As anyone who has watched nearly any animated Disney film knows, romance and fantasy fit splendidly together. The dizzying rapture of love manifests physically in elements that are very much not of this world. It becomes at once familiar and strange, frightening and yet enticing, and, more than anything else, magical. It can communicate the rhapsodic pleasure or the utter loneliness; the temptation to stray or the inevitability of happy forever after. In committing totally to what logic dictates is an unreasonable impulse, it better reflects our inner certainties about the volatility of our emotional lives.
So, in anticipation (and you’d better believe I’m looking forward to it) of Akiva Goldsman’s Winter’s Tale, here are, in my view, the ten greatest romantic fantasy films – those that commit in large part to a love story, but nevertheless include a healthy dose of the fantastic within them.
10.) The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
As someone who is perhaps not the greatest admirer of Woody Allen’s films, The Purple Rose of Cairo sits somewhere between the more obtrusively dark, nihilistic worldview that sinks some of his more serious efforts and the fleeting lightness of those films of his that I admire most (I may be alone in considering Midnight in Paris one of his finest, but, you know, what are you going to do). The Purple Rose of Cairo has as much lightness and whimsy as a premise can possibly withstand – the hero of a popular movie steps off the screen to fall in love with the woman who comes to see his film every day – and yet twists it into something that potently explores duality, heartbreak, longing, and melancholy. In other words, the interior, personal experience of going to the movies.
9.) Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Aside from a pretty intense Aladdin phase in first grade, I’ve never had the strong attachment to Disney films that so many others have found, and it wasn’t until seeing Jean Cocteau’s surreal rendering of the famous fairy tale that I understood what appealed, emotionally, to so many of my peers. Cocteau’s vision is playful and haunting, fully able to exploit the archetypal feel of a fairy tale with broadly-drawn characters and unapologetic emotional outbursts. Cocteau, for all his surrealism, felt at heart to be a romantic – always longing, dreaming, and suffusing his films with a full beating heart.
8.) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)
It’s strange to recall the controversies that greet films upon their arrival. This warm, deeply sympathetic film was felt too cold, its wide-eyed protagonist too passive. But who among us truly charts his own destiny? We are lucky to make a few life-changing decisions, then suffer the consequences or reap the fortunes. The love story that guides so much of this odd, epically intimate film is overwhelmingly affecting, heart-wrenching in its specificity (putting together one’s first shared apartment while dancing to The Beatles) and gorgeously moving at its most general. Oh, for a lifetime of a danced seduction, or even a moment to meet in complete harmony.
7.) Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)
Beating Frank Capra’s eventual holiday classic by a few years, Lubitsch even takes his this-is-your-life premise a step further – by having the character damn himself. Henry van Cleve (Don Ameche) shows up at the gates of Hell, ready to spend his life in damnation, but Satan (Laird Cregar) isn’t quite so sure he’s up to snuff. And so, he tells the story of his life, how his spoiled upbringing made him into a skirt-chaser, black sheep of his upper-class family and, even after marrying the only woman he was willing to fight for, eventual adulterer. Lubitsch and frequent screenwriter Samson Raphaelson’s real magic here is in finding something wonderful about every life, how our errors are so often a reflection of our passion, our flaws the very mark of our humanity, and the potential one person can hold to make us strive every day to be better.
6.) Donkey Skin (Jacques Demy, 1970)
If ever there was a filmmaker perfectly suited to the fairy tale, it is Jacques Demy. And what an odd fairy tale he has chosen. Adapted from a work by Charles Perrault, it starts with a rather alarming premise – a king, who promised his late wife he would only remarry should he find a woman more beautiful than her, finds no other recourse than to wed his own daughter (Catherine Deneuve). She, much alarmed by this proposition, chooses instead to run away, disguising herself in the titular hide, and lives a lowly life amongst some villagers until, indeed, her Prince arrives. A healthy dose of comedy, similar to the next film on this list (a old farmer who insists on being called “Old Woman” and continuously spits frogs goes a long way in this regard), but is driven most of all by Demy’s unabashed adoration for the purity of romantic pursuits. A few lovely musical numbers, courtesy of frequent collaborator Michel Legrand, makes this soar.
