You know something‘s wrong when you see two love stories back-to-back but can’t work up much of a passion about either of them. What‘s troubling in the case of the love stories premiering this week is that both are made by first-time writer-directors of such impressive talent that I’m tempted to concede the failure is mine. Performances in each are passionate; in one, the sense of humor is infectious, and in the other, the feeling for beauty, whether in a landscape or a face, is deeply communicated. And yet, mysteriously, neither picture jumps to that level of myth or fairy tale that the truth about love paradoxically requires.
Love & Sex, from writer-director Valerie Breiman, is undermined at first by the bland vastness of its title, but quickly recovers. Kate (Famke Janssen) is a writer on the rebound from a long affair with a gifted but difficult painter, Adam (Jon Favreau). The inventory of her men prior to Adam wrings good laughs as they skitter by. Her first lover was her high school French teacher, whom she shyly calls “Mr. Bozard,” even while they‘re in bed. “I think we got off on the wrong foot,” says a later suitor as he sits cuffed in the back seat of a squad car.
Breiman has vaudeville timing, while Janssen proves herself an actress of delightful range, and their tour of Kate’s life, enhanced by a flow of voice-over, offers a female counterpart to John Cusack‘s romantic free-falls in High Fidelity. Unfortunately, Favreau’s Adam never comes alive as the Chance of a Lifetime that Iben Hjejle was able to become for Cusack, given the luxury of Stephen Frears‘ direction and big-studio budget. Breiman, making an indie, must depict connubial intimacy in five scenes, where Frears and company had a dozen — and the strain shows as Kate and Adam repeatedly break and make up. Their fights are easier to believe than any abiding attraction.
Attraction is about the only thing guaranteed the two lovers in Solomon & Gaenor, who recognize each other the instant their eyes meet. We’re in the repressed heart of Welsh mining country, circa 1911. An instinctive hatred the villagers feel for the Jewish immigrants living just over the neighboring mountain is succinctly indicated in the first exchange of dialogue. Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) is a young Jewish tradesman who passes for a gentile as he sells garments door-to-door. Gaenor (Nia Roberts) is immune to any bigotry: Sweet-spirited, sheltered, obliged to wait hand and foot on her parents and siblings, she is just as ready to meet a man as different as Solomon as he — squirming at his parents‘ Orthodoxy — is primed to meet her.
Fate, alas, wearing a pair of lead boots borrowed from Thomas Hardy, takes a predictable stroll over their hopes. First-time writer-director Paul Morrison has a gift for evoking a time and place, and for its sheer luminosity of texture, it’s no surprise that Solomon & Gaenor received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film this year. (In addition to English, the languages spoken are Welsh and Yiddish, which sound nearly identical.) Gruffudd, with his angelic looks and dreamy gentility, is appealingly the more “female” of the two; Roberts, with her lovely sealskin brows and hard eyes, is, for all the fragility ascribed to Gaenor, no trembling virgin, but the one who takes charge, elevating attraction into passion. Together, they offer fleeting hope this pair will escape, but other movies — Feast of July, Jude and Dreaming of Joseph Lees — have mapped this territory too thoroughly. Solomon & Gaenor is defeated by deja vu.
The end also baits the question, What‘s the point? And this is a problem it has in common with Love & Sex. The only self-evident point in each case is that the filmmakers are skillful at holding our interest. They haven’t yet surprised their way to a transforming insight one can take away. In part, this is because the characters don‘t transform: Solomon and Gaenor remain the same sweet, courageous pair no matter what befalls them; Kate and Adam might as well stay together as leave, and vice versa. There are as many love stories as there are people to live them, and our need to hear everybody else’s tale of rapture and woe is probably the oldest drive in human intelligence. The quest for food got us out of the trees, but the quest for gossip fed the campfires that raised civilization. Love is always interesting, but to be successful, a love story has to somehow answer the question, Why bother? If it doesn‘t, one might as well take a hint from the doomed and befuddled lovers, and stay at home.