Has the idea of serious romantic love become so hopelessly outdated that the only way it can be expressed unironically is in period films?
The romantic comedy has become the genre of choice to showcase these stories. Humor cushions the confusion that rules our post-sexual revolution, gender role-challenging times. But the old-fashioned, grand passion, heterosexual love story is in short supply, and when it does appear it's increasingly in fancy dress.
Swept From the Sea, set in turn-of-the-century Cornwall, and Dangerous Beauty, set in 16th-century Venice, are two primary examples. Both follow life-altering love stories that engulf not only the central couples but send ripples of change out to their communities.
Adapted by novelist Tim Willocks from Joseph Conrad's 1901 short story "Amy Foster" and directed with calm assurance by Beeban Kidron, Swept From the Sea manages to have an epic sweep while keeping its story intimate. Shot on England's rugged Atlantic coast, Dick Pope's beautiful cinematography lets earth, sky and sea gracefully commingle.
The servant Amy Foster (Rachel Weisz) doesn't scream when she first sees the dazed and dirty, battered and bloody figure of Yanko Gooral (Vincent Perez) at the farmhouse window. Not only does she see nothing to fear, but there's an immediate kinship between them.
A Ukrainian immigrant bound for America, Yanko is the only survivor of a shipwreck. Isolated by language and temperament, he forms a friendship with the town's more worldly Dr. Kennedy (Ian McKellan) and finds an employer and supporter in the wealthy Miss Swaffer (Kathy Bates). But he's barely more of an outcast than the solemn, almost silent Amy, the progeny of a painful family scandal who's wrongly dubbed a "simpleton."
The compelling romance of Amy and Yanko takes place in the private space they have created to retreat from harsh disapproval. But what their neighbors consider their "strangeness" (stubborn reserve and a foreign accent) doesn't go far enough in explaining why the couple is so vehemently ostracized.
In Swept From the Sea, Amy and Yanko are simply beautiful outsiders who are sadly misunderstood. This makes for a film that tugs at the heart but leaves the conscience unscathed.
Dangerous Beauty has more of an agenda. Directed by Marshall Herskovitz and adapted by Jeannine Dominy from Margaret Rosenthal's biography, The Honest Courtesan, the film follows the willful Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) as she tries to carve out her own niche between the age-old archetypes of madonna and whore.
In a world where marriage is a social contract meant to further the fortunes of the families, the virtuous upper-class wife must be quiet, complacent, submissive and devoted. It's the flamboyant courtesan who's at the center of Venetian high society.
These courtesans are supposed to possess not only carnal knowledge, but be well-read and witty conversationalists. It's only when her mother (Jacqueline Bisset) tells the hesitant Veronica that becoming a courtesan means access to not only money and power but her beloved books (something denied to most women) that she begins her extensive training.
Veronica piques both envy and desire as she evolves into the most highly regarded courtesan of Venice's power elite, as well as an accomplished poet. But her Achilles' heel is her undiminished ardor for the callow Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell), her first love.
Dangerous Beauty begins in a regal courtly setting, but soon expands its scope to include wars, the Black Plague and the Inquisition. And Veronica and Marco, along with their complex relationship, grow with the times.
While Dangerous Beauty examines love as a commodity, it never fully refutes the primacy of romantic love, and loses much of its power when it overwhelmingly succumbs to it. The film's carefully composed, artificial sunniness (most of it was shot in studios with indirect bright light) is also a distraction, giving this enjoyable, thoughtful and often very funny film the sheen of shallowness.
Swept From the Sea and Dangerous Beauty were made by male and female writing-directing collaborations, and this yin-yang balance extends to their characters. While very different, these couples demonstrate that an effective love story emerges from the union of two equally important and distinctive individuals.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.