Movies about love aren't exactly a new phenomenon: cinema was practically invented to explore the inner mysteries of the human heart. These stories typically take the form of light comedy or pat drama or, every now and again, arbitrary tragedy (these movies are mostly European). But a recent wave of indie filmmakers have begun to reinvent the romance by exploring love's most overlooked element: how truly painful it can be.
This week's Double Feature pairs two films that dare to present love as complicated, mysterious and ultimately wonderful — as we all know it to be: Shane Carruth's Upstream Color (2013) and Andrew Haigh's Weekend (2011).
Upstream Color — a below-the-radar masterpiece if there ever was one — is nearly impossible to summarize without ruining the series of surprises that makes the film so powerful, but here goes! An uptight, white collar woman named Kris (You're Next's Amy Seimetz) is mugged and robbed by a mysterious man with highly bizarre methods. Then, while trying to get her life back together, Kris finds herself mysteriously bonded to a stranger named Jeff (played by the film's writer/director Shane Carruth) who'd undergone a nearly identical trauma.
Blue grubs, secret laboratories, frightened farm animals, rare orchids, uncannily memorized passages from Walden: all factor into the mystery surrounding what happened to these wounded people and how it will affect their tenuous friendship and blossoming romance. But is their love a genuine connection between soulmates, or is it something owed to outside forces? Needless to say, Upstream Color doesn't shy away from love's most profound mysteries. Anyone familiar with Carruth's previous film, the mind-bending sci-fi thriller Primer, should appreciate the aggressively cryptic imagery he uses to illustrate the sheer terror of being in love.
Weekend is another small film made for a limited audience, but its immediate impact as a critical success had more to do with the fact that there simply hadn't ever been a gay romance this well-observed before. Writer/director Andrew Haigh is the man behind the very zeitgeisty new series Looking and there's a definite stylistic through-line. Perhaps unfairly pigeonholed as mumblecore, Weekend tells the story of two days in the life of strangers who become much more than that. Russell (Downton Abbey's Tom Cullen) is a slightly buttoned-down wallflower uncomfortable with gay culture's bigger stereotypes. His chance encounter with the much more free-spirited Glen (Chris New) leads to a weekend of philosophizing, pot-smoking, and intimacy — both sexual and otherwise.
Owing much to slow-burning (and shockingly affecting) talk-a-thons like Before Sunrise, Weekend presents two very real, very identifiable characters and makes us care deeply about their burgeoning relationship. When a nasty argument threatens to derail everything, it actually hurts to watch. And then in the end when — oh, I can't say what happens, but it's somehow both quietly devastating and wonderful in ways you may not expect.
Let's be real: This time of year is just so love-ridden. But as much as we can all get behind a light romantic comedy, it's films like Upstream Color and Weekend that properly illustrate how fraught and intense it can be to give one's heart to another. That these movies embrace angst and confusion almost to the degree of unbearability isn't a knock against the more traditional light romance genre; it's an endorsement. Despite the horror and sadness and inherent mysteries involved, both films suggest that love is simply worth it.
Price Peterson is a comedy writer and TV recapper from Los Angeles, California. His work currently appears on Vulture, TV.com, and The Atlantic Wire.
[Photo Credit: erbp / Glendale Picture Company]