2013 in Film: The End of Happily Ever After?

*Potential spoilers for Frozen, Don Jon, The Great Gatsby, Her, Before Midnight*

2013 was definitely a big year for movies (mediocre blockbuster season aside) with some great releases coming in nearly every genre. There were a number of trends and themes that were prevalent last year, but the tone of many of last year’s biggest movies was one of reflection on the state of ideas that America and the film industry has held for generations. In thinking about last year, I believe one of the biggest ideas on trial was the idea of romantic love, expectations, and relationships in film and the american culture. This was a year where Hollywood and the film industry seems to have taken pause and looked at the idea and pondered it with some interesting and potentially controversial ideas emerging on the other side.

November 1st, 2013 @ 20:51:56

Disney is the age old granddaddy of the industry so why don’t I start with Disney’s Frozen? This is a movie made in the vein of a classic Disney princess story where the main character is swept off of her feet and into the arms of Prince Charming. The first act of the movie feels like a throwback to many of the tales that made Disney famous with their sweeping musical soundtrack, whimsical visuals, and hint at tragedy and redemption for many of the characters. I cringed in my chair at the sounds of  “Love is an Open Door” and “Let it Go” because they played into such predictable romantic tropes that I thought Disney had gone over the edge in romanticizing relationships. This was until Anna ran into the resident mountain man Kristoff and the two began to develop some interesting chemistry. My mind then quickly moved to “Oh snap, it’s going to be some sappy love triangle”.

The movie has it’s defining moment in the end of the film when the “true love” demonstrated isn’t a romantic one at all, but is an act of selflessness Anna makes for her sister. The film concludes suggesting that love is not an act in which people fall into, but is an active decision to be vulnerable and sacrificial for others. In the end Anna begins a relationship with Kristoff, but the future of it is uncertain and the “happily ever after” is in the hope of the kingdom…not the couple.

Frozen played with the tropes and expectations of love, but it was Don Jon that took a more direct approach in criticizing Hollywood’s romanticized and unrealistic view of “happily ever after” and how those ideals have penetrated our culture to devastating consequences. Don Jon is first and foremost a movie about expectations and the perversion of romantic love. In the movie Jon is a porn addict who lives in his own fantasy of all the physical intimacy with none of the responsibility or real work it takes. He’s a selfish narcissist who would rather live in his own fantasy by himself than work for real intimacy with someone else. Enter Barbara Sugarman, a sex symbol so beautiful that not even he can stay in his self centered bubble. He wants her and is willing to work to get her, but the catch is that he’ll actually have to make a promise and commitment to her to get what he wants. She comes onto the scene as a strong and independent woman who wants a man to take care of her in a very specific set of ways.

Don Jon(1)

It doesn’t take Jon long to realize that she too lives in her own narcissistic fantasy that has been constructed by the friends she hangs out with and the movies she watches. Before long, Jon’s own identity is threatened in the relationship and they break it off when the two realize that the relationship isn’t living up to their imaginations. The movie goes out of its way to use celebrity cameos by Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum to demonstrate the silliness and exaggeration of the relationships in the movies. The “happily ever after” always ends in sex for the guy and some charming fantasy without any problems for the woman. Jon’s hesitance to join relationships in the first place is based on his fear of responsibility and work, something that the men of classic Hollywood and America are always the bearers of in the end of the fairy tale. Don Jon demonstrates true love as something of a surprise with Jon’s connection to Esther near the end of the film. In this instance, Jon wants to work for it because it feels real and fulfilling because he feels like his fullest self which is a dramatic contrast to his relationship with Barbara where his own identity was on the line to please her wishes.

This movie takes the ideas and questions of Frozen and tackles them on a more mature level by revealing how the expectations we bring into relationships(much like Anna in Frozen) can actually do damage to potentially healthy connection. There are successful romantic relationships, but they often come as a surprise from people we aren’t expecting it from. In other words, romantic love can’t be forced, but is instead organic and empowers us to want to be the best we can be for ourselves and partners. This is quite a bit different from someone’s romanticized expectations defining what we should strive to be.

Hollywood not only reflected on the definition of a healthy romantic relationship but delved into what it is about those relationships that are fulfilling. The bright and outstanding example that begs the question of how we as humans want to be loved is Spike Jonze’s Her. Like all great science fiction, Her takes the bizarre(if seemingly plausible) idea of a man falling in love with an operating system and makes it something that speaks to the human desires to feel connected to and needed by something bigger than ourselves. Theodore’s struggle to overcome the divorce with his wife and closest friend is a sad one to witness as it is evident that the two care deeply about each other. The two are separated for over a year before they actually sign the papers, and the only reason Theodore is able to come to terms with this emotionally crushing decision is that he has found a support and intimacy with Samantha(his computer) that helped him realize his own strengths and value.

