In the space between film and reality, there is room for glamour, and it is through this glamour that the narratives presented become immersive— enrapturing, even. Heartbreak, too, is introduced extravagantly on film. Each story evokes a sense of familiarity, as if one is watching their own love stories end before them. Under the romanticized lens of the camera, the experience becomes captivating. As a result, a specificity of the romance genre is carved out; a universal story of falling in love, knowing the love will not last. Three films in particular stand out in crafting this narrative and formulating the love that will end in a memory, equally fond and painful. Roman Holiday (1953), La La Land (2016), and In the Mood for Love (2000) all emphasize this human experience and turn it into something enchanting.
Roman Holiday does not initially present itself as a love story. It revels in its own whimsy until it becomes grounded by the unexpected connection shared between Ann and Joe. Roman Holiday portrays their love story in full, from birth until death. Along with this portrayal are the distinct emotional journeys of Ann and Joe as they reckon with the surprise of their intimacy and the inevitable demise of it. Through their relationship, they set out to change the course of their destinies together. They understand the impossibility of this desire, yet they live it as though their destinies were never an issue. The genuine, heartwarming connection between them allows for this. It is not that their denial is their downfall; underneath their delusion is the passive acceptance of the realities they are crashing towards. When it happens, and when they are forced to separate, it is not a grand show of melodrama. It is quietly heartbreaking.
In Roman Holiday’s finale, when every one of Ann’s words are directed to Joe in front of an overwhelming crowd, when Joe is the only face she stares at, and when Joe is able to leave the room smiling, the audience is shown the fullness of their love and the willingness to leave it behind only to treasure its memory. Ann and Joe describe a kind of love that manifests as a kind of courage. It is the bravery to embrace the thing you know cannot last, up until the very end.
La La Land follows Roman Holiday’s influence. The final moments of Roman Holiday, where love is communicated in stares and glances, are emulated perfectly in the tenderness of La La Land. The love story of La La Land is an ouroboros; Mia and Sebastian meet, expecting nothing from each other, finding everything in each other. Their demise is utterly unexpected, yet one they orchestrated together. They could have had it all and, once they fell in love, they assumed they would. It is a shock to both of their systems when everything goes downhill, despite their deliberation. What evolves out of this shock is a particular nostalgia for what they could have had. It plays out so perfectly and so beautifully, yet the two soulmates still make the decision to cross paths and keep walking. When Mia is watching Sebastian perform, and when Sebastian is watching her in the audience, both of them have made up their minds that they will walk away. Regardless, they spend those moments imagining their ideal together. They realize everything that could be. It is just as painful as it is wonderful. It is the embrace between future and past, one that can only exist if the present is disregarded.
Neither of them have any interest in clinging onto the past they had together. They understand they will always be in love with each other. They understand it will only be a memory. When they smile at each other and nod, it is a silent agreement between them, promising that the memory of each other will sustain them and drive them for the rest of their lives.
In the Mood for Love takes the ideas explored in Roman Holiday and La La Land and crafts a circular story, both beginning and ending in a memory. It is a unique expression of the trope that creates an even more sobering narrative. It is borne out of the desperate desire to shove a memory, hardly distant yet still inaccessible, into the present. Chow and Su cling onto the ghosts of their spouses through their connection with each other. The memory of their marriages allows their relationship to prosper in the ambiguities between past and present. As they perform the role of each other’s spouses, the memory becomes a defense mechanism to protect against their real selves coming out of their acts. Some part of them understands that they are dancing toward their demise. However, the past that they dress up in allows them to push their inevitable ending into the background. They can deny. The relationship they built together to survive is burning and they can ignore it.
The melancholy between Chow and Su’s stares and touches denote their constant anticipation of the end of their chapter. This foresight was never confessed. Chow and Su’s feelings could only be confronted through the desperate promise that they aren’t like their spouses, that none of this is real, that they’re protected from who they are. The spaces and hallways they used to share become missed opportunities. They search for each other and find nothing. It was a hopeless pursuit, its hopelessness never being a secret. Still, something was irrational. There was something that they never wanted to let go of.
When Chow leans on the monastery’s wall and confesses something no one will ever know, he is finally admitting the thing that he will hold in his heart forever. With Su, he was a coward. He was unable to do what he needed to have done and he has lost her, like he knew he always would. Despite everything, the sharpness of their memories together allow them to accept the genuine love they had for each other. The persistence of their memory was a motivator; if they cannot confess the memory to each other, they now know they need confess it to the nothingness. The roles they forced themselves to play together have dissolved and they can be truthful in their retrospective. It is a sort of freedom. What started as an attempt to recreate a memory became an overwhelming waterfall of new losses and memories, drowning Chow and Su, yet they will never let themselves die.
Through the love stories in Roman Holiday, La La Land, and In the Mood for Love, the viewer is exhausted through their tears, yet invigorated by the tiny speck of hope underlying the films’ afterlives. It is transformative. These are love stories that follow a familiar hurt, yet they are tied together by an unfamiliar optimism that evades the heartbroken in reality. Perhaps the catharsis comes from the realization that one can walk away, one can stare and the stares will be enough, one can find comfort in memory. The memory is not the scab begging to be healed; it is the endurance of the devotion. It is the last star shining in the sky.
Katie Ondris is an aspiring journalist from New Jersey. You can find her on Twitter @magno11as.