Deconstructing my favorite sub-genre: Dream Realism Romance

I watched Bi Gan’s mesmerizing Long Day’s Journey Into Night at New York Film Festival in October 2018. I liked it for the most part and felt it was quite original, but it hadn’t exactly grown on me. Until during summer of 2019, it returned at Metrograph and I decided to rewatch it partly because I had many prepaid passes. That screening changed everything. After that, I watched it five more times, probably at every theater it screened in New York, treating some of my friends, insisting many others. Many films have had a profound impact on me, but rarely any of them has enveloped itself around me with such intensely mesmerizing feeling of love. It’s a film that keeps giving. By third watch, I finally started realizing that the puzzling plot is not something you should focus on comprehending, because the film wants you to be lost within its oneiric world(s), getting stirred by a musical note, deriving calmness over a lush green leaf or feeling the past looking at a deteriorated wall.

This thought of never having a conventional, definite resolution to a story, and especially that of romance, perhaps the most universal subject matter, later connected itself to other films that gave me a similar feeling. Those were Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, the latter of which I watched earlier in 2019. Around late 2019, I increasingly became interested in Film Programming and the first triple feature I thought of was these three films. Few months later, I got to watch Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, another gentle & magnificent fantasy-tinged romance, which is when I started clearly seeing a sub-genre: Dream Realism Romance.

A film is much more than its story. It’s a world but experienced from someone else’s eyes & ears, without much agency. In a sense, it’s sort of like someone sharing their memories with you. Usually, it’s a protagonist of the story, but like any other person, arguably those memories, the truth of the story is unreliable. I cannot think of any other genre that has this phenomenon running within its veins. Disbelief or confounding occurrences is what these stories thrive upon.

There’s also a lot of fascination with the past. Time often works differently within the films, not just fractured but often looping, building upon the fact that an unrequited love, an incomplete romance remains with you regardless of the stage of life you’re at. And the moments of union are difficult to believe as something that really happened. Could this just be simple nod to the fact that the whole concept of Love itself has mystical connotations, which more often than not incurs metaphysical experiences for those who feel it intensely? All this surrealism is quite apparent in Pandora, Marienbad and LDJIN, maybe less so in Mood For Love, but I still believe that not every event in the latter is something that actually happened. The way Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan break out of portraying their respective spouses makes me question the authenticity of most of their encounters. The fact that we never see other couple’s faces adds to the subjectivity of even the simplest emotions felt by our main couple.

The dialogues are as rhetoric & repetitive as it is poetic. These are the characters whose minds are quite occupied with themselves. Not that there aren’t other sides to them, but this side is particularly dominant & vulnerable. Most film scenes can be broken down as one character pursuing other character(s) for something, but here it remains too apparent. It contrasts itself within Pandora & Marienbad, while it becomes quite a bit of back & forth with Mood For Love and LDJIN. Interestingly, love-triangle (occasionally infidelity) is a common sub-plot within all the four films. There are other forces keeping the lovers apart, but another spouse is probably the biggest force of them all.

Ornamental is the word that comes to mind when thinking about the diverse yet cohesively vibrant visual texture of each of the films, not in the strict sense of the word’s palatial undertone, but as the lushness of objects & spaces around the characters. Moodiness is clearly the primary objective of each filmmaker, as evident in the underlit, high-contrast lighting and in the choice of score. The temporality is slower throughout in both camera and musical movements. As if to slow down the time for increasing the moments of union. I believe it’s also an act of seduction, which is again a prominent feature of every scene involving persuasion.

I am just scratching the surface so far and each of these masterworks require long, separate analysis, but having watched them within a span of an influential year, I felt that I witnessed a sub-genre evolve over the course of the time. Pandora had a lot of the narrative as well as visualization qualities that felt like building blocks for Marienbad’s fabric, much later evident in Mood For Love while Long Day’s Journey is the synthesis of not just these but many, many films. Thinking about the homages in Long Day’s Journey, a possible inclusion of Hitchcock’s Vertigo comes to mind, however the latter doesn’t exactly have a fantasy or dream dimension as palpable as these films. As I end up mostly just stating obvious themes & techniques here, maybe someday, hopefully soon, I will elaborate more on what they mean to me. For now, do you see a connection too?

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