This movie doesn’t shy away from sexual intimacy by any means and in fact displays how sex is a product of true intimacy as opposed to the subject of it. The love Theodore and Samantha share seems just as real as any on the Hollywood big screen this year as the two struggle to understand themselves, the world, and how to keep their thriving connection alive. Once again, this movie is reflecting on the classic understanding of love by going deeper than flesh and exploring the loneliness of being single as well as the fulfillment that comes from having a deeper connection with another person who is asking the same questions from another perspective. It’s having someone who deeply understands our fears, struggles, and desire to grow together that creates a powerful bond. The idea of true love being sealed with a kiss, a shoulder to lean on, or a night of unforgettable sex is thrown out the window with this movie. The conclusion in the end is that our intimate connection to others is a product of time, trust, and growth as opposed to the traditional fight for love that Hollywood has displayed for decades.

If Frozen is turning expectations of love on its head, Don Jon is demonstrating the consequences of a relationship based on classical fantasies, and Her is exploring the deeper connection that comes with true romance, then Before Midnight is begging the question as to whether or not these romantic relationships are meant to last. Before Midnight is the third entry into a series that began with Before Sunrise when a couple hit it off with a one night stand in Vienna in 1994. There was a sequel in 2004 where the couple are reunited in Paris and finally Before Midnight where the two have been together for nine years and are now discovering what love looks like as they grow older.

This spectacular and understated gem asks a lot of questions about longstanding relationships, but in the end I believe one of the most contemplative is whether or not true love is meant to last a lifetime or just for only a period of life. The two have grown together and what they once found endearing about one another has become routine and even frustrating at times. In order for their relationship to continue working, they must both make sacrifices and remain patient with each other. Throughout the day that the audience spends with the couple, Jesse and Celine must frequently remind each other why they rely on each other and why each of them are special in their own right. It’s a lovely, inspiring, and terrifying example of how people can be both happy and miserable together at the same time. The question that is directly addressed at least twice throughout the movie is whether or not people who love each other should stay together until death or if they should at some point go their own way and find another partner. I believe the movie ends on a note that suggests the former, but I believe director Richard Linklater intentionally leaves some ambiguity as to whether or not they will stay together forever because that’s how life really works for a lot of couples.

Before Midnight is the end of a thrilling experiment in cinema that has explored the long term ramifications of romantic love and the film is once again reflecting on the age old idea of finding the perfect person who completes us and then going deeper by taking us through their journey and the consequences of choosing to live “happily ever after”. Even though the chemistry is sweet, believable, and delightful; their life isn’t exactly the walk through Candyland they envisioned. Before Midnight Ends begging the question, ‘Is it all really worth it?’ The answer is definitely one audiences will have to answer for themselves, but the movie spends its entire runtime exploring both the beautiful and downtrodden moments of love as well as the consequences of it all.

The last movie from 2013 I want to make note of is actually already a classic that has been warning people of the dangers of fantasizing love for generations. The Great Gatsby is bringing an altogether different albeit compatible view on relationships, expectations, and living “happily ever after”. Gatsby is a man of drive, ambition, and success. He fell for Daisy in his youth and she slipped through his fingers. Gatsby had planned a whole life and reality around their relationship and spends the better part of his life gaining the wealth, throwing the parties, and crafting the reality he dreamed of for her. His life and drive is to live in that world with her, but to his detriment, she does not desire a life with him.  This movie demonstrates that the fantasies of love that we all create can potentially be toxic and destructive. Gatsby is a man who will stop at nothing to fulfill his dream, but what he doesn’t realize until it’s too late is that his dream is just that; a hollow fantasy devoid of any sense of reality(something I believe Baz Luhrmann played up with his choice of music and art direction). 

The Great Gatsby(2)

I read this as a warning and examination of the hollow fantasy that self centered narcissism creates. It’s another reflection of a man who pursues the Hollywood/American fantasy of love instead of accepting the reality that is in front of him. This is the warning to all of those who fall into the darkness of a broken dream of classic romance; do not fight when there is no battle to be won, but let go and move on to something that is natural and fit…..or you’ll see a poetic death in your fancy pool right outside of your gigantic palace of a mansion.

2013 was a year for Hollywood to pause and reflect, ruminate, and criticize the idea of love and the fantasy that is “and they lived happily ever after”. The subject was approached from multiple angles that dealt with the flawed fantasy, the unrealistic expectations, the danger of broken fantasies, the deeper connections that really make love and intimacy work, and the reality of choosing romance and sticking with it. I believe that it’s impossible to deny that we are seeing a change in the mindset of film producers and viewers alike on the subject. What does romance look like now? It’s yet to be clearly defined, but after this year I’d say that we are entering into an era of filmmaking where the subject is approached with more honesty than in the past. Does this mean we’ve seen the end of the good old fashioned love tales? Absolutely not, but I do believe that audiences and film makers are at a point where we are willing to see and accept the difficulties that relationships and even the purest forms of love can bring with them. Love and being deeply connected to others is a fantastic thing, but instead of viewing them as simply “made for each other” or “old flames” we’ve been through a year where the conversation has explored just how much time and work it takes to see success with that special someone. In other words, love ain’t like dusting crops, farmboy! 

Also recommended viewing on the subject

Drinking Buddies-Ambiguous Relationships

Before Sunrise/Sunset- Watch prior to Before Midnight

Upstream Color- An odd indie movie!

The Spectacular Now- Teen love

Enough Said- Second Marriage Love

Crazy Stupid Love (Just Because)

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