Mad Love: The Surrealism of the Supernatural Romantic Melodrama, Part Two

3. Genealogy 2: Contemporary Studio Cinema, 1978-2005

Warren Beatty and Buck Henry in Heaven Can Wait

The supernatural romantic melodrama having laid fallow since the flurry of late 1940s/very early 1950s films I discussed in my previous entry, the modern iteration of these romantic fantasies is prefigured by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s Heaven Can Wait (1978). Being a comedy (an underrated one, and an auspicious directorial debut for Beatty), Heaven Can Wait doesn’t quite count as a core case, but it does draw on elements of melodrama, as well as conventions intrinsic to the supernatural strain I’m looking at. This Heaven Can Wait is of course not related to the Lubitsch classic; it is, rather, a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. As such, it fits nicely with the turn to classical Hollywood reference points characteristic of late 1970s, post- Star Wars neo-classical studio films, and the nostalgia endemic to Hollywood in the 1980s can partly explain why this kind of film comes back in the first place. Where Robert Montgomery played a boxer in the original, in Beatty and Henry’s revision, Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is a football player who is accidentally claimed by Heaven during a car accident- accidentally because the accident hadn’t quite played out yet, and as an athlete, he was actually supposed to have survived.

Joe goes to Heaven

Heaven owes him a body, and Mr. Jordan (James Mason) takes on the responsibility of finding him one. What he ends up with is a middle-aged millionaire, Leo Farnsworth, who has been murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and her lover/his secretary (Charles Grodin). Having returned to life, even if in an aging, out-of-shape body, Pendleton still wants to pursue his dream of playing in the Superbowl. He must persuade his coach, Max (Jack Warden), that he is fact Joe reincarnated, so that Max will help him train to rejoin his team and get to the big game. Further complications arise when he falls in love with an environmental activist, Betty (Julie Christie; its really an awfully good cast) protesting Farnsworth’s corporate policies.

Though Betty disapproves of Farnsworth, the transcendental power of love is invoked here: despite Farnsworth’s past, Betty is attracted to him because she sees something else in him, some truer essence which comes through his eyes- a truth not unlike that which Julie saw in Liliom. As in A Matter of Life and Death, there is a great deal of concern for “the rules” of death and the afterlife, for abiding by what is written, and the plot complications stem from this: Farnsworth was only intended to be a temporary body for Pendleton while they found a longer-term replacement. So what happens when they find the replacement, telling Pendleton he must vacate Farnsworth, just as he’s finally made the team and won over Betty?

Betty confronts “Farnsworth” while Mr. Jordan looks on

What melodrama there is here comes out of this dilemma, and the way it plays out: we know Joe’s situation, but when the time comes that Farnsworth must die, and Joe must be reincarnated a second time, neither Max nor Betty do. Moreover, when reincarnated this last time, Joe does so without his memories (how then will it still be Joe? good question!). He’ll get to play in the game, sure, but what of the romance? Unrestricted narration, again, provides some pathos as Max thinks he knows who Joe has become, but Joe no longer knows who he was. Not knowing this, can he and Betty ever be together? What will become of them? The motif of the indexical object that serves as physical proof of reincarnation, in this case, is front and present: it’s Joe’s soprano saxophone, along with Joe’s ability to play it, and his signature tune, “Ciribiribin.

That Heaven Can Wait was a substantial commercial and critical hit may have enabled the production of the first really full-fledged contemporary supernatural romantic melodrama: Somewhere in Time (1980). Directed by Jeannot Szwarc from a script by Richard Matheson based on his novel (Matheson is best known for the novel I Am Legend, Spielberg’s Duel, The Night Stalker, and some of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery), Somewhere in Time seems to have been conceived as a throwback to the late ‘40s cycle of supernatural melodramas; indeed, the Time Out Film Guide describes it as utterly oblivious to contemporary tastes.  A fair call, and along with its general mediocrity, a probable reason for its abject failure both critically and at the box office. But it is interesting precisely in the degree to which its romanticism feels anachronistic.

