There's something very pure — and, admittedly, very telling — about a cinephile's first movie crush. Films have the power to reveal so much about our tastes, and for a new generation of cinephiles raised on a steady diet of early-aughts rom-coms and international indies, the slate of films feel more surprising than ever before. For October, the month of Pleasure, my friends and I discuss the films that shaped our definitions of desire and romance ... for better and for worse.
Music and Lyrics (2007)
Music and Lyrics is the quintessential, perfect, breathless rom-com for me. Alex (the music) and Sophie (the lyrics) fall for each other as they write a song for the biggest pop star, and in the process realize that they can only love if they are authentic and honest with each other. As they make their art, they open up about their hang-ups and hopes in a way few other rom-com couples do. I literally came up with “the pass” because Alex and Sophie prove that miscommunicating to the point of lying and cheating are not essential rom-com tropes! And when Alex sings “Don’t Write Me Off Just Yet” to Sophie at Madison Square Garden, I know that there just might be a way back into love, too. (Rebecca Radillo)
Becoming Jane (2007)
2007 was a good year for James McAvoy. He did Atonement in 2007; he touched the water that Keira Knightley had touched because at the moment that was the closest he could get to touching her. He did other things too, in Atonement. Incredibly sexy things. Things I can’t repeat in good conscience — but I wouldn’t see those things until much later. First, I saw Becoming Jane. And I can admit that, on my first watch, I couldn’t fully understand the way that McAvoy’s Tom Lefroy was making me feel. I was still tethered to the image of him as that red-cheeked faun in The Chronicles of Narnia. I had always loved him, but it was the sort of love you might reserve for a crush that’s much, much older than you: innocent, deferential, and lacking any kind of heat or longing whatsoever.
There’s a scene in Becoming Jane though — where Tom encounters Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) in a library and recites a particularly loaded passage from the book in his hands — that changed my mind nearly instantly.
It doesn’t really matter what the passage entails (though, for the record, it’s still pretty scandalous). What matters is the way he delivers it. McAvoy’s pattern of speech is maddeningly sensual; his lips so pink; his eyes so please-buy-him-brown-contacts blue. He could read the dictionary and it’d come off like a seduction. It helps that so many of his mannerisms, however innocent, seem poised for that very task. He smirks in that way that worldly boys do with hopelessly naive girls: every remark is a tease. Desire is coming off of him in waves, and that in turn ignites the desire in Jane … and my God do I miss watching actors with genuine chemistry. Two people talking in a room will always be hot so long as James McAvoy is one of those people, and Becoming Jane is chock full of James McAvoy and all his latent, sexy talking. I'd say he made me the woman I am today, a woman that finds veiled soliloquies about sex more evocative than the act itself — but we all seemed to have the same reaction to that viral clip from Cyrano, so I don’t think I really have to. (Lyvie Scott)
The Last Samurai (2003)
Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is barely alive; a pitiful, guilt-driven man keeping himself awake during the day via meagerly-paid war crime theatrical reenactments that fund his alcoholism; recruited to snuff out the remaining samurai of Japan. And in 2003, as a highly critical kid on the precipice of becoming a young adult with real opinions, I hoped that he would indeed succumb to the ghosts of his past. But then, I watched this beautifully scored and shot film make a case for his life.
Nathan is routinely beaten up for sport as a prisoner of the samurai, sickened from alcoholism withdrawal, and gradually integrated into the community on the social and military front as Katsumoto’s (Ken Watanabe) conversation partner, as house guest of Taka (Koyuki), the widow of the man Algren kills in the first act, and ultimately, as a soldier. His recovery and slowly-built ease into this newly cherished land has unleashed a light from within. His hair is conditioned. His cheeks take on a rosy color under the cherry blossoms. Sometimes, he helps Taka’s kids laugh and remember joy. Sometimes, Taka laughs, too.
And finally, we arrive at the day of the fateful battle of the samurai. Algren will fight and possibly die alongside the last of them. We have a sensationally scored preparation and meditation montage; a perfect lead-in to a nonverbal sequence of Taka mournfully adorning Nathan in her late husband’s vestments.
Nathan stands still, stunned by this unexpected honor and kindness. She walks around him, draping the robes on him. When cued, he moves his hands to secure the fabric in place. She keeps her eyes focused on her work while the tears come, and he keeps his eyes on her. They are in sync. It’s charged. It’s intimate. It feels forbidden. The kiss they share to close the scene, though emotionally weighty, merely serves to signal that no, your eyes do not deceive: this was a love scene.
