10 great films about non-romantic love

Because love is a many-splendored thing, and not just for romantics…

Sophie Monks Kaufman
Updated:

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Toni Erdmann (2016)

What is love? Always something privately meaningful. But its power stems from a wildness at odds with the broad sentimental visions invoked by pop culture. We would be better served if, like the ancient Greeks, we had different words for different types of love and explored specificity instead of generic goo.

Of all types of love, one receives disproportionate celebration. Monogamous romantic partnership is deemed both the path to, and destination of, success and happiness. Irrespective of the fact that bad romances can be shattering, and that power imbalances thrive behind closed doors, lobotomised romanticism is still cranked out by the ‘love industry’. There are many proffering romantic bullshit in the name of a catchy lyric, sugar-high finale or saleable marketing copy; this article is dedicated to films that depict other forms of love.

The titles below march to the beat of strong and strange emotional attachments, infusing them with a sense impression that lingers in the memory like a flash of lightning against the night sky.

Love Streams (1984)

Director John Cassavetes

Love Streams (1984)

Starring the director alongside his wife Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ penultimate film shows the brilliance of their long-term creative partnership. He plays Robert, a shambolic writer-womaniser with a wolfish charm and an alcohol dependence. She is Sarah, whose magical belief in love means she cannot cope when her marriage ends and her daughter opts to live with her ex-husband. Robert and Sarah are brother and sister with a tender, knowing dynamic powered by inside-out familiarity.

Across 141 minutes, Cassavetes ensures Robert and Sarah stew in their own juices, but the most glorious scenes occur when they try to help each other with the full force of their flawed beings. The sequence of Sarah visiting an animal farm to secure a pet companion for her brother seems to contain every emotion under the sun. John and Gena are right: love is a stream.

Mother and Son (1997)

Director Aleksandr Sokurov

Mother and Son (1997)

“A man goes for a walk through the countryside with his dying mother” reads the IMDb logline for Mother and Son. That’s it, that’s the story. But stark visuals and loaded conversations give Russian director Alexandr Sokurov’s film a primal, spiritual power. The son (Aleksei Ananishnov) is a strapping specimen who carries his shrunken mother (Gudrun Geyer) in his arms in a pose described as “La Pietà in reverse”. The way cinematographer Aleksei Fyodorov frames these contrasting figures within the landscapes is aesthetically dramatic at every turn.

The dialogue occurs in a realm of intimacy that only the imminent spectre of death can conjure. The circle of life contains the cruelty of losing loved ones, yet parting isn’t always a violence. With final conversations, communication becomes close to divine. Mother and Son is a transcendent relationship drama that’s likely to transport anyone familiar with the feeling of pre-emptive grief in the face of a loved one dying.

Old Joy (2006)

Director Kelly Reichardt

Old Joy (2006)

“Sorrow is just worn out joy.” So speaks Mark (Daniel London) to his friend Kurt (Will Oldham) as a fraught road-trip climaxes in relief. The pair are bathing naked in hot springs and Mark’s face is a map of pleasure. They have arrived at the destination pitched by Kurt, a restless free spirit whose anti-establishment patter now is wearing thin with Mark, who is domestically settled with a pregnant wife. Still, old bonds die hard, and Mark opts to piss off his wife by joining Kurt on this spontaneous trip.

Kelly Reichardt’s second feature explores the layers of a friendship in its final act, with goodness at its core. A naturalistic script locates the awkwardness of two people trying to stay in the sweet spot of rapport despite now embodying different values. Although life has driven a wedge through what we infer was once a close alliance, the spirit of nostalgia, affection and a cache of shared experiences culminate in a poignant atmosphere.

Rough Aunties (2008)

Director Kim Longinotto

Rough Aunties

Most of Kim Longinotto’s documentaries bear witness to women across the world whose social work is carried out with such conviction that it amounts to love. Brenda in Dreamcatcher (2015) drives a van around Chicago offering solace and prophylactics to distressed sex workers; Sampat in Pink Saris (2010) confronts abusive men and empowers downtrodden women in Uttar Pradesh.

Rough Aunties, set in Durban, South Africa, has ended up on this list ahead of other titles because of the fierce love that flows between the five female members of volunteer group Operation Bobbi Bear and the abused, forgotten and neglected kids they work around the clock to protect. The brutality the children have suffered makes the documentary almost too painful to watch. What remains is the staunch humanity of the rough aunties, who inspire a determination to face up to the darkness of what humans are capable of inflicting, through a brew of pragmatism and compassion.

Attenberg (2010)

Director Athina Rachel Tsangari

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010)

Forget Yorgos Lanthimos. The first stop for deadpan Greek filmmakers should be Athina Rachel Tsangari. Her debut feature (in which Lanthimos plays a role) is best-known for its depiction of female friendship, and this writer has endless time for the po-faced dance routines that Marina (Ariane Labed) and her spiky pal Bella (Evangelia Randou) perform to fill the time in their desolate town.