In Somewhere in Time, a playwright (Christopher Reeve) falls in love with a woman (Jane Seymour) in a picture (shades of Laura; here, it’s a photograph of an actress); he then wills himself back in time (through self-hypnosis) to 1912 to be with her. Time travel literally becomes an exercise of will, love overcoming physical obstacles a matter of agency and desire. In some ways, the film vaguely recalls Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating: the past is a place we can go to and wander around in if we want to badly enough; here, too, there is a sense in which Richard, Reeves’ character, is an interloper, in costume but out of place. Unlike Celine and Julie, though, Richard’s presence radically changes the narrative he enters: he woos and wins Seymour’s Elise, despite the warnings of her manager (Christopher Plummer), a low-level psychic who has foreseen a man changing her life, and wants nothing to interfere with her career.

Richard and Elise meet. Somewhere in Time

If there is almost always some object that functions indexically with regard to the supernatural in these films, time travel in Somewhere in Time is entirely tied up with things. Richard’s obsession with Elise is focalized through her photograph, though initiated by her appearance in the present, as an elderly woman who hands Richard a pocket watch and pleads “Come back to me,” to his utter confusion. Thus not only the watch but also the woman herself, and her knowledge, prove that Richard has already made the journey into the past before he ever imagines doing so. Years later, blocked writing a play, he checks into the Grand Hotel, where he not only finds Elise’s photograph, but also a 1912 guestbook with his name in it (she had been there for a performance). He travels to her house, and among her possessions (she died the night she gave him the watch) he finds a music box, shaped like the hotel, which plays his favorite song, and a book about time travel. Richard contacts the author of the book, who believes himself to have traveled to the 16th century through self-hypnosis; Richard resolves to go to 1912 the same way. In order to create an environment in which his auto-suggestive time travel might occur, Richard empties his room of all traces of contemporary life, dressing himself in period clothes and accouterments. He and Elise fall in love. During her big performance, she drifts into an impromptu monologue professing her ardor for Richard. The photograph he fell in love with is in fact a photo of her from this part of her performance: he has fallen in love with her captured in the moment she proclaims her love for him. Elise runs away from Robinson, and finds Richard; they are united, but when dressing the next morning he finds a 1979 penny he had mistakenly left in his suit, and when he sees it, he is wrenched back to the present.

The film as a whole features extraordinarily diffuse cinematography, lending it that dreaminess it has; while this lines up with the ethereal atmosphere of films like Portrait of Jennie, it is also a 1970s visual cliché signifying the past. There is little else of the moodiness or the visual inventiveness of the classical-era supernatural melodramas, though there is some nice play with reflections (we see Richard, reflected in a mirror, watching Elise’s reflection as she walks along the shore; the image nicely encapsulates both his desire for her, via his gaze, and the ontological gulf between them) and split-field diopters. Also of note is the set of techniques used to signify his journey to 1912- a combination of wide angle lenses, underexposure, heavy diffusion, and superimposition- which is used again as Richard, debilitated by the after-effects of the time travel, dies. As he does, he sees Elise surrounded by white light, beckoning to him. They are reunited against a white, foggy background: a Heaven of a banality typical of a film which could have been much more in other directorial hands.

The failure of Somewhere in Time seems to have dissuaded producers from trying the genre again until towards the end of the decade. Where Somewhere in Time is fulsomely soap-operatic in tone, Chances Are (1989) and Alan Rudolph’s Made In Heaven (1987) blend in comedy and “quirkiness”, respectively, and both turn to reincarnation for their premises. Chances Are, an out-and-out comedy, is also the creepier of the two: a man dies, is reincarnated, and falls in love both with his widow and their daughter. Made in Heaven, on the other hand, is one of the strangest, dreamiest Hollywood films of its day, as one might expect from Alan Rudolph in his prime, and one that is tonally schizophrenic enough to make pegging it on the comedy/drama spectrum quite tricky. Here, the rather bizarre variation on the supernatural melodrama narrative is this: Mike (Timothy Hutton) dies and goes to Heaven where he falls in love with Annie (Kelly McGillis), who hasn’t been born yet. When she is born, the person in charge (more on ‘him’ in a moment) grants Mike’s wish to be born again so that he may find her, but gives him exactly 30 years to do it in; if he fails, he will never see her again on Earth or in Heaven (a classic melodramatic deadline with a murky metaphysical twist).

Mike and Annie in Heaven. Made in Heaven

Rudolph’s films of this period are marked by a certain dreaminess and tonal indeterminancy very much in evidence here. Heaven itself is designed as a sort of surrealist Our Town, a Norman Rockwell-ish vision of an idyllic, early 20th century, semi-rural community, but Rockwell meets Timothy Leary.

