Last year, Damien Chazelle's musical La La Land missed the Best Picture honour at the 89th Oscars by a whisker. It lost the award to Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, and in the process, missed the opportunity to be the rare romantic film to have won an Oscar in recent memory.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a still from La La Land
This year, the Academy has nominated three films in the Best Picture category that go a few notches higher in doing what an exceptional romantic film does " to speak a new or different language of love. The vocabulary may more or less remain the same but all these films boast of a new syntax, if not a new grammar.
Though it is a universal emotion, it is creatively taxing to place love in a different context with every film. The feeling it evokes is subjective and the ways through which it does so are not objective either. Thus, what does it take to infuse a breath of fresh air into a genre that is often considered too sleazy to bestowed upon a nod from the Academy?
La La Land addressed a shade of love that went beyond the proverbial 50 ones but it achieved that right at the end. The rest of the film, though beautifully shot, falls short of dismantling love as we know it and presenting it in new colours. All the three Oscar-nominated films, unlike La La Land, establish their language of love right at the start, taking advantage of their period settings.
Call Me By Your Name, famously criticised as 'white people's Moonlight', is quite a deviation from the Oscar winner. It does not come across as a mouthpiece for the LGBT community as the lens through which it is witnessed is micro in nature. It revolves around Timothy Chalamet's character and his first tryst with love.
Yes, it is love before it is conveniently put into the box of homosexual love. In fact, the homosexuality is treated as a non-issue in a world that is painted as ideal despite the fact that it is in Rome of the early 1980s. Just like a conventional graph of a romance, their bond glides from emotional proximity to physical intimacy. They aren't two gay men making out in a closet. They make love all over the place in spite of being aware of homosexuality being a taboo.
Timothy Chalamet and Armie Hammer in a still from Call Me By Your Name
Love is no different for two men who feel for each other. They are in the moment and display both the wild and the soft side that the universal emotion is associated with. But the climax is where homosexuality comes into play. It is still a non-issue for Timothy's parents but societal norms sabotage his relationship with Hammer. Relatively less conditioned to the orthodoxy, Timothy has no qualms about asserting his identity (or his choice of love that is a part of his identity) but Hammer's unwillingness to come out of the closet is what adds a fresh dimension to the relationship.
What's new about Call Me By Your Name is that it is a common love story between two guys with a less common sexual orientation. With this complex setting comes the challenge of being on the same page despite being completely, madly in love.
But this challenge does not have the same impact on Guillermo Del Toro who lends a surreal fairy tale essence to his Oscar nominated film The Shape of Water. Water, here, is a symbol of love that does not surrender its fluidity irrespective of the obstacles that threaten to contain it. It also borrows its nature of romance from Beauty and the Beast where a girl (Sally Hawkins, mute in this case) falls for an amphibian captured by the USA during the times of the Cold War, as a measure to gain an upper hand over Russia in terms of scientific advancement.
The two strange bedfellows bond over eggs, music and sign language. Ostracised in a world populated by humans, they prove that they feel a part of the whole and the whole of a part, since humans do not function in the small world they've created for themselves. Guillermo captures their sepia tinted world in a poetically shot bathroom scene where they subvert a common human invention, a tap, to rise above the ground that binds them and embrace each other like newborn lovers in the lap of Adam's ale.
Sally Hawkins in a still from The Shape of Water
On the other hand, Phantom Thread treads infrequently on the physical patches of love. Here, love is inseparable from aversion as they invariably stand entangled with each other. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a haute couture designer for whom the only celestial love is towards his departed mother who often visits him in his dreams. Then he comes across as Vicky Krieps and offers her to be his muse.
Krieps readily obliges but does not shed her individuality which is a prerequisite in Day-Lewis' eyes narrowed down by the blinkers of his conviction. The parasitic relationship between an artiste and his muse is the crux of this toxic version of an old school romance but what really sets its apart is how it is resolved.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson attributes grey shades to his characters. For every straitjacketed stubborn stab of Lewis, Krieps has a retort in store. She subjects him to food poisoning and then takes unconditional care of him when he is at his most vulnerable. Day-Lewis discovers the cyclic nature of Krieps' craftiness and much to the audience's surprise, consents to fall prey to it in return of getting pampered. Years after losing his mother, he finds a similar love in Krieps who dismantles the walls of ostentation he builds around himself. Here, the love transcends from conjugal to familial, similar to that of a mother and a son.
Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in a still from Phantom Thread
Besides their ability to speak a different language of love and non-contemporary settings, these three films are also bound by the role of music in blossoming their inherent romance. In Call Me By Your Name, the music evokes reminiscences of first love (notwithstanding the sexual orientation). In The Shape of Water, music fills the spaces that the two mute creatures do not bother to fill and gives a lasting sense to their inter-species romance. In Phantom Thread, the music oscillates from tense to charming, as if substantiating the crests and troughs of the protagonists' relationship.
Irrespective of whether any of these films sweep the Best Picture award, the fact that their efforts to devise a fresh language of romance have been acknowledged through multiple nominations speaks volumes of the Academy's intention to rise above politicisation of love.
All images from YouTube.