In Mike Mills’ 2010 film Beginners, a retired and recently widowed art historian and museum curator, Hal (Christopher Plummer), decides to come out as a gay man months before his death. Later, in the wake of his loss, the curator’s son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is forced to reckon with his father’s self-denial of love and, especially, how it might have had an impact on his own life. Struggling to articulate his thoughts and make sense of his father’s final few months learning about love, we hear the young protagonist of Mills’ film proclaim flatly: “This is what love looks like.”
These words are strikingly accompanied by a series of collage shots, a multiplicity of photographs and generic images representing romance as a commodity - sunny, saccharine and inauthentic. Mills’ protagonist is searching for an understanding of love, but the stock imagery with which he associates it is starkly irreconcilable with what his father has taught him: love, more often than not, is the strangest and most indefinable emotion of all.
While the cosy, familiar imagery of love can be found throughout Western culture, it has been greatly perpetuated by Hollywood, particularly in the avalanche of romcoms that tend to be released around Valentine’s Day. But these predictable and inauthentic representations have their antidotes, arguably, in interesting examples of what we might call “alternative romcoms”; films that go against the grain and offer very different reflections on romance and its more unconventional guises.
Like Mills’ offbeat and bittersweet drama, Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Chan-wook Park’s I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006) and Paul Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip (2009) give us unconventional but thoroughly persuasive tales of love. All use humour in subtle ways that defy our expectations, shattering our ideas of romance through laughter, surrealism and visual innovation.
What is striking about all these films is that they provide skewed representations of romantic couplings, and explore highly unusual forms of relationships, yet still seem far more authentic than all the generic join-the-dots narratives associated with Valentine’s Day, thereby leading viewers to rethink their own conception of love. As Beginners suggests, any attempt at representing love is a misguided gesture, destined to fail. Since the real issue of love is an existential one, the best films on the subject also call into question what it means to be human.
Although they both deal in heterosexual relationships, albeit of a bizarre and extreme kind, Lars and the Real Girl and I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK offer truly original depictions of romance held together by humour and quirky, unconventional narratives - alternative romcoms that are revelatory in their conception of love owing precisely to their perverse reconfiguration of it.
Set in a Scandinavian-inflected Minnesota that reflects the immigrant origins of its community, Lars and the Real Girl tells the story of an introverted young man (Ryan Gosling) whose romantic attachment to “Bianca”, a life-sized doll (originally a sex toy), is reluctantly accepted, and eventually encouraged, by all around him. Bianca is more of a therapeutic aid than a sexual one and her incongruous presence enables Lars to learn to love.
While the premise of Gillespie’s film sounds farcical, it moves in much more subtle and cerebral directions, putting to good use the humour of the absurd situation without ever undermining the severity of Lars’ emotional pain (coming to terms with the death of the mother he lost in childbirth), his loneliness and inability to make meaningful contact with less artificially fabricated beings. These sentiments are echoed visually throughout the film: Gillespie frames Lars and Bianca as equals and uses the wood-panelled, softly lit interiors to create warmth and lightness, countering, and perhaps soothing, the intensely painful inner world Lars clearly inhabits. Lars and the Real Girl is not a conventional romcom by any means, but it combines humour and an offbeat take on romance to probe troubling notions of love, its cultivation and loss. And despite the woman-object at the centre of the story, it is not at all misogynistic. Indeed, it is the flesh-and-blood women in the film, notably Patricia Clarkson’s therapist and Emily Mortimer as Lars’ sister, who hold the narrative together, investing it with intelligence and wit.
Across the world in South Korea, Il-soon Park, the male protagonist of I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (played by the actor Rain), is in love with Young- goon Cha, a fellow patient in a psychiatric hospital (Soo-jung Im). But their romance is hampered by the fact that she thinks she is a machine. Plugging herself into sockets in an attempt to “recharge” herself, the former production-line worker is rather like an inversion of Gillespie’s Bianca, a character who is as much an object as a protagonist. The film could be seen partly as a critique of capitalism and the faceless labourers whose lives might as well be plugged into the machinery they operate, but it is also about the ethics of love, the responsibility of caring for someone other than ourselves and the limits of trust: Young- goon would rather be a cyborg than open herself up to the potential heartbreak of love.
The cinematic explorations of love evoked by the narratives of Beginners, Lars and the Real Girl and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK all use humour and offbeat scenarios to raise deeper questions about human relationships, but in addition to these unlikely Valentine’s tales, one of the most unusual romantic films recently released focuses not on humans but on the love that can exist between animals and their owners. A buddy movie and romcom like no other, Fierlinger’s animated film My Dog Tulip is based on the 1956 memoir of the same name, in which author and editor J.R. Ackerley describes his intense devotion to his German shepherd. We hear him fondly musing on every moment of Tulip’s inquisitive life, from favourite lamp posts to failed attempts at mating, as he comes to love his dog more deeply than any human he has ever encountered. My Dog Tulip reminds us how closely humour is intertwined with love - what we love makes us laugh and vice versa.
As Beginners makes clear, cinema can be truthful about love in the unlikeliest places and humour is an essential part of its formulation. Of course, Lars and the Real Girl, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK and My Dog Tulip are not to be taken literally: love is not, for most of us, a romance with a cyborg, a relationship with a sex doll or an intense sense of kinship with a dog. But their images sharpen our sense of love precisely because it is their unfamiliarity, their absurd couplings, that provide a way of exploring what love could be.