If it is principally a turn-of-the-century Americana, it’s also very bohemian in a hippie kind of way, devoted to art and to learning, with every soul and celestial being pursuing their bliss, each on their own trip. It’s full of anachronisms, too: though Mike dies in the late 1940s, Heaven already has 1980s computer hardware (the idea is that all ideas are born first in Heaven, then brought to the world with the souls at birth). There is a toy-maker here, but all the toys teach learning and creativity (no toy guns in this Heaven). At moments, its design resembles artists as various as Maxfield Parrish and Giorgio de Chirico, just as the film’s sensibilities drift back and forth from Frank Capra (or for that matter, Powell and Pressburger) to Robert Altman. Pastels are everywhere, as is lens diffusion; people appear and disappear, and float through the air at will. This is a Heaven in which people can imagine things into being, and change things (the colors of a house, for instance) at will. Heaven is a dream, in fact: all one has to do is to imagine being in a place, and they’re there. There is a recurring image of a boy playing piano who appears and disappears, as if oscillating in and out of reality. Some spaces are more markedly oneiric: empty rooms with checkered floors and brightly-hued walls, drenched in fog, with time-lapse clouds rushing by out of the windows. Mike’s memory calls forth his childhood home; when he visits it, he just catches the appearance of his boyhood self in a mirror before the ghost child vanishes. There, again, is the ever-present note of nostalgia that underlies all the temporal slippage, but always mixed with a Utopian celebration of the imagination, and a psychedelicized assertion of the fluidity of reality. The character of Emmett, for instance: possibly God, possibly an angel (we never know which), Emmett is only really identified as a vaguely defined authority figure, the one who sets the 30-year deadline for Mike. Emmett is a most unusual Heavenly figure, a chain-smoking 1940-style, quasi-film noir tough guy, but- here’s the kicker- played by Debra Winger (then married to Hutton) in drag.

The enigmatic Emmett

Having fallen in love in Heaven, Mike and Annie’s romance is already uncanny, but this really becomes a tale of mad love when Mike, reborn as “Elmo”, tries to find Annie, born now as “Ally”, driven only by a vague, haunting sense that something is missing from his life, that someone he already loves is out there somewhere.

Mike trips out on himself

Appropriately, the real world is then itself haunted by echoes of Heaven recurring like fragments of the half-remembered dream that, for Elmo and Ally, it is. When Ally’s grown, we learn she had an imaginary friend called “Mike.”  A toy designer on Earth, she “invents” a pink hopping animal toy we saw first in Heaven. Emmett appears to Elmo to remind him of the deadline, but it is never clear how consciously aware Elmo is of the visitation. A melody Mike heard in Heaven becomes a musical motif in Elmo’s life until he turns it into a song and thereby “makes it” as a musician in his second life. All these function as indices of the reality of the experiences in Heaven. Here and there, in the midst of montage sequences tracking the progress of the characters, Elmo and Ally daydream, flashing on images of their lives there.

Indeed, this section of the film is imbued with a degree of the dreaminess Rudolph established in Heaven. Mark Isham’s trumpet adds a languid romanticism throughout, and the cinematography remains diffuse, albeit more mutedly so. The camera constantly drifts and floats through the scenes, and the narration itself is highly elliptical, drifting from one alternating storyline to another (Elmo to Ally and back), and in doing so jumping forward through their lives with scant attention paid to any signposting apart from changes in dress. Rudolph makes an extraordinarily heavy use of dissolves- not just for appearances and disappearances, as in Heaven, but in montages, between scenes, even within scenes. The love scene between Mike and Annie in Heaven is entirely based around a floating camera and dissolves between each shot, and when Elmo and Ally finally meet on Earth, Rudolph flickers back to Emmett, then back to the couple, shots going in and out of focus, and all joined with dissolves. The use of dissolves throughout thus becomes another manifestation of Heaven in the Earth of the film. It’s an ethereal, diaphanous film, and one that never really lets viewers inhabit a comfortable position in relation to it. In Heaven, for instance, the flowering of Mike and Annie’s romance is punctuated by this strikingly weird exchange: “I’m glad you died.” “So am I.”

