The art of misunderstanding love

January 22, 2013

If the first words you heard from your true love were, “Your head’s a turnip! I’ve always hated turnips,” would you persevere?

Hegel wrote, “Love means … knowing myself as the unity of myself with another and the other with me.” Of the paradox that love can be self-affirming even as it renders one’s independence inadequate and makes one feel defective without the other, he said, “Love is at once the propounding and the resolving of this contradiction.”

When love is on the line, the very idea of it can be enough to inspire flights of fancy that are more willful obliviousness to reality than anything else. The Princess Bride is the absolute worst offender in fanaticism about first love and belying the risk of a Romeo and Juliet- or Count of Monte Cristo-scale disaster in uncompromising romantic adventures.


New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.

The antidote? Johnny Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco takes all the seriousness out of such matters in an escapade through inpatient psychiatry, to the delight of a cantankerous and burned-out psychiatrist (Marlon Brando). No spectacled clinician can argue with a patient who knows Flamenco.

Willow, on the other hand, is delightfully disrespectful of love poetry (“I dwell in darkness without you, and it went away?”). This is a rather important point, but Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing turns skepticism on its head, in a proof that word play can reconcile forsworn lovers in spite of their best judgment.

Happily, the lovers enjoy one another’s teasing far more than the “halting sonnets” their devious match-makers steal from poorly-guarded hiding places and deliver:

A miracle! here’s our own hands against our hearts.
Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take
thee for pity.

I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield
upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,
for I was told you were in a consumption.

Another enchanted moment in the Branagh Shakespeare collection is tucked away at the end of Henry V. At the right moment, it occurs to Henry to make a favorable impression on the princess of unconquered France. The newly-mets are sweetly frank, hence theirs is the humor of ceremonious makers of manners. But manners are not for everyone.

Alatriste is the beautiful maturation of the romantic swashbuckling genre, redeeming the sentiment that burns true, without pretending there is sure to be a happy ending. For more heartbreak starring Viggo Mortensen and Ariadna Gil, Appaloosa is generous toward the notion that romance is defensible, even when “true love” is a difference of degrees in loyalty.

“Bewildering spring ..
And our two horses had traced out the valleys;
Knew the low flooded lands squared out with poplars,
In the young days when the deep sky befriended.
.. and then the counterthrust:
‘Why do you love me? Will you always love me?
But I am like the grass, I can not love you.’
Or, ‘Love, and I love and love you,
And hate your mind, not you, your soul, your hands.’

.. shut up in his castle, Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone – ah, gone – untouched, unreachable!
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save to one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors . . . !”

– Ezra Pound

Howl’s Moving Castle is the ultimate fangirling allegory, with an adventuress at large who is blissfully oblivious to which Prince Charming has been waiting on her Happily Ever After. Exorbitant in the unrealistic charm department, Howl gives Sophie all the excuse she needs to let her spirit blur the attractions of storybook romance with the escapist pleasures of exploring all things make-believe.

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