5.) The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987)
I have to admit, it has been many many years side I have had the pleasure of wandering about Rob Reiner’s masterpiece, but I am equally certain that its seductive sweetness and almost sickeningly-fine wit have dulled not a bit. I saw this film first in eighth grade, more than a little resistant to any film with the word “bride” in it, and again in late high school, having already suffered an eternity of constant reminders as to the film’s apparent “quotability” (if ever there was a less successful way to convey a film’s quality, I beseech you, keep it to yourself), and both times left completely charmed and practically soaring on the air of love not idealized, but simply perfect. That it makes the effort to put a little bite into its humor only sweetens the sugar.
4.) The Devil’s Eye (Ingmar Bergman, 1960)
Ingmar Bergman was never really afraid to looping in supernatural elements into his dramas, but he typically left his comedies fairly earthbound, amused enough by the folly of man without having to rope the Devil into it. And yet, here the man himself appears, upset by the placement of a stye in his peeper because a woman is set to be married, while – *gasp!* – still a virgin! So he recruits Don Juan himself (played here by Jarl Kulle) to seduce the young woman (Bibi Andersson), tearing down not only her physical purity but also that of her total belief in love. The young woman is a great deal more charming than expected, and Don Juan quickly falls for her, but also a good deal more worldly, already accustomed to the arguments that accompany a couple, yet still very much in love with the man. It is strange that Bergman would be the one to reinforce the sanctity of romance, even by way of its faults, but then, what other kind of romance is there? And who could possibly disbelieve in love’s redemptive power in the face of Andersson?
3.) & 2.) The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006) & Love Unto Death (Alain Resnais, 1984)
These two films suddenly made sense to discuss together, as both concern the problem of being tied in every conceivable way – emotionally, spiritually, and physically – to another person as they approach and eventually confront death, and both Aronofsky and Resnais explore the question in fascinating, daring, and haunting ways. For Aronofsky, his hero is a man (Hugh Jackman), who is also a scientist, so desperate to cure his wife (Rachel Weisz) that he barely realizes he’s losing her, both of them imaging worlds that gradually intersect with their own. For Resnais, his protagonist is a woman (Sabine Azéma), not so far into a relationship with an older man (Pierre Arditi), yet consumed enough by their love that his death and resurrection are more than a little troubling for her. And he does seem to stare off into the horizon a lot more than he used to. Neither of these films’ central characters can imagine a life without their love, which is essentially the primary goal of such a thing; and yet, when we lose the one we love the most, we are expected to do an appropriate amount of grieving and then get on with life. But what is so damn bearable of living as a half, forever missing the whole you once had? Both films ask an awful lot of tough questions, present certainties we are not accustomed to facing, and ultimately haunt us with doubts as to the very purpose of life itself.
1.) Joe Versus the Volcano (John Patrick Shanley, 1990)
There’s something like everything, yet there’s nothing quite like Joe Versus the Volcano, which layers a romantic comedy with questions about mortality, our place in the universe, heroism, and faith. Or perhaps it layers those questions with the romantic comedy. So unabashedly romantic that it barely has time to worry for realism, it doesn’t dip its toes fully into the realm of fantasy but in a few places, yet there remains something so utterly fantastic about it. The almost Satanic office environment Joe (Tom Hanks) has to contend with as the film opens. The way the lights, all different colors, dance about the New York skyline. A shipwreck sequence that squeezes all of the agony and terror of ten All is Losts into a handful of minutes, and emerges with one of the most potent and moving visions of the spiritual dimension put to film. Oh, yeah, and a thousands-years old curse that haunts a tiny Pacific island, only relieved if one man willfully throws himself into the local volcano. Pretty fantastic, after all.