Made in Heaven seems to drift not just between its storylines, but between tones: some is comedic, some whimsical, some dreamy, some dramatic, some even parody film noir, featuring Ellen Barkin as a cartoonish femme fatale. Indeed, the offcenteredness of the film throughout is reinforced by a bizarre series of cameos: besides Barkin and Winger, there are appearance by Don Murray, Tom Petty, Ric Ocasek, and Neil Young (who also writes Elmo’s song, which is sung by Martha Davis of the Motels). Yet for however much the film drifts between storylines and tones, the love story is still charged with melodrama: the pathos that comes from Mike knowing Annie is going to Earth before she does; the dilemma of Mike, loving her, going up against Emmett and “the way things have to be”; the use of chance and coincidence, as Elmo meets Mike’s parents, still mourning their dead son; the choreographed near misses between Elmo and Ally all their lives until finally they meet.

Elmo meets Mike’s parents

Made in Heaven is one of the few really interesting movies from this phase of the supernatural romantic melodrama, but it was also a flop, a film that was quickly lost in the shuffle of the mid-late ‘80s: too eccentric for the mainstream, too commercial for the indie-arthouse scene Rudolph was coming from and would quickly return to. A few years later, though, came the first real hit supernatural melodrama of the modern period, but a film dispiriting enough to watch that it can illustrate why it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for writing this part of the genealogy. Ghost (1990) is an extraordinarily sentimental drama written by Bruce Jay Rubin (who would later adapt The Time Traveler’s Wife), and directed by Jerry Zucker coming off of Top Secret! and Ruthless People. Here, as in Always, a couple (Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore) is separated by the man’s death, a murder in this case. He remains stuck on Earth, and when he discovers who had him killed, why, and that his love is in danger, he tries to communicate with her through a comical psychic (Whoopi Goldberg). Though it is certainly a love story, a true reunion of the lovers is never really on the table, as it is in other examples of this kind of meller; it is instead about his conveying that love to her as he had been unable to do in life, which therefore requires him to prove the reality of his existence as a ghost. Among the creative personnel, there are plenty of notable credentials- the music is by Maurice Jarre, the editing by the great Walter Murch, the cinematography by Adam Greenberg, coming off of Near Dark and The Terminator, and shortly to do Terminator 2– but there is virtually nothing of cinematic interest here, save perhaps one interesting mirror shot, which reminds one of the recurrence of shots of reflections on glass in these films, which tend to function as objective correlatives of the invisible but very real barriers between The Couple.

As close to a reunion as Ghost lets its characters have.

Likewise as concerned with Moving On as with the lost love itself, is Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply, the arthouse version of Ghost, and from the same year (1990). Like Ghost, Truly Madly Deeply is mostly a melodrama, but in its story of a dead man (Alan Rickman) haunting his bereaved lover (Juliet Stevenson) are also connections to comic ghost stories about people haunted by those they had been close to in life, like Blithe Spirit (Lean’s film of Coward’s 1941 play came out in 1945), Topper (1937), and Kiss Me Goodbye (1982). Whereas for me core cases of the supernatural romantic melodrama revolve around a couple’s attempt to overcome ontological barriers, Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply are not about the formation of the couple, but about the lingering emotional ties between them after death. In both films, the ghost interacts with the living partner, but the boundaries between them are never crossed or called into question; the goal is to acknowledge those emotional ties, but move past them. Thus, the films share little of the Surrealist enthusiasm for the amour fou.

Given that both films enjoyed some degree of critical and commercial success, especially Ghost of course, it’s surprising that there don’t seem to be any other attempts at the supernatural melodrama until 1998. The first of these I’ll talk about is City of Angels (1998), a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) by, um, the guy who did Casper. Wings of Desire itself is only in part about the budding love between Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Marion (Solveig Dommartin), being also a survey of the psychic life of Berliners around the time the Wall came down. As such, it isn’t quite a core case of what I’m talking about here, though its emphasis on the sensual world- Peter Falk’s memorable paean to coffee and cigarettes, the transition from black and white to color as Damiel becomes human (so reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death’s association of monochrome with Heaven and Technicolor for the corporeal world)- resonates with many of the films in this vein. For its part, though, City of Angels immediately goes for the melodrama, the sentimental, and the obvious- even before settling into the love story. Where WoD allows us to listen in on the likes of a painter struggling for inspiration, or an old man reflecting on war and peace while gazing at the remains of the Wall, CoA’s angels witness the thoughts of a parent and her dying child, a new grandmother, the patients and doctors in a children’s ward in the hospital; where WoD shows a library, CoA, then, gives us a hospital. The library will appear, but much later, and when it does it becomes an opportunity for meditation not on history and national experience, not the specificity of experience, but some vague notion of Universality. It’s also far more overtly religious than Wings, despite the shared subject matter- and, in a very Hollywood way, distinctly New Age-y (all that stuff with sunrises at the beach- which, though, occasion some of the film’s most striking images).

