I think it is safe to say we have all struggled with the blurring of reality and fantasy in our romantic lives. Film, while marvelous, often leaves us starry-eyed and convinced love will find us regardless of who we are or what we do. That is its biggest gift to audiences, and one of the reasons people line theaters to watch even the most offensive of Katherine Heigl offerings.
Decades of studying romantic gestures in film, however, has left me a little touchy about the real life application of such moves. While we might find Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) absolutely adorable when he’s proving his endurance by bravely holding a virginity theme song blasting boom box over his head outside his ex-lover Diane’s (Ione Skye) window in Say Anything, he’s actually more crazy than not. The truth of the matter is that if some man stood below our window blaring music at six in the morning, someone might get shot. (Full disclosure: I’m from Texas, y’all).
It’s sweet and silently exaggerates his devotion to Diane, and leaves the girls in the audience swooning and the boys thinking they could be so suave. But in the real world, Llyod is very pathetic and arguably a little stalkery. Lucky for him, Diane likes that about him the most and races down to take him back, wearing nothing but her nightgown and personality.
More than once, the lovelorn have tried to reenact this move on the real life object of their desire, with less than similar results. Best case scenario they end up with a personal escort by the town’s finest, concluding with some embarrassment and possibly even more unrequited feelings for the other person. Worst case scenario the girl’s dad finds out—and we know that never ends well. But stalker activity aside, large romantic gestures are meant to symbolize the doer’s loving feelings and loyalty. Unfortunately, they are sometimes lost in translation.
Thanks to Ryan Gosling, ladies have come to idolize the love letter. The concept had kind of vanished over the years, not appearing as a main film trope since the mid-90s with Shakespeare in Love and the remake of An Affair to Remember. It wasn’t until 2004’s saccharine, melodramatic (I use both of those words with endearment) masterpiece The Notebook and 2007’s Atonement that the tawdry love letter played a huge role in keeping a couple together, despite their odds.
While the love letter is used completely differently in both films, it’s their confiscation that makes them so enticing. The Notebook’s Anne Hamilton (Joan Allen) keeps her daughter Allie’s mail from her during the four years Allie’s lover Noah (Gosling) is shipped off to fight in World War II. She believes he has forgotten her, and he believes she has abandoned him at his most vulnerable. His letters are a constant reminder to Anne that Noah was never good enough for her daughter, yet his persistence makes her not so unwilling to hand them over once she has been caught in the lie. The couple can reunite and read the letters together post old-timey sexy-times.
Meanwhile, the single, sensual love letter in Atonement motivates the future action of all the film’s characters. Robbie (James McAvoy) has been getting it on with heiress Cecilia (Keira Knightley). The two are in love, and as two lusty adults do, they share their love in more than one way. Rather than finish his writing project, after a particularly enticing time with Cecilia, Robbie sits down at his typewriter to hammer out a salacious note to his lover. In it he writes his love confession and ends it with a dream about kissing her most intimate of places. He quickly extracts the letter, starts anew, and places both in two separate envelopes with the intention to keep the vulgar one and deliver the other one to Cecilia. Well, as happens in life, he gives the wrong one to Cecilia’s meddlesome sister Briony who cannot keep herself from reading it, and she believes Robbie has terrible intentions for her sister. Later that evening she spies the couple having sex and a few hours later another girl is found raped and battered in the forest. All fingers point at Robbie, as Briony has informed them he raped Cecilia earlier in the evening. The love letter he hoped would win over Cecilia in fact ripped them apart.
Today, we may not write out full love letters (or emails) but we do rely heavily on texts and instant messaging. When one does take the time to draft a considerate long-form confession of feelings, it is nearly impossible to think the receiver wouldn’t jump for joy over the end result. Think again. Often the receiving of a love letter is so overwhelming it causes the other person to either 1) reject the person flat out or 2) use the letter as an excuse to realize their feelings are nowhere as intense as the other person’s. Yes, this sounds incredibly harsh, and actually rather immature, but feelings and emotion are not rational beasts. And when forced to hold a mirror to them, we tend to flinch before we embrace.
I have been both the receiver and doer of many less than successful over the top romantic attempts I first saw in films, from jumping out of a moving car to confess my feelings for a boy who three minutes earlier told me it just wasn’t working to blocking a man who wrote me a three paged poem, and I’m constantly reminding myself that’s probably why I’m still single. Not in a terrible way, just in a I’m-going-to-die-alone-with-dogs sort of way.
But at least I will have the company of Nancy Meyers’s movies which encourage my delusional that I will find the love of my life. I may just have to wait until I’m 60 and Meryl Streep. After, of course, I open a bakery in the East Hamptons.