are, but it has changed how we ask who we are.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Ingmar Bergman and Greta Gerwig have more in common than you might think. While Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s second collaboration together, Mistress America, isn’t precisely a persona swap film—a subgenre in which two people switch bodies literally or figuratively, derived most notably from Bergman’s 1966 Persona—but does follow certain tenets of the cinematic type with a sly care and kindness. “Baby” Tracy (Lola Kirke) arrives at Vassar with not much in the way of friends, encouraged by her mother to contact her soon-to-be step-sister, Brooke (Gerwig). Brooke is like the titular character in Frances Ha, but inverted: Her anxieties burst through her as energy, as a desire to do everything and nothing at once, whether it be open a restaurant, teach SoulCycle or take a trip to Connecticut for an investment. Brooke’s unaware self-awareness (or vice versa?) serves as short story inspiration for aspirational writer Tracy, but the key to Baumbach’s film is, as the relationship between the two develops, the clear-eyed way in which Baumbach has them see one another (and therefore themselves) in each other—who they could be, who they once were, who they wish they were. As Tracy falls for Brooke (not necessarily romantically, but queerly nevertheless), Tracy finally learns how to love herself.