The Road Home (2001) There's a scene in Zhang Yimou's luminous, poetic, exquisitely restrained love story in which the strong-willed young heroine (Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi) makes a desperate cross-country dash after a departing wagon on a winding rural road, carrying an earthenware bowl of dumplings.
The dumplings were made for the handsome young teacher she hopes to marry — but he, of course, has left without them. Her only hope is to catch up with the wagon by heading it off at the next pass — or the one after that.
The film knows that, to a young girl hopelessly in love, this race is no grandly romantic gesture.
It's a matter of desperate necessity. She must, must catch the wagon; he must have the dumplings. Her future happiness depends upon it. All is lost if she fails.
The Road Home is about love acutely desired in youth and fiercely remembered in old age.
In between are 40 years of marriage, but we never see the couple together. We first meet the heroine as a widow making plans for her husband's funeral, insisting with characteristic single-mindedness on the traditional hand-carrying of the casket. Then we revisit their unconventional courtship in a lengthy flashback narrated by the couple's adult son. Delicately simple and emotionally satisfying.
Content advisory: References to traditional Chinese practices and beliefs. In Chinese with subtitles.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) There are better love stories, but Cyrano de Bergerac is arguably the greatest celebration of the romantic spirit. It's perfect St. Valentine's Day fare, for Cyrano himself is the ultimate hopeless romantic — romantic for his idealistic principles and irrepressible panache but hopeless, alas, because of the unfortunate nose that he is sure forever disqualifies him as the romantic lead.
Despite numerous cinematic adaptations (including Steve Martin's cute romantic-comedy update Roxanne) the definitive Cyrano is probably Jean-Paul Rappeneau's boisterous, full-blooded film, with France's greatest actor, Gerard Depardieu, making the part forever his own.
With his ample girth and power-house performance, Depardieu dominates every scene, credibly taking on scores of adversaries at once while delivering Cyrano author Edmond Ralston's iambic pentameter (nicely rendered into rhyming English subtitles by Anthony Burgess). He's all three musketeers rolled into one; he can improvise satiric verse while dueling yet becomes tongue-tied in the presence of his beautiful distant cousin Roxane (Anne Brochet), his ideal muse.
Then, when Roxane confesses to him her infatuation with a handsome but shallow young cadet (Vincent Perez), Cyrano shows his love the only way he can.
With a balcony scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet juxtaposed with battle scenes that would seem more at home in a production of Richard III, Cyrano is a saga only a Frenchman could have written.
Content advisory: Swashbuckling violence and battle scenes; romantic complications. In Italian with subtitles.
Holiday (1938) Why is The Philadelphia Story so well known while the equally unforgettable Holiday, from the same director, writers and leads, suffers comparative neglect?
Both are romantic comedies — or comedic romances? — starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, directed by George Cukor and written by Donald Ogden Stewart from Philip Barry stage plays. With their light comic touch, romantic complications and class consciousness, both films superficially resemble screwball comedy, yet neither is quite screwball.
The lack of bizarre situations and outlandish behavior, the nuanced, sympathetic characterizations and the rich, resonant dialogue all set them apart from screwball classics such as Bringing Up Baby or My Man Godfrey.
Where Philadelphia Story is more satiric, Holiday is more compassionate and bittersweet. Its premise — working-class man falls in love with society heiress — might be familiar, but the film eschews such plot mechanics as comic misunderstandings and elaborate deceptions.
The story begins with Johnny Case (Grant) discovering the truth about the Seton family fortune, and it never looks back.
Even when Johnny's intended insists that he wear a borrowed tie to meet her father and Daddy recognizes the tie, there's no attempted cover-up — just a cheerful admission of the truth. (Even The Philadelphia Story had its “Uncle Willy” piffle.)
Dialogue and characterizations are note-perfect, and the story never missteps. This is one of the great ones.
Content advisory: Romantic complications; semi-comic inebriation.