The swoony romantic drama, once a staple of the cinema, is all but nonexistent now. These movies—the ones that immortalized the longing glance, the furtive sigh, the agonized sob—have been superseded by purported comedies with no jokes in them, films in which stunningly attractive and successful and clever and witty women can’t even buy a date and spend the entire movie bumbling around until they decide to marry either their best friend or someone they’ve never met.
So it’s refreshing to come across Like Crazy, the small, sharply observed, and precise new independent film by a writer-director with the unforgettable name of Drake Doremus. Like Crazy is nothing more or less than the story of two beautiful young people crazy in love and what happens to them when the world conspires to keep them apart.
Doremus was directly inspired by A Man and a Woman, Claude Lelouch’s blockbuster French film from 1966 in which a gorgeous but depressed widow and a chic but haunted race car driver gambol about Paris and Deauville. A Man and a Woman commercialized the art-film techniques innovated by the directors of the French “New Wave” (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol) and made them palatable for a worldwide audience. The movie also revolutionized the look of perfume ads and commercials and anything else that tried then and still tries to sell itself as hip and chic.
Indeed, one of the reasons that the swoony romance died is that around holiday time, we can see a minute-long version every half an hour in those commercials selling a diamond from De Beers or a car in the driveway with a big bow on it. (The message of these ads is, quite simply, that a jewel or an auto is a husband’s best, perhaps only, shot at getting lucky with his wife.)
In Like Crazy, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) get together in the last semester of their college years at UCLA. He’s American, she’s English, and she has to go back to London for a few months after school ends because of her visa status. But mad with passion, she can’t bear to leave him. The consequences of that decision dominate the rest of the film.
The dialogue between Yelchin and Jones was entirely improvised, and in one sense that was a bad decision, as, judging from the talk we hear, they aren’t especially clever or articulate. But in another sense, it was inspired, because the dullness of their exchanges underlines the movie’s rueful understanding of just how immature and unformed Jacob and Anna are. They don’t share much except a love of Paul Simon; she’s a standard-issue would-be writer and he’s a talented furniture designer.
Jacob and Anna are more in love with being in love than they are with each other, and the drama that results from their extended separations later in the movie is the great drama of their lives. The turmoil is settled, somewhat chillingly, in the movie’s brilliant and cool-eyed final scene.
While A Man and a Woman might be its inspiration, the work that Like Crazy most resembles thematically is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the strange, indelible, and remarkably wise 1964 film by Jacques Demy. In every respect The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the swooniest romance ever made, the story of a spectacularly beautiful teenage shopkeeper’s daughter, played by Catherine Deneuve, who falls hard for a handsome garage mechanic. Every word in the movie is sung, set to a famously catchy pop score by Michel Legrand, and the near-operatic quality that produces is heightened by Demy’s meticulous use of gorgeous color photography in what is one of the most beautiful movies ever made.
And one of the most interesting, because the story The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tells is anything but romantic. This is a tale of how love fades, how quotidian responsibilities come to overwhelm the passions that seem at first to be the only things that make life worth living, and how even those who indulge in grands amours most deeply and heedlessly eventually make compromises with reality.
The open conflict between the movie’s message and its mood is the key to the enduring power of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy never reaches its euphoric highs or its devastating lows, but it displays a worldly sophistication and an unsentimentality that make it a surprisingly bracing moviegoing experience.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.