You’re not really sick
if you’re not sick with love
there is no medicine . . .
— Frank O’Hara, “Song for Lotta”
Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.
—Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread
You've heard of a ‘no win situation’ haven't you? . . . Vietnam. This. I'm telling you they're around. I think we're in one of them.
— Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance
About two-thirds of the way through Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017), Daniel Day Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock emerges from a fever-induced delirium to the downstairs of his luxurious London townhome where he finds his muse and companion Alma (Vicky Krieps) sleeping on a settee, safeguarding the dress he was hard at work on before falling ill. In an almost shocking moment of tenderness he awakens his paramour by kissing her foot. Moments later he’ll propose to her, but in his preface to doing so, confesses that there are things he cannot do without her, things he must do to keep his “sour heart from choking.” Hearing this line again as of late, my mind flashed to an image from some scenes prior of Reynolds squeezing a lemon rind into his martini before delicately rubbing it around the edge of his glass. I imagined his heart lying there on the bottom of his cocktail, and then thought about all the bitter hearts of cinema that keep beckoning me back to the screen.
For those not in the mood for love this month, Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives will be hosting their own twisted hearts celebration with their annual Valentine’s Day Massacre series—named after the notorious 1929 Chicago gangland murders (which Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond used three decades later as the catalyst for Some Like It Hot)—a program that elides the rosy-hued confections of the holiday for films that show the thorny side of love. At the center of this series about heterosexual relationships in dysfunction are two howling portraits of on-again, off-again couples: Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972) and Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981). Accompanying them are Elaine May’s comedic masterwork The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Andrzej Żuławski’s psychological-horror-drama Possession (1981), as well as two new additions to the series: Anderson’s Phantom Thread and Punch-Drunk Love (2002).
We Won’t Grow Old Together and Modern Romance each bare the signature markings of their makers—the former by the French master known for creating some of cinema’s most eviscerating portrayals of domestic life; the latter a genius of American comedy beloved for his razor-sharp wit in front of behind the camera. Yet, both films follow a cyclical narrative of couples stuck in an endless loop of affection and pain. Told elliptically in such a way that cuts out all the extraneous fat and drops you into the most grueling of moments, We Won’t Grow Old Together centers on a brutish married filmmaker (Jean Yanne) and his long-suffering mistress (Marlène Jobert) whose corrosive five-year affair has reached its conclusion. In Modern Romance, Brooks stars alongside Kathryn Harrold as a film editor and his tolerant bank executive girlfriend who can’t seem to stay broken up for long enough to understand their fundamental incompatibility. Both films play out like claustrophobic visions of what can happen when love becomes obstructed by insecurity and resentment, but Brooks’ unabashedly self-critical script (written with Monica Johnson) and brilliant performance, which plays his character’s obsessive jealousies and desperate behavior to great comic effect, makes for a boisterous satire of male pathology. Pialat, on the other hand, leaves very little room for laughter—rather, he gives us a harrowingly authentic anatomy of a lifeless relationship that feels more like a slow suffocation than two hearts breaking apart.
No less gloriously anti-romantic is The Heartbreak Kid (May’s second feature), a masterwork in cynicism that brings together a mix of piercing humor and deeply felt pathos that has made her one of her generation’s finest filmmakers and this film an unsung classic of seventies cinema. Based on a script by Neil Simon, The Heartbreak Kid stars Charles Grodin (played to cringeworthy perfection in his breakout role) as Lenny Cantrow, a sporting goods salesman who ruthlessly leaves his wife of five days, Lila (the great Jeannie Berlin in an Oscar-nominated performance), while on their Miami Beach honeymoon after meeting WASPy undergrad Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). Like the men of Brooks and Pialat’s films, Cantrow is another emotionally unreliable man guided by shallow, shortsighted desire. Through May’s perceptive direction and fondness for finding the humanity in deeply flawed characters, the film becomes an exasperating portrait of inflated romantic fixation and what happens when it bursts.
Whereas most of the films in Anthology’s series only feel like horrorshows of the heart, Żuławski’s Possession contorts the agonies of heartache and abandonment into a gruesome realm of the fantastic. The film stars Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani (who won both Best Actress at Cannes and the César Award for her performance) as a West Berliner couple whose world descends into a nightmare after they begin to divorce. Opening on an unnerving level of disquiet that crescendos to a fever pitch of hysteria, Żuławski's film guts the archetypal relationship drama from the inside out; as if every instance of quelled aggression, every repressed desire, every simmering scream of rage we've previously watched is unleashed in a blood-soaked battle.
Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread, two of Anderson’s most eccentric films, veer faintly off course from the rest in the series, as they each serve up a taste of something truly romantic. Albeit unconventionally so, these are stories about people finding their match—more specifically, men so subsumed by their own neurosis their hearts might as well be encased in glass and the headstrong women who come along and shatter their carefully constructed worlds. In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances as Barry Egan, an emotionally erratic, coupon-counting toilet-plunger salesman whose life is cracked open when he falls in love with the enigmatic Lena (Emily Watson). With its manic rhythms and discordant sonic landscape, Anderson’s film captures what it feels like to be inside of a swirl of anxiety so great it’s hard to see straight—but it’s through love, which makes Anderson’s characters “stronger than anything you could imagine,” that life’s inescapable noise starts to quiet.
And then we return to the emotional precision of Phantom Thread. Set amidst the world of couture fashion in postwar England, the film centers on a fixed in his ways designer whose unruffled life is thrown into upheaval when he invites a curious young woman into his home. What begins as a portrait of a fervent male artist unspools into an intoxicating study of the ways in which love can mutate into a twisted need that only the other person can satisfy. An enveloping experience, from the swooning cinematography to the deliciously tickling quips and lavish orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, Anderson’s film makes the case that the ills of love are necessary to its pleasures.
Like many an Ingmar Bergman marital drama, this heartrending selection of films is something of a blessing for the lonely hearts or romantically unattached who walk into the theater this February. They have the ability to make one truly elated to be alone, or how Shakespeare puts it best, free of “love’s heavy burden.” That’s not to say that romance shouldn’t be celebrated, nor is Valentine’s Day without its pleasures, but the all-encompassing presence of love and the heedless devotion that binds two lovers has never felt more wearying than when watching these magnificent and tickling expressions of amour fou.