Friday, October 29, 2010

Letters to Juliet -- true love and expiration dates

Director: Gary Winick, 2010. (PG)

"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" So uttered Juliet while standing on her balcony in Verona, in Shakespeare's classic love tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet" in the 14th century. Seven hundred years later, Winick's film focuses on true love with Verona as the backdrop and Juliet as a key plot element.

The movie opens with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact checker but wannabe-writer for a New York magazine, pursuing one of the bystanders in Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic photo of "The Kiss". Many have seen this picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on world war two's V-J Day (August 14, 1945). When Sophie finds the person and notifies her boss that this was a picture of true love between strangers, he questions her. In doing so, he raises the first thematic question: does true love at first sight really happen? We'll come back to this.

Sophie is a thoroughly modern New Yorker engaged to Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal, The Science of Sleep), a budding chef who is about to open a new Italian restaurant. Because of the restaurant, this pair of star-crossed lovers takes a pre-honeymoon vacation to Verona. But in Italy Victor leaves her alone while he goes on restaurant-business. By accident, she discovers the letters to Juliet stuck to a wall in Verona and the "Secretaries of Juliet" club that answers them. These volunteer secretaries really do exist, and are actually called the Juliet Club.

Being mistaken for the volunteer replying to letters written in English, Sophie is given her chance to write. When she finds an unanswered letter that dates back 60 years, she is compelled to respond to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), the author. Then, as the letter actually finds Claire, despite the passing of decades, Claire and her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) show up in Verona. Claire wants to find her lost love, Lorenzo (Franco Nero). (As an interesting tidbit, Redgrave and Nero are a couple in real life.) Charlie, though, is a young skeptic and constantly poo-poos the idea. In contrast, Sophie finds this quest romantic and story-worthy and tags along with them for the few days they are in Italy. With Victor gone, she has nothing better to do.

The premise for this romantic comedy is indeed promising but the film falls flat due to three factors: execution, pacing and chemistry. The execution is utterly predictable. That in itself would have not been too bad, but the pacing is too fast. How Sophie can go from offended stranger to besotted friend in less than a week is far-fetched. It might be believable if Charlie were a charmer, but he's not. The biggest obstacle, though, is the chemistry between the two leads, Sophie and Charlie. They have none. Period. He is obnoxious, coming across as an arrogant and pompous twit, a sort of Hugh Grant with no charm: in a word, unlikeable.

But it leads us back to the original question, does love at first sight happen? In Sophie's case, no. And that is likely true in most cases. Love is more than a feeling, an emotion. There can undoubtedly be animal attraction between two good-looking strangers. But that is not love. True love involves action, a self-giving to another. Biblically, this is agape love, the highest kind of love. As God gave Jesus as a sacrifice of love for the world (Jn. 3:16), so we can and should emulate this kind of love. It usually requires relationship, a mutual knowing of one another. As we know a person we may come to like and then even to love them. But until we know them, how can we love them?

If love at first sight is unlikely, a second thematic question emerges. Charlie thinks the quest is pointless given the length of time that has passed since Claire was in Verona, but Sophie disagrees: "I'm sorry, I didn't know love had an expiration date." Likewise, she added to Claire, "I don't know how your story ended but if what you felt then was true love, then it's never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn't it be true now?" The question: does true love last?

Once again, love embraces different spheres. There is the physical, the eros love that is sexual. This desire may flame, blaze, and dwindle. But there is also the phileo love of affection and tenderness. This connotes the concept of ongoing and deepening concern for the other. And of course there is the self-giving agape love that puts the other first. This is sacrificial, and usually strengthens over time.

True love, indeed, can last. But, like the pretty rose that it is, it requires nurturing and grooming. Love cannot last in the absence of nourishment. It needs attention, demands strokes. If we focus on our love, speaking her love language and letting her know in ways that communicate clearly that true love binds us, then that love will grow and it will last. But if we leave it untended, love can grow cold, and the wedding bonds of love may fray and even break. It is not a given.

Can we find love? Yes, but probably not with a stranger at first sight. Will it be true love? Yes, if we both commit to it and work at it. Will it last, having no expiration date? Only if we make it a priority. We can follow the example of Jesus who loved his bride, the church, so much that he literally poured out his life for her (Eph. 5:25). Is our love for our bride that precious? Would we be willing to set aside all other relationships (except our love for God) and our recreations to make true love happen? If so, then true love will have no expiration date!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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