There are many different reasons one might despise Valentine’s Day. Perhaps you’re single and bitter, and inexplicably hating Valentine’s Day just seems like the next logical step. Maybe you’re angry that love isn’t celebrated everyday (lame). Or perhaps you’re a communist raging against the commodification of an abstract, universally-felt emotion into a fake holiday used to enrich corporations and continue a cycle of mindless consumption!
One of the products that typically comes out of the Valentine’s Day factory is the big budget romantic comedy. A lot of people just want their love delivered in a package of perfect-looking actors, beachy settings, and happy endings, and I too am a fan of this. Sometimes you just want something simple, like a movie where Sandra Bullock plays an uptight executive at a book publishing company who blackmails her lowly assistant into marrying her so that she can keep her green card and stay in the U.S. for work instead of being deported back to Canada but then oops she falls in love with him (The Proposal, 2009).
There’s no sweeping gesture, no perfectly formulated structure, no story that ends as easily as it began.
But to this I say: No cutesy romantic comedies this year! We must embrace an Anti-Valentine’s spirit through our cinematic diets. I’ve assembled a list of films, categorized by subgenre, that are romantic in nature but retain an antithetic quality: they never do romance the easy way. There’s no sweeping gesture, no perfectly formulated structure, no story that ends as easily as it began. And what better way to revolt against this dumb fake holiday than to celebrate what’s real? Join me on this arduous journey, where we only watch movies that are crushingly realistic in their portrayals of romance.
Subgenre #1: Some Good Old-Fashioned Sadness!
Valentine’s Day is generally supposed to be a happy day, so the best way to counter this is to watch something that is very, very sad. The films I’ve chosen feature a romantic narrative that, at best, will make you teary-eyed, and at worst, are downright distressing. Films like these typically feature couples who are mismatched, or whose union is endangered by family, society, or distance. If you like to cry on Valentine’s Day, then at least do it because you’re watching one of these heartbreaking movies.
Picks: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), The Way We Were (1973), Atonement (2009), Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Subgenre #2: Great, Now I Have Trust Issues
Ah, lies and deceit. The bedrock of every great romance. The reason I’m recommending these for Anti-Valentine’s is because they all center around a romance that is complicated by an unusual romantic premise: maybe one of the love interests is a sociopath, maybe the couple is concealing the true nature of their relationship, maybe one of them is just a figment of the other’s imagination. These films dutifully explore how love requires deep trust, and the consequences that occur when that trust is breached. Super fun.
Picks: Double Indemnity (1944), In A Lonely Place (1950), Days of Heaven (1978), An Education (2009), Ruby Sparks (2012)
Subgenre #3: This Movie Is Very Upsetting. Throw Some Songs in There!
If you’re a fan of musicals like I am, then you know that a lot of them are devastating, but the trauma they inflict is inescapable because the songs are always so goddamn catchy. Some people find musicals overly cheerful or abhor them because they wrongly think the music disrupts the narrative — In these films, it’s what heightens their emotional punch.
Picks: West Side Story (1961), Funny Girl (1968), Moulin Rouge (2001), Once (2007), Cold War (2018)
Subgenre #4: You Thought This Was Gonna Be a Regular Rom-Com, Didn’t You?
These are films with romantic and comedic elements that never quite reach rom-com status. They’re my favourite kind, because they typically forgo (or subvert) classic genre tropes in search of further realism: there’s rarely an elaborate meet-cute, gender conventions are questioned or subverted, and the typical romcom structure is either manipulated or not followed at all. Films like these ask us to think a little bit harder about the expectations set by romantic cinema.
Picks: Lars and the Real Girl (2007), 500 Days of Summer (2009), Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012), Let The Sunshine In (2017)
Subgenre #5: Emotionally Draining Marital Strife
I’m sorry to say this, but I absolutely love movies where married couples fight for two hours. There’s something fascinating about a marital breakdown; even if a marriage is built on mutual love and respect, institutionalized ideas of how married couples should be — codependent, patriarchal, family-oriented — often create tension that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Some of these films make funny observations about marriage, while others demonstrate how resentment can grow from its constraints. All make for excellent anti-Valentine’s movies.
Picks: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), War of the Roses (1989), Blue Valentine (2010), Before Midnight (2013), Force Majeure (2014)
Subgenre #6: Angst, But Make It Sexy
These movies are lush! They are sensual! Sometimes they have sex scenes and sometimes they don’t even need them! In a film like this, something as innocent as passing someone on a narrow staircase or walking around the Italian seaside becomes deeply eroticized. The characters use sexual desire to compensate for inarticulable feelings, but in the case of others, sexual tension arises when a character can’t (or won’t) act on sexual desire. That’s where these movies find their distinct brand of moodiness.
Picks: Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958), In The Mood For Love (2000), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), A Bigger Splash (2015)