Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’, and a Valentine’s selection of star-crossed lovers

I fear that Spike Jonze’s Her, released in cinemas nationwide this week, may become the latest addition to the embarrassingly long list of films I’ve cried at. Even the trailer inspired some alarmingly wobbly feelings. Set in the near future, Jonze’s latest offering concerns Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a divorced writer, who falls in love with his computer’s anthropomorphised operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). In light of Her, and with Valentine’s Day approaching, this week’s column is a showcase of impossible love in films, through which we confront the dilemma: how can we know if love is real?

As is pointed out with contempt by Twombly’s ex-wife (Rooney Mara), his ‘love’ for Samantha is questionable: because it will never be subject to the twists and strains of reality, it is a fantasy that can remain unspoilt. The same could be said of the love of David Lean’s star-crossed duo in Brief Encounter (1945), an adaptation of the Noel Coward play Still Life. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) are peerless in their terribly British, lip-quivering stoicism. Encumbered respectively with spouses and children, they clandestinely indulge in hot, passionate eye contact until they realise that they can no longer ignore their family duties. Rachmaninoff soundtrack to boot, this classic of melodrama draws out the absurdity of love. We are left feeling that perhaps, at least in the context of an affair, love is a fallacy, because it is not based on the reality to which the characters must return.

The chastity of Brief Encounter’s protagonists is, albeit regretfully, through choice, while Twombly’s is unavoidable, as Samantha does not exist corporeally. Such corporeality is not an issue for the titular lovers of Louis Malle’s Les Amants (1958), who enter a new kind of reality in their wilful, erotic abandon, rendered through Malle’s increasingly erratic film style. What begins as a classically shot tale of a bored and rather shallow housewife unravels into an unexpected representation of the comprehension of love, achieved through Malle’s daringly lengthy, unbroken shots. Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau), after flitting between several lovers, takes flight from her unsatisfactory existence with a mysterious new love, Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), whose full identity and character never quite becomes clear. This film became notorious for its sexually explicit nature (for its UK release, the British Board of Film Classification censored a scene in the film for its ‘clear implications of cunnilingus’.) The lovers’ affair becomes all the more unreal for its disarming physical emphasis; the sexual scenes seem surreal in their incongruity with the film’s original style, due to these scenes’ languid cinematography.

In Her, Samantha is physically unavailable; similarly, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) involves lovers whose relationship is defined through a disturbing absence. Antonioni’s film is also a precursor of the particular brand of existential quirkiness that defines Jonze’s work. Whilst on holiday amongst the Aeolian Islands, the melancholic Anna (Lea Massari), fiancée of Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), disappears without trace. Traumatised, Anna’s best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) initially resists the rather galling advances of Sandro, but then begins to respond, even as they search for Anna. Claudia comes to dread rather than anticipate Anna’s return, the irony of which she feels keenly. We remain unsure whether the relationship between Sandro and Claudia is a truly loving one, or whether they are drawn together through their mutual devastation at the loss of Anna.

Twombly’s crisis of personhood in Her is akin to that of character-hood in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993). Spanning over fifty years and set against the horror of both the Sino-Japanese war and the emergence of Communism in China, Dieyi’s (Leslie Cheung) love for Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) begins when his destitute mother sells him to a brutal Peking Opera training school. Dieyi and Xiaolou become best friends, and as adults find huge success as stars of the Peking Opera, where Xiaolou performs the role of an emperor, and Dieyi that of his loyal, female concubine. When Xiaolou goes on to marry, Dieyi’s love for Xiaolou continues off-stage; for him, their theatrical relationship is real. Some of the film’s most tender scenes between the two occur backstage, as Dieyi does Xiaolou’s makeup. For Dieyi, this physical transformation allows him to realise his fantasy of requited love, at least for the duration of a performance. Both Twombly and Dieyi, in spite of reality’s regular intrusions, cannot fail to believe.

Characters can suspend their disbelief even when they know the end before the beginning. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a prominent forerunner of Her in its cocktail of romance with a sci-fi twist, was doing the symbolic-blue-hair-thing long before Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013). Joel (Jim Carrey, here cast marvellously against type) is furious when he discovers that Clementine (Kate Winslet) has erased all memory of their relationship, thanks to a new form of neurological technology. He angrily decides to do the same, and for most of the film we are inside Joel’s head, watching as he changes his mind and attempts to cling, in vain, to his memories. What makes Eternal Sunshine so irresistibly cathartic is its implication that it is better to have loved and lost than never at all. The film also raises questions of fate and pre-destination: when Joel and Clementine meet again by chance, with no memory of one another, is fate insisting that they be together, or is their relationship doomed once more? Perhaps they will move through a never-ending cycle of living the same relationship ad infinitum, erasing it time and time again.

Amy Adams, as Twombly’s close friend (also named Amy), conjectures that love is a societally domesticated form of madness. The films above certainly expose love’s frequent daftness and irrationality. But love has a hold on its subjects unlike anything else, even when it is hopeless; it doesn’t matter that it’s not based on what’s possible. Maybe, then, the madness is what is truly real. As I weep into my well-worn hankie while watching Her, though, I’m sure I won’t really care either way.

L. Brown

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