That said, the relationship between Marina and her dying father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) is what gives the film its resonance and its name. The pair are David Attenborough die-hards and, in one memorable sequence, bounce around a bed pretending to be monkeys, with a bracing lack of vanity. Their lack of guile, willingness to share and shared eccentricity is proof enough of their closeness. The graceful way Tsangari portrays their dynamic hints at a love that will endure even after death.

The BFG (2016)

Director Steven Spielberg

The BFG (2016)

There are multiple screen adaptations of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s story about the friendship between an orphan girl and a big friendly giant. The Spielberg touch brings the magic of this premise to the fore, leaning into the euphoria of having a stern life in an orphanage shaken up by the arrival of a dream-blowing, big-eared giant who speaks in his own endearing idiolect.

Part odd-couple buddy movie, part epic adventure story, The BFG is all about friends who bring out the best in each other and help each other to overcome their fears, amounting to a knock-on positive effect in the human world at large. When little Sophie takes a literal leap of faith out of a window, to John Williams music, and is caught by a giant hand that sweeps in out of nowhere, it brings home how miraculous it can feel to be caught by love.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Director Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann (2017)

I remember going to the first Cannes press screening of Toni Erdmann and afterwards feeling like I, and everybody around me, was walking on air. The boulevards outside were the streets of London after England beat Sweden in the 2018 World Cup quarter finals. That feeling of communal discovery was incremental. The film slow-burned across three hours until it was on fire, and then everyone was on their feet, clapping and glossy-eyed.

Maren Ade’s first two features, The Forest for the Trees (2003) and Everyone Else (2009), were great but not widely distributed. Toni Erdmann made her name because the character study of a practical joker father and his stern workaholic daughter had its timing and structure calibrated to rousing perfection. The humour hits first; meanwhile the stakes sneak up in the disguise of a wig and false teeth. The greatest love of all is systematically reminding someone of their capacity to feel joy.

My Life as a Courgette (2016)

Director Claude Barras

My Life as a Courgette (2016)

The truest works of art have a tonal range that defies easy understanding. This 66-minute Swiss animation, full of adorable large-headed puppets, does not advertise that it is a tearjerker about traumatised kids learning to trust again. ‘Courgette’ is the chosen name of nine-year-old protagonist Icare, who is taken into care after his alcoholic mother abandons him. He slowly begins to bond with the other kids and a policeman named Raymond.

Emotional sophistication is at work beneath a microscopically detailed and inventive aesthetic. Its gravity begins to make sense after you know that the screenplay was written by Céline Sciamma, whose enveloping accounts of complex growing pains can be found in her own films as director: Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). It never wallows in the grimness of what the children have been through, although sweet spots when they come feel desperately needed and deserved. Not a drop of this lean runtime is wasted, and the swollen feelings leak off the screen.

Journey to a Mother’s Room (2018)

Director Celia Rico Clavellino

Journey to a Mother's Room (2018)

Spanish director Celia Rico Clavellino’s debut feature, a domestic miniature, premiered at San Sebastián Film Festival last year before playing at the London Film Festival. Hopefully, it will resurface elsewhere.

Lola Dueñas (favourite of Pedro Almodóvar and Lucrecia Martel) is Estrella, and Anna Castillo is her teenage daughter Leonor – both quietly trying to forge ahead after a significant bereavement. This is detail-oriented filmmaking par excellence. Clavellino enlivens the primary setting (a small working-class home), directing her actresses to react with every fibre of their being to mundane or unexpected events – like calls from service providers, or stumbling upon the dead person’s possessions. The mother-daughter love is built upon small acts of practical caregiving – making sure there is ham in, gifting boots ahead of a trip and having a bash at WhatsApp in order to bridge new distances. 

High Life (2018)

Director Claire Denis

High Life (2018)

Of course, this being a Claire Denis movie, there is a lot going on thematically. One aspect of the French maestro’s English language debut (slated for release 10 May 2019) is a portrayal of parenthood as providing a sanctuary against the infinite void.

Robert Pattinson as Monte and Scarlett Lindsey as baby Willow are the last survivors of a once chaotic spaceship full of convicts, sent into space to harvest energy from black holes. Despite the bleakness of the mission, Monte patiently does the necessaries to keep the eerily quiet craft speeding onwards, before returning to Willow’s side: feeding her, entertaining her, cradling her, shepherding her growth. It’s indescribably moving to see a man looking after his baby as they hurtle ever further from Earth and all human life. Numerous metaphoric readings are available, but the most obvious literal situation is stark. It’s futile to care but care we must. 

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