Between all the fuzzy sweaters, blanket coziness, and cool-weather-induced snuggling, fall is the perfect season for indulging in romance, off and on the big screen. But when it comes to the movies, romance traditionally means "boy-meets-girl", with little variation save for the meet-cutes. This season might just mark a turning point — for once, youthful straight couples are in the minority compared to a more diverse array of relationships. Whether it's the sexual tension between two young men in Call Me By Your Name, the portrayal of loving polyamory in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, or the cross-species romance blossoming in The Shape Of Water, this fall movie season is all about inclusive romances.
Considering the fact that majority of romance films portray monogamous, heteronormative, able-bodied coupling as the default, these movies are defying the norms, and not standing by the usual Hollywood convention. They aren't necessarily perfect, of course; there may be cries of tokenism or Oscar bait, and films like Stronger and Breathe have gotten criticism for using able-bodied actors as characters "overcoming" disability. But regardless, representation is vitally important, so even if some depictions are flawed, it's a step forward from no portrayal at all.
1. Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name, the steamy summer coming-of-age romance between a teenager and his father's teaching assistant, is being called just a romance — not an Important Message Movie about gay acceptance, or the brutal realities of coming out in an unfriendly world... just a gorgeous, sensual, steamy romance. That's it. And for many people, that's exactly what they've been waiting for: romantic escapism that happens to be gay, not where gayness is present yet the movie still manages to erase or downplay specifically queer sexuality.
2. BPM (Beats Per Minute)
War and adversity in the abstract is often a backdrop for romance, but in this case the battles and relationships are inextricably intertwined. Set in '90s Paris and following the ACT UP, an activist group struggling to bring attention and action to the AIDS epidemic, BPM (Beats Per Minute) depicts the group members' loud, unapologetic, and messy romantic relationships as they literally fight for their lives against bureaucracy and prejudice. A far cry from Philadelphia, this film is as brash as ACT UP's shock tactics, and blunt in its depiction of the ravages of AIDS. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Robin Campillo said, “I’ve dressed up a boyfriend on his death,” explaining how the pain of his firsthand experience fed directly into the film.
3. Battle Of The Sexes
Battle Of The Sexes is named after the infamous 1973 tennis match between cartoonishly chauvinist has-been Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) and feminist star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), but the unexpected romance between King and hairdresser Marilyn Barnett is the real focus. King was married to a man at the time, and between exploring her newfound sexuality and haranguing the entire tennis league for equal pay for women, she fought two major fronts at once. Though the film's been said to sugarcoat some of the harsher aspects of King's struggles, the surprised sweetness of a determined woman realizing she can and is falling in love is what sets the tone; that it happens to be her first lesbian relationship is not.
4. Professor Marston & The Wonder Women
Another period romance based on real life, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women puts the polyamorous relationship of psychologist Elisabeth Marston, her husband Professor William Marston, and William's teaching assistant Olive Byrne front and center. Together, the trio created comic icon Wonder Woman, and after William died, Elisabeth and Olive continued their relationship. The group faced considerable difficulty in the 1930s, which you can imagine, considering polyamory is still regarded as suspect today. On top of that, they practiced bondage and domination, elements of which (whips, cuffs, corsets, high boots) worked their way into Wonder Woman's identity.
In a Washington Press interview, director Angela Robinson (The L Word) said she specifically wanted to avoid the depiction of kink as negative or transgressive. "I wasn’t interested in what they were doing with each other. It was about freedom and fantasy — that in this fantastical space with these costumes, they could be the truest versions of themselves," Robinson said. The result is a biopic that manages to avoid prurience or irony, and feels more traditionally romantic than most traditional romances.
Breathe, the directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis, focuses on another early struggle for normalization. The film is based on the life of Robin Cavendish, who, after contracting polio in 1958, became paralyzed from the neck down, requiring a respirator to breathe. His wife refused to let him succumb to depression, and the two of them embarked on living life in the open, during a time when the disabled were treated as invalids. While the film's been accused of trivializing disability by skimming all but the most surface problems and prejudices, its airiness could be seen as an attempt to explain the film's own message — we all know real relationships have problems, but romances are idealizations, and this seems to be Serkis' take.
Real-life Boston everyguy Jeff Bauman was a far from perfect boyfriend, and his attempt to make up for it put him at the center of the Boston Marathon bombings. Bauman's double amputation affected not only him but girlfriend Erin Hurley; his discomfort with sudden fame, painful physical therapy, and fears took their toll on them both as Hurley tried to support him. Stronger shows their struggle, warts-and-all, and the film's message is a grittier take on romance's "the power of love triumphs." But like Call Me By Your Name, it doesn't shy away from the specifics of life lived differently than the world's considered default.
A character-driven documentary about a woman who knows what she wants but is patiently frustrated trying to get it, Dina follows its titular character, who wants more passion and sex than her boyfriend-turned-husband, Scott. The film shows Dina and Scott up to and after their wedding, with Dina patiently attempting to get Scott to understand her needs, and Scott, sweet and caring, trying to listen. The situation is complicated by Dina's host of mental and emotional issues and Scott's Asperger Syndrome, but the film presents a sincere, straightforward love story without dismissing or patronizing their disabilities.
8. The Shape Of Water
Despite those who think of him as a monster-and-robots sort of guy, it's no surprise to see horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro take a full step towards love, as his eerie Crimson Peak was a marvel of high-gothic romance. The Shape Of Water is a fairy tale of warm love during the Cold War, between a cleaning woman at a top-secret government facility, and the facility's most recent acquisition. While an amphibious fish-man might not be a typical leading man, del Toro had his reasons. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter he explained, “If you say 'love,' you are immediately taken down three pegs in your intelligence scale. You are sappy.” His solution was to abstract it from the ordinary, giving people distance to revel fully in romance.
The most important element in all these films is the normalization of what, for many, is normal, despite Hollywood historically pretending otherwise. And the generally positive reception these films have received so far for merits other than their "otherness" bodes well for the next round of romance movies reflecting the real, diverse world around them.