The Cinema of Romances

Pic: Dorje De Burgh

David Turpin is a screenwriter (The Lodgers, The Winter Lake) and musician, as The Late David Turpin.  With the release of his new album Romances – a collaboration with a ‘cast’ of ten different guest singers that was inspired by his work in film – David discusses five unusual cinematic love stories that have been influential on his own work.

 

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

See My Own Private Idaho at the right age, and it’s with you for life.  Gus Van Sant’s best film is many things – a sympathetic portrait of young people on the fringes; a palimpsest of Shakespeare’s Henry IV; a road movie as deeply affecting as Paris, Texas – but most of all, it’s an extraordinarily tender and melancholy unrequited love story. River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves are one of the most iconic couples of the 1990s, precisely because they don’t fit together – and because this is evident to everybody (both in the film and watching it), except for Phoenix’s poignantly guileless hero. The justly famous campfire scene between the leads is one of cinema’s most moving depictions of the insufficiency of words to express feeling. It’s beautifully played by Phoenix, of course, but it’s also worth noting that Reeves’ dependable air of benign obliviousness was never better – or more tragically – used than here.

 

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Peter Strickland’s rarefied love story takes place in a world without men, where lepidopterologists Cynthia and Evelyn (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna) conduct a relationship defined by ritualised performances of dominance and submission. The film’s genius lies in how its surface – impeccably evoking the misty, sapphically-fixated ‘eurotica’ of the mid-1970s – both conceals and illuminates its inner meaning. Unlike the ‘Eurotrash’ it invokes, The Duke of Burgundy is a deeply humane and moving story about the ways in which we abnegate ourselves for our lovers – and the fear of failing to sufficiently embody others’ desires. The reversal of roles, in which we come to understand the ‘dominant’ partner (Knudsen) as imprisoned by the desires of her ‘subordinate’ (D’Anna), is one of erotic cinema’s most astute, and moving, deconstructions of its own myths. The Duke of Burgundy is both a wholesale work of onanistic fantasy, and its own opposite.

 

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

Based on a florid bestseller by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is, in many ways, the quintessential 1940s melodrama – not least for its touching faith in the power of psychotherapy. It’s also the perfect vehicle for Bette Davis, whose transformation from drab ‘Aunt Charlotte’ to glamorous ‘Miss Vale’ is achieved via The Talking Cure and some truly spectacular hats. As Jerry – the married man to whom she becomes close while visiting Rio de Janeiro – Paul Henreid judges his performance perfectly. In other words, he understands that this is Davis’ show. What makes Now, Voyager more than an exquisite piece of camp (although it is that too) is its genuine wisdom. Charlotte and Jerry cannot ultimately be together (‘Don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars!’ Davis exclaims), but their romance has made each of them better able to accept their course in life.  It’s a touching affirmation of love as the path to self-knowledge, however long the affair itself may last.

 

The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

The Fly is a marvel of dramatic economy featuring only four significant roles – the central couple (Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum) and a pair of potential love rivals (John Getz and Joy Boushel). The romance between unworldly Seth Brundle and no-nonsense Veronica Quaife may have been helped by the fact that Goldblum and Davis were a couple at the time, but it’s also written with warmth and empathy, as well as the razor-concision one expects from Cronenberg. We all remember the inside-out baboon, the acid-vomit, and the leprous body-parts on the bathroom shelf, but what’s striking about The Fly is the humanity and eroticism that peeks out between these gruesome highlights – as delicate as the stocking used to test the telepod device.  Although Cronenberg has been cagey about the film being read as an AIDS metaphor, its story of a couple facing disease – and the transformation of the afflicted into a social pariah and object of fear – has powerful resonance emerging the year after the first HIV antibody test was developed.

 

La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

My favourite screen romance is Jean Cocteau’s exquisite adaptation of Perrault’s 18th-century fairy tale. Plundered by two Disney versions (animated in 1991; notionally ‘live action’ in 2017) that rinsed it of its eroticism and mystery, Cocteau’s still glows like a strange and lonely star.  Its uncanny visual highlights – living candelabras, the still-shocking appearance of the Beast himself (Jean Marais) – have the force of dreams, but Cocteau also finds magic in the everyday (as in the scenes of Belle hanging white sheets on the washing line). Josette Day plays Belle with self-possession, essential decency, and no trace of the ‘goody-goody’. One can actually see why she and the Beast fall in love – and Cocteau’s own celebration of Marais (his own long-time companion) is a romance in its own right. This is the only version of the story to get to the heart of the matter when – after the hairy wooer is transformed into human form – Belle asks, with a telling hint of deflation, ‘Where is my beast?’.

 

www.thelatedavidturpin.com 

Romances can be streamed/downloaded from Bandcamp at thelatedavidturpin.bandcamp.com/album/romances

 

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