Most screen time here is devoted to the love story, complete with a lot of scenes of Nicolas Cage’s Seth, basically, stalking Meg Ryan’s Maggie- watching her while she sleeps, for instance, anticipating Edward and Bella in the execrable Twilight. However increasingly cheesy their sexual encounters are, however predictable City of Angels is, there are a few things to be said for it: it’s certainly far better than it needed to be, with a number of nice lyrical moments, an exuberant embrace of sensuality (a recurring feature of these, as we have seen), a surprisingly good feel for LA as a location, and a classic Nic Cage freak-out once he becomes human and can feel for the first time. It’s also notable for being the rare Hollywood adaptation of an art film that has a darker ending than the original, though of course here it comes as a classically melodramatic twist played for sentiment as determinedly as possible (a viewer with any familiarity with this genre’s norms will figure out that something bad is going to happen as soon as the film starts to dwell on Maggie going shopping on her bike).

Also from 1998, Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black is a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, my copy of which arrived too late for part 1 of this blog series, but in time for this. The original is a deeply flawed film, its joints stiffened by a theatricality that’s dated badly. At the same time, if it’s a relic, it’s a consistently fascinating one. Early ‘30s theatrical styles of performance and staging, at least in their filmed versions, can have a strangely hypnotic quality oddly reminiscent of the performances in Heart of Glass (where Werner Herzog famously hypnotized all his actors before shooting their scenes); Browning’s Dracula comes to mind here (and Ulmer’s The Black Cat, and parts of Halperin’s White Zombie). In those cases, the effect comes in part from the collision of stagey artifice with uncanny subject matters, and that’s true here as well: Death (Frederic March) decides to take a holiday, and takes an aristocrat, Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), into his confidence to help him ease into the social world. The complication comes when Death falls in love with the man’s daughter, Grazia (Evelyn Venable).

Frederic March as Death as “Prince Sirki”

The film’s dreamlike quality is further emphasized by the fairy-tale-Europe setting and characters, and sparked by scattered moments of horror: Death’s initial and closing appearances as himself, and an extraordinary close-up of Death, in his human incarnation as “Prince Sirki”, revealing himself to another character by the horrific intensity of his gaze; darkness seems to bleed into the frame as March’s face swims out of focus. Death Takes a Holiday itself seems seduced by the unearthliness of Death’s presence here, just as Grazia is, and in this version she embraces Death, revealing at the end that she had in fact never fallen in love with Prince Sirki, but knew that he was Death all along. In another of this genre’s peculiar inversions of romance conventions, they walk off into eternity together at the end; in other words, Death claims her, and she willingly follows.

Another charm of Death Takes a Holiday, relative to Meet Joe Black, is that it tells its story in 79 minutes; Brest spends 3 hours on it, adding not much more to it than a plot about the father’s imminent death (known only by Death, assuming the identity of Joe Black when he becomes mortal, played by Brad Pitt; and the father, now an industrialist named William Parrish, played by Anthony Hopkins); his upcoming birthday party, organized one of his daughters, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden); and a subplot about corporate takeover. The party, along with Parrish’s knowledge of his mortality, occasions an extraordinarily repetitive succession of scenes between William, Allison, and her sister Susan (Claire Forlani), the object of Death/Joe’s affections. For the most part, then, the film is a leisurely, comfortably middlebrow rumination on career versus family, but it adds a level of melodrama over and above the original in the Joe/Susan relationship. In this version, the two meet in a coffee shop before Death takes over Brad Pitt’s body. The end of the scene in the coffee shop has the two of them walking away, but as they do so each turns to look at the other, only they miss each other’s glances- and then, Pitt is run over in the street, and Death intercedes. If unrestricted narration is most pointedly used in this instance, by establishing that it is this unnamed man Susan fell in love with, not Death/Joe Black as such, some poignancy is wrung out of our realization of her misunderstanding as they encounter each other throughout the film. This Death refuses to take Susan with him out of love for her, and then returns the man in the coffee shop to her, amidst an elaborate fireworks show at Parrish’s birthday, after Death and Parrish have gone to the afterlife together.

It really says something when the only way a director can create visual interest is by exploding some fireworks.

Lastly, 1998 saw the release of one genuinely eccentric studio supernatural melodrama: Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. Like Somewhere in Time, it’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, and like The Adjustment Bureau, it’s about a couple that must defy God’s laws to be together. Here, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) watches helplessly while his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) sinks into depression over the death of their two children in an auto accident. When he too dies in another car crash, he watches over her much as the men in Always and Ghost; but, recognizing that his imminent yet invisible presence is hurting her by keeping her stuck in mourning for him, he lets go of the Earth and goes to Heaven. When she kills herself out of despair, he hopes that they can be reunited, but of course suicides go Someplace Else, and he must journey to Hell and rescue her. Chris’ mission, with the help of his Heavenly guide Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and the Tracker (Max Von Sydow), is to find Annie, to reach out to her in the depths of her depression, and to lift her out of it so that they may be reunited in a Heaven of their own creation.

That this Heaven is essentially fluid, that it is whatever those who dwell there make of it, raises a number of enigmas for Chris on his journey. If Heaven may be remade by each soul, then as a consequence Chris finds that not everyone is as their appearance makes them seem: Chris learns that his Heavenly guide, Albert, is an old friend; that Leona (Rosalind Chao) is actually his daughter Marie, having assumed a form sparked by a father-daughter moment during a family vacation; and the Tracker (Max Von Sydow) who helps him journey to Hell to find Annie is in fact his son Ian. This conception of Heaven is also the source of the film’s saving grace. What Dreams May Come is wall-to-wall with New Age-y platitudes, and, unfortunately, Robin Williams is in pretty much every scene. On the other hand, by making Heaven the product of the imaginations of the souls there, Ward has his rationale for creating an extraordinary series of CGI spectacles. It’s a little heavy on the Maxfield Parrish, especially in the “common spaces” of Heaven (which must be externally stable spaces, rather than re-imagined by each of those who go there), but the film is gorgeous, if garish, to look at, completely un-restrained by any notion of realism. In this respect, it is the most overtly surreal film in this group; on the other, since we are after all in the afterlife, the disruptive (if not necessarily subversive) potential in other supernatural melodramas, where Love enables the defiance of the laws of physical reality, is moot here.

Chris’ Heaven. What Dreams May Come

Because Chris is an art-lover, at first his vision of Heaven is as an inhabitable painting; just not a very good one

Heaven’s communal space

Hell. One of the faces Chris runs across is Werner Herzog.

A few other films deserve a mention here before we move on; none of them are core cases of the supernatural romantic melodrama, but all demonstrate the various strands that spin out of it. Francis Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) is one such film: a woman (Kathleen Turner) passes out at her high school reunion and inexplicably travels back in time to her high-school years and remembers why she fell in love with the man who in the present she is about to divorce (Nicolas Cage). Here, the supernatural- time travel- is not a barrier to couple-formation, but an occasion for reflection on the heroine’s life choices. The comedy-drama Prelude to a Kiss (1992) rates a mention, an outlier that gives us a couple (Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan) separated not by death but by body-swapping, as the woman switches bodies with an old man on the couple’s wedding day. Stuck in his body, she gradually learns to embrace life’s possibilities despite her fears of the future. Abre los ojos (1997) and its remake Vanilla Sky (2001) don’t quite fit here, being near-future love stories told through dreams. Just Like Heaven (2005) is another comedic romantic fantasy, as an architect (Mark Ruffalo) falls in love with the psychic projection of a doctor (Reese Witherspoon) whose apartment he rents when she’s fallen into a coma. Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005), is about a man who, in practicing his wedding vows, finds himself inadvertently “married” to a dead woman, this becoming an obstacle to his actual wedding; it’s not a melodrama, and as a typically Burton, stylized, Gothic animated film, it falls well outside of my parameters. Likewise the superhero film is more science fiction/fantasy than surreality, but of course the love stories in the Superman, Spider-Man, and Hulk series are also beset by unusual barriers between couples.

Finally, there’s the forking-path love story: Sliding Doors, Premonition, and, on television, Awake. Here, some vaguely defined notion of alternate realities allows for variations on romantic melodrama narratives, but without actually constituting a barrier as such. In Fringe, however science-fiction its premise, the notion of alternate realities is a very real barrier for Olivia and Peter, and so that will need a bit more elaboration… next time.

To be continued.

Next up: TV, the arthouse

Thanks to Jo Murphy and Teri Higgins for suggestions for this entry in the series.

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