So often is cinema our first glimpse of life — of falling in love, of growing old or of experiencing loss. All major milestones in life have been cataloged by film, categorized into right and wrong, how we should react and how we shouldn’t. Movies were my first introduction to empathy: It’s beautiful that they can act as stand-ins for experiences, allowing us to live a hundred separate lives in one lifetime.
Growing up, my idea of love was taught to me by Pixar or Disney movies. They follow classic tropes — of course, there is some experimentation, but there are only happy endings with linear storylines. In the Disney movies I watched growing up, the antagonist is always external; the big bad villain, the evil godmother or the vengeful spirit. That’s not to say those movies didn’t have nuance. I think 5-year-old me learned a lot about storytelling from “The Lion King” and “Finding Nemo.” “The Lion King” was my first introduction to death, loss and betrayal — heavy-handed tropes for a child, but interesting and engaging. Great writing has no age limit, and the cartoons of my childhood became the basis for a lot of my emotional knowledge.
As I entered adolescence, it seemed that the awkwardness experienced by people in that middle stage of life extended to the genre of movies sold to teens. There isn’t much substance in teen movies — mostly centered on rebellion and angst, most of the “teenage” films or rom-coms aim toward an audience far more mature than the infantile characters in the films. The happenings seem large but are trivial, which works well for themes of exploration and the idea of “coming-of-age.” What teen dramas are able to portray accurately is the very real experience of something inconsequential feeling large and serious — exactly what life as an adolescent is like.
Now, as a college student and film major, the films I watch are slightly more experimental. The first that comes to mind as I think about love is “Les Chansons d’amour” — a riff on the classic Hollywood musical, which I had the joy of watching in a film class last semester. It follows three characters in Paris as they navigate their complicated romantic and sexual relationships with one other. It’s beautiful for its whimsicality, and it’s almost fascinating to observe how the typical musical format works in conjunction with this unconventional storyline.
Perhaps the best part of the film is its ending — having experienced loss and spending much of the film trying to seek the missing companionship in others, the protagonist Ismaël (Louis Garrel) regards his latest lover with an unbelievable sense of maturity. Ismaël tells him to “love him less but love him for a long time,” and the film closes on the two characters in their own carefully constructed space. There is no promise of a future or a commitment to happiness. Instead, we are presented with realism, the examination of grief and a soft take on love that doesn’t need to play by any rules.
The film received criticism for being distracted, and I agree that it felt awkward in parts. I’m not used to watching musicals, and to see characters engaging in serious conversation accompanied by dark, muted cinematography, only to suddenly break out in song is a little jarring. That being said, it’s a film I can’t ever forget because it presented love and sexuality in a world without rules or conventions, reminding me that there are greater problems than what other people think. The beauty of “Les Chansons d’amour” is how well it captures the freedom of youth — something I’ve never seen in a film before.
As principles of love change in cinema, I observe them changing in my own life, evolving from simplistic to nuanced, from that of a child to that of an adult. Love exists in a hundred different facets and dimensions, and so often, I see film reduce its existence to solely romantic, heterosexual and monogamous. I think about the hundreds of cinema-goers and movie watchers like myself who have lived and continue to live vicariously through film. I love learning about love from film, and I cherish the few movies that tackle love in all of its dimensions.
Megha Ganapathy writes the Monday A&E column on learning and growing from experiences with art. Contact her at [email protected].