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love, actually
how two modern movies got it right
by michelle von euw

The great Hollywood love stories rarely had happy endings. Would we still be talking about Casablanca if Ilsa didn’t get on that plane? Would anyone care that love means never having to say you’re sorry if Ali MacGraw didn’t die in the end? Would we believe it if pinko Barbra Streisand and straight-laced Robert Redford actually stayed together? Our romantic tales spring from the roots of Romeo and Juliet, and we all know how well that ended.

But the predominance of the romantic comedy changed this ideal, and for the most part, our love stories have evolved into happily-ever-after, headed straight from the big screen to the Lifetime network, women’s films. Guy rescues Girl, and as Julia Roberts so cheekily put it in Pretty Woman, she rescues him right back.

It may not be surprising, then, that with the two best love stories I’ve seen on film during the last year, neither of them have featured the traditional happy ending. And yet, neither story suffered from the lack, and both were able to successfully capture the complicated ideal of love better than any of the fluffier films that have called themselves love stories.

The first is Once, the beautiful little poem of a musical, an independent film by all definitions of the word that stars not actors trying to sing, but actual, real musicians. The story is not a documentary –- listen to writer/director John Carney speak about the film for more than three seconds, and he’s quick to say how driven Glen Hansard is, unlike the Guy he plays, how Marketa Irglova would never be so forward, like the Girl -– but something about this movie makes the viewer believe, if only for a moment, it is. It’s real in the way it carefully unfolds a variety of topics –- from songwriting to poverty to chemical attraction -– in a way that Hollywood rarely ever gets right. Too often, movies want to make a comment, want to editorialize too much, but this movie just lays it all open.

To convince an audience that two characters fall in love, change each other’s lives, and separate within the space of a week or so, without any physical connection, not even a kiss, is quite a feat, but one that Once accomplishes with great skill.

In some aspects, Waitress is exactly the opposite. “In the beginning, it was just sex,” Jenna tells her unborn baby when describing the affair she embarks upon with her OB-GYN. When described, the setup sounds campy at best, preposterously soapy at worst, but in the hands of writer/director Adrienne Shelly, and with Keri Russell showing unrealized depth in the role of a waitress stuck in a marriage to a complete horror of a husband, the camp and the soap fade away.

It may start as something physical (and tortured, as affairs often are), but the relationship that grows between Russell’s Jenna and the smitten doctor, played by Nathan Fillion (here, as always, seeped in lost-boy charm), is one that sparkles with depth and richness. In the imaginary world of bright pinks and blues and yellows and descriptively named pies (Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Pie) that Shelly builds, we believe that the very real character Jenna is right to grab onto love wherever she can find it.

Just as Shelly carefully molded every detail of her made up universe, so much of Once is the very real world of Dublin that Carney captures on screen. To tell the story of a busker who fixes vacuum cleaners in his father’s shop and an immigrant who sells flowers and magazines on the streets, Carney sets his characters in the basic every day world of a cold Northern European city that’s not exactly known for its opulence to begin with. But there’s no overly romanticized view of working-class life, nor is there squalor or dark underbelly seediness. It just is what it is.

It is within this world of Dublin that the love story of the Guy and the Girl plays out, all the way to its unsorted conclusion: she promises to come say goodbye to him before he leaves for London, she doesn’t, he leaves without seeing her, but sends her a piano. Our last shots of the Guy are in the long hallway of the Heathrow Airport, and our last shots of the Girl are of her, sitting at her new piano, and looking out her window.

But that’s not it. That’s never it. If we read the reviews or pay attention to any of the press we know that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova actually fell in love during the filming of this movie and are now together. It’s not a documentary, but it is. And if we watch the commentary, Hansard reveals that in that very last shot of the Guy, Irglova was actually standing right beside him, just out of the camera’s view. It’s almost impossible to separate this knowledge, once you have it, from your interpretation of the movie. Guy and Girl don’t end up together… but there’s a way that they could.

As long as it’s not on screen.

In Waitress, Jenna leaves her rotten husband, and then, more gently, leaves her doctor-lover as well. I can’t help but think that in a male director’s hands, there’d be a deep sadness, a loneliness, echoing Streisand’s Katie, also alone on the brink of motherhood in The Way We Were, but in Adrienne Shelly’s world, there is nothing but joy on Keri Russell’s beautiful face. “This movie is a love letter to (my daughter),” Shelly says in the commentary of the film, and this point of view is captured perfectly in the “happy ending” she gives Jenna and her daughter Lulu.

And it’s this point of view that makes Shelly’s murder even more tragic; American cinema has lost a female voice that began to demonstrate with Waitress a new way of looking at familiar themes.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw


green light, red light
it's still a man's world, and we're just living in it
by michelle von euw
topic: film
published: 12.10.01

30 going on 13
why jennifer garner’s got it backwards
by michelle von euw
topic: film
published: 5.7.04


jael mchenry
3.12.08 @ 12:47p

I loved both these movies... and I agree that part of my enjoyment was in the non-conventional ending. If Once had ended with a chase through the street with one person almost missing but just catching the other, and a big silver screen swoop of a kiss... what a miserable letdown that would have been!

The endings fit the movies. Much more important than whether those endings were "happy" in a conventional way.

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