The Last Samurai was one of my earliest confrontations with the sensation of holding all of my political and ethical interrogations in one hand and, in the other, letting myself fall into a moving, raw moment between two people. As the decades have passed, initially rigid conversations about this film have incorporated some nuance, and I, too, have loved it more over time; the dressing scene between Cruise and Koyuki becoming an early embedded fixture of my film memories. (Shannon Jones)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
I was a tried and true Disney kid growing up — the natural result of having two parents that worked (and met!) at Disneyland. It’s no shock, then, that Sleeping Beauty was the first love story I loved and that Aurora was the first girl I loved. I used to gaze at her as she slept, utterly transfixed by how beautiful she was even in almost-death, and wonder why I wanted to be the one who woke her. It’s hard not to find a girl supernaturally gifted with beauty anything less than stunning. But when she waltzes with Philip in the forest, when she forgets her godmothers’ overbearing rules and he his responsibilities as Prince, one thing is confirmed: the only way to fall in love with a beautiful girl is to sing and dance with her. (R.R.)
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
It should be known that Takeshi Kaneshiro is a total pervert in House of Flying Daggers. He plays the kind of guy that’s frequently overcome by his own passion, and indulges in that passion in ways that feel dubious, at best. But House of Flying Daggers is the sort of twisty, erotic romance that doesn’t end until its heroes are humbled just a little bit. It helps when you realize that director Zhang Yimou is making a statement about toxic masculinity through his character — and through Andy Lau, playing the stiff-lipped hottie that fights Takeshi for Zhang Ziyi.
The love triangle fueling this lush, ridiculous film is sometimes very sexy, sometimes a little problematic. I didn’t know any of that the first time I watched the film, of course. I was much too young to pick up on the necessary nuance. All I knew was that Takeshi’s hair was long, his shoulders were broad, and he kissed Ziyi the way that Cary Grant and Gregory Peck used to kiss their leading ladies.
They make love in a field of pale green reeds; black hair cascades across white skin, speckled eventually with snow. To say this scene left an impression on my already impressionable mind would be the understatement of understatements. It’d be more accurate to say that it imprinted on me: there’s a space in my brain reserved for this scene specifically. For a time it pretty much defined sexuality; it defined pleasure for longer still.
Now, I realize the pursuit of pleasure doesn’t have to be so urgent, so immediate. Blind lust is just a cautionary tale; in House of Flying Daggers, it precludes a fight to the death. Men like Takeshi's Captain Jin likely wouldn’t have it any other way. But women like Ziyi’s Xiao Mei were caught in this endless storm of possession and passion. It's this weird balance of power that runs throughout House of Flying Daggers — but I love the film all the more knowing that it’s not only about wild desire. This might have been the first time I realized that horny films had the power to teach; to confront the very acts they were depicting. Sure, it’s gorgeous and sensual, but that’s not the only thing it has to offer. (L.S.)
Easy A (2010)
Growing up all I ever wanted was a storybook romance. To be the one prince charming chases after to return my glass slipper or fights a fire-breathing dragon to save me from some wretched curse. I had a million different daydreams about the moment when the suave chiseled heartthrob would find me, sweep me off my feet, and we’d ride off into the sunset together. That’s all a kid ever dreams of right? To one day find true love and have the most magical happy ever after? Sadly the culture of the early 2000s quickly shook that dream out of me and told me that I should be picturing myself as the dashing savior and not the soon-to-be princess. The Disney romance I dreamed of was not intended for a little queer kid like me so I had to find something different, something more practical.
I soon made new headway with teen dramas like Cruel Intentions, John Tucker Must Die, and Easy A. Those films taught me love was less like a fairytale and more like a game, a challenge, a bet. You can never just be yourself. One must always concoct a much cooler, mysterious, and witty alter ego to present to the world. This new self will garner a bunch of attention, leading to a storm of chaos, and then after the dust settles the love of your life comes into focus. What was supposed to be a harmless trope turned into my polluted instruction manual. Who knew if you adapted Shakespeare or Hawthorne for modern audiences they would learn all the wrong lessons? Not me.
Take Easy A for example. Olive is nonexistent in her high school’s class system. Then a small little lie about losing her virginity puts her name on everyone’s lips. Olive was just as disillusioned by the lies of 80s rom coms and tales of breathtaking romance as I was.
Seeing her perpetuate the wild rumors about her sexuality led me to think what the hell I should do the same. Not long after turning sixteen rather than just starting a rumor that I had sex I actually went out and did it. Word and attention spread fast, so I put on my strong new personality and went to work. Somehow I forgot about the second half of the film — you know, where you actually learn the lesson to just be yourself — and much like Olive I became somewhat of a pariah.
It took many years for me to figure life will never be like a movie. There is no three act structure guiding you to an utopian ending where every last thread is tied up in a sweet bow. I learned it’s alright to have a glamorized dream of what I want love to be, as long as I accept it’s just that. Forcing fake personas and idealizing a mythical love story is the basis of Gone Girl. No couple needs to be doing all that. Love is about finding someone to be utterly and completely yourself with. The second deception enters the picture, you’ve already lost. (Marty Millman)
The Holiday (2006)
I have no concept of how the general population feels about The Holiday, Nancy Meyers’ 2006 comedy about two women who swap houses and countries in the hopes of escaping their man problems. I only know how I feel about it — specifically, how I feel about Jude Law in it. To me, this was a life-changing performance; it’s difficult to emphasize just how not ready twelve-year-old me was for the range of feeling, one I’d never experienced before, that his presence in The Holiday inspired.
Law plays Graham, a book editor (amazing fake rom-com job) and brother to Kate Winslet’s Iris, who becomes enamored with Cameron Diaz’s neurotic, repressed Amanda. It’s his performance, full of so much easy, confident swagger, that lights the film up. He has gorgeous hair and speaks Meyers’ words in a silky purr and is, to Amanda’s surprise, a loving father to two young girls. (He’s a widower, of course.) He is perpetually and inexplicably sun-kissed, despite alleging that he spends his days in the English countryside. He teaches Amanda she actually is extremely good at sex, despite what her trifling ex-boyfriend told her, and cries when she tries to leave. I still remember being swept away watching him gently kiss each of her eyelids during their characters’ first encounter, which happens early in the film and sets up for a deeply horny time to come.
Law’s Graham is, yes, incredibly sexy in all of his soft sensitivity, but there’s also just something so appealing about watching such a beautiful man fall for someone with so many emotional walls up. I wouldn’t learn until a few years later, when I started getting into romantic comedies in earnest, how incredibly common their exact brand of couple — the sweet and carefree man and the clinically insane woman — is in this genre, but by that point it didn’t matter. I’d already had my sexual awakening, courtesy of Mr. Napkin Head. (Allison Picurro)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Oh… Brokeback Mountain. I wish I knew how to quit you, too. The first gay movie I watched as a young, freshly-out lesbian in 2014. I knew immediately after watching Jack and Ennis fall for each other despite their homophobic communities and the secrecy their love required that there would be no greater love than that found in tragedies. Watching their first intimate encounter in their tent in the dead of night and their hard-fought for reunions on Brokeback left me awestruck at how much two people could love each other. I mean, was I supposed to react with anything other than total empathy and sadness when Ennis cradles Jack’s bloody shirt in his arms and cries, wishing he could hold his lover one last time? (R.R.)
Amélie found me in the most organic way possible: I was a French student and someone told me it was good. From my first watch, I remembered the blistering pace of stories from the past finding their way to the present, scenes draped in what seemed to me like a perpetual sunset, a gorgeous score in which each song felt like a child taking its first steps, and the sensation of a hand in a pile of grains. There is a love story between its protagonist (Audrey Tautou) who only sees herself as the hero in others’ stories, never her own; and Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a collector of faces of sorts, keeping photobooth rejects as souvenirs and spooking people at his amusement park gig. Two observers who find each other through coincidence and, ultimately, deliberate choice.
But on the first watch, I was merely trying to keep up with the cinematography, the plot points, all of the technical elements just so I could check it off my list. The second watch, maybe some heartbreaks later, allowed me to lean into the romance, the fact that love is giving this journey its momentum.
And the scene that stays with me so many years later is Amélie finally coming home to herself. She spends the third act of the film running to and away from Nino, in disbelief that she’s become a part of this story she can’t possibly deserve. And even when he finds her, she pretends she isn’t there, scared of accepting this love until he has his own hero moment and stays. And the chase ends. She kisses the side of his mouth, his neck, his eyelid, and she shows him where to kiss her on her face in return; characters who have spent so much time in hiding, taking turns placing kisses upon each other’s features. These former ghosts have flesh, and blood, and lust. No longer haunting each other, this is exactly where they are supposed to be.
Amélie doesn’t need a justification for its superlatives. After 22 years, we know the score, the visuals, and maybe we’ve cracked into a crème brulée with the back of a spoon. But I will always adore this movie for showing me the simplicity of an eyelid kiss, that slowly kissing every beautiful part of your partner’s face is essential, and that you can let love be a part of finding peace